Notes from Tyler Cowen’s Conversation with Marc Andreessen

Background info on Marc Andreessen is here. This is his page on the a16z website. Here are two other podcasts on which he has appeared as a guest that I enjoyed listening to: EconTalk, and The Tim Ferriss Show.


  1. He’s a fan of Knight Rider! I know this is something only folks of my age will get and appreciate, but Knight Rider was special when I was growing up.
  2. “Basically, it was an endurance competition to see who could outlast who, me or them.” That’s Marc talking about his school, but a semi-cynical take is that this could be about most higher education in general.
  3. The discussion on having kids (and at what age) is a great way to both understand and explain opportunity costs
  4. The two questions about Florence and the Neolithic era might seem funny and light-hearted, and on the face of it, they are. But to me, the answers are revealing: no matter what era, and no matter where in the world, he (Marc) would have wanted to make the world around him better. Better is a tricky word, and you may not agree with his (or my) definition of the word better, but that part of this answer doesn’t change. Does yours?
  5. “Economics pre — what was it — the 1950s, 1960s, it wasn’t all these formulas. It wasn’t all these formulas. It wasn’t a branch of physics, like it seems like it is today. It was descriptive. It was verbal. If you read Keynes, it’s like this, and even the people that preceded him.”
    This is true, and I do think we’ve gone too far over to the other side.
    ..
    ..
    “The form of humanities that resonates me is like that. It’s history, economics, philosophy, politics merged.”
  6. “What I’m figuring out over time is the psychology-sociology elements are as important or more important than the business finance elements or the technology elements.”
    Read more! That is as much a request to you as it is me admonishing myself.
  7. “In fact, he was the first customer of Edison’s light bulb system for the house. Edison came and installed the first indoor lighting in the world in J.P. Morgan’s library. Then it caught on fire and burnt the library down, and then J.P. Morgan, to his enormous credit, rebuilt the library and hired Edison to do it all over again.”
  8. Marc is a fan of Google Reader, and I cannot begin to tell you how much I miss it. Like Marc, I also use Feedly (and pay for the Pro version), but nothing comes close to Google Reader. And the most underrated part, to me, was the in-built social aspect of Google Reader. It was Facebook, but for nerds, and it was fantastic.
  9. The part of the conversation where Tyler asks about how exactly Web 3.0 will be useful for producers of content is interesting, because the answers (to me) still don’t make sense. I still don’t “get it”. That’s not me expressing scepticism, it is me expressing befuddlement. And a very similar exchange takes place in Russ Roberts’ conversation with Marc, and there too, I didn’t “get it”.
  10. The office is a solution to a problem that no longer exists is a wonderful way to think about, well, working from home, and it ties in nicely with my conviction that classrooms are (slowly but surely) on their way out.
  11. “My mental model of what Peter does is, I use the metaphor, the Bat-Signal. Peter puts out the Bat-Signal, and then he basically sees who shows up. He’s basically been doing this since college. That’s very interesting.”
    That’s Peter Thiel, of course, and the idea of attracting the best talent, rather than having to sort it, is a wonderful idea.
  12. “He basically says it was the foundational science and advanced technology basically developed in the computer world for 50 years by DARPA and its succeeding technological agencies, and then by big industrial research labs like IBM Research and others, that created the preconditions for computer-based start-ups. There was a 50-year backstory to that by the time Silicon Valley really got going. He said, also, the reason biotech’s half successful is because there was 25 years of biotech — NIH and all these very aggressive biotech biological science–investing programs.”
    Is Mazzucato underrated, or am I misunderstanding his point?

Game Theory and Nuclear War

What a wonderfully cheerful topic with which to get back to work, eh?

But then again, we’ve to live up to our billing of being the dismal science, and what could be more fitting than trying to analyze the chances of nukes going off sometime this year?


Timothy Taylor kicks things off, by reminding us of the canoe and the rowboat:

For those of you who have not experienced the pleasure of gliding across a northwoods lake or river in a canoe, I’ll just note that a canoe has a point at both ends, which make it maneuverable but also potentially tippy. In contrast, a rowboat has a point at one end but is flat on the other end, which makes it more stable. From this standpoint, are small conflicts between great powers “better” in some sense than larger ones? Yes. But if there is too great a willingness to engage in many smaller conflicts, then the chance that one of them will escalate in the tippy canoe to a larger conflict is worrisome. Is a fight more likely to dump you into the water in a canoe or a rowboat? Once the fight starts, a canoe is tippier. But if neither party wants to end up in the water (in this case, a metaphor for a much broader war or a nuclear exchange), then they might be less likely to start a fight in a canoe than in a rowboat in the first place.

https://conversableeconomist.com/2022/03/06/fighting-in-a-canoe-thomas-schelling-redux/

Read, as always, the entire post. But one point in particular stood out in that post:

There are too many imponderables that could be affecting Vladimir Putin’s decision process to make any definite claims, but one wonders if his decision to invade Ukraine might have been affected by earlier western actions. For example, what if there had been a stronger western reaction when Soviet troops essentially levelled the city of Grozny in Chechnya about 20 years ago? What if the countries of western Europe had been more willing to keep their promises to commit 2% of GDP to military spending over the last two decades? What if Germany had not been so extraordinarily eager to become dependent on inflows of Russian-exported oil and gas? What if various assassinations that appeared to be engineered by Russia had been met with greater pushback? What if the Winter Olympics in 2014 had not been held in Sochi? What if the Russia-Ukraine conflict of 2014, which ended with Russia annexing Crimea and other areas, had received greater pushback when Joe Biden was vice-president?

https://conversableeconomist.com/2022/03/06/fighting-in-a-canoe-thomas-schelling-redux/

Timothy Taylor’s point in the excerpt above is that “saving face” isn’t so much about pride and honor in the present instance (whatever that instance may be), but rather about sending a message about our likely actions in the future. And that the west, because of their earlier actions and decisions, may well have signaled to Putin that they weren’t quite as decisive as they would have been in the past.

Which is a useful segue into reading an NYT profile of Putin:

An important moment in this development appears to have come with Mr. Obama’s last-minute decision in 2013 not to bomb Syria after Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, crossed an American “red line” against using chemical weapons. Mr. Obama took the case for war to a reluctant Congress instead, and under the lingering American threat and pressure from Moscow, Mr. al-Assad agreed to the destruction of the weapons.
The hesitation appears to have left an impression on Mr. Putin. “It was decisive, I think,” said Mr. Hollande, the former French president, who had readied warplanes to take part in the planned military strike. “Decisive for American credibility, and that had consequences. After that, I believe, Mr. Putin considered Mr. Obama weak.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/26/world/europe/vladimir-putin-russia.html

Basic game theory is actually – to use a strong word – useless. And the reason it is useless is because basic game theory assumes two things:

  1. Rationality on part of the actors
  2. Some prior knowledge about the payoffs associated with a game.

But as Noah Smith points out on his substack (the post, alas, is paywalled):

The first is that game theory fundamentally assumes that the players are rational. You have to be a cold calculating machine to think through all the strategies and pick the one that yields the greatest payoff. But it’s not clear that real actors are always rational. Putin might simply be nuts.
In fact, there’s a whole theory called “madman theory”, in which it makes sense to try to fool your opponent into thinking you’re crazier than you really are. If your opponent thinks you’re a madman, they are likely to give you more concessions than if you were rational, simply because they’re less sure about what would push you over the edge into a mutually destructive war. Nixon is said to have used this strategy intentionally by acting unhinged in order to scare the USSR, and Putin might be using it right now.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/nuclear-game-theory-and-its-limitations

Is Putin rational? Who knows? Does Putin? Authors have been trying to figure out Vladimir Putin for a very long time, says The Economist:

In “The Man Without a Face” (2012), for instance, Masha Gessen characterised Mr Putin, then set to reclaim the presidency after a pro-forma stint as prime minister, as a killer and extortionist. This version of him—a kgb thug turned mafia godfather—had been “hidden in plain sight”, but obscured by wishful thinking and that grey veneer. Death and terror were politically useful to Mr Putin, the author wrote. He made no distinction between the state’s interests and his own.

https://www.economist.com/culture/writers-have-grappled-with-vladimir-putin-for-two-decades/21808311

Does that sound rational to you? And regardless of your answer, how does it help one think of what Putin will do when it comes to deploying a nuke?

By the way, speaking of Masha Gessen, listen to or read her conversation with Tyler Cowen. Here’s a cheerful tidbit about Russia:

I think that there’s a kind of grumpy and dark culture in Russia. Russians certainly have a lot of discernment in the fine shades of misery. If you ask a Russian how they are, they will not cheerfully respond by saying they’re great. If they’re miserable, they might actually share that with you in some detail.
There’s no shame in being miserable in Russia. There’s, in fact, a lot of validation. Read a Russian novel. You’ll find it all in there. We really are connoisseurs of depression.

https://conversationswithtyler.com/episodes/masha-gessen/

But back to game theory and nukes.

The Economist tells us that using game theory to study the topic isn’t all that simple:

As a showdown between nuclear powers becomes more intense, Schelling observed, the risk that unexpected and perhaps undesired developments cause the situation to spiral out of control rises. (When nuclear forces are on high alert, for instance, false alarms become far more dangerous.) The upper hand, in such a situation, is thus maintained by the side that is more willing to tolerate this heightened risk of all-out nuclear war.
This is the essence of brinkmanship. It is not merely a matter of ratcheting up the tension in the hope of outbluffing the other side. It is also a test of resolve—where resolve is defined as a willingness to bear the risk of a catastrophe. Mr Putin’s move to increase the readiness of his nuclear forces may represent an attempt to demonstrate such resolve (over and above the message sent by the invasion itself). President Joe Biden’s refusal to escalate in kind could be seen as an acknowledgment of the conspicuous fact that an autocrat embroiled in a pointless war has less to lose than the rich democracy to which Mr Biden is accountable.

https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2022/03/19/the-disturbing-new-relevance-of-theories-of-nuclear-deterrence

So is Putin, bizzare though it may sound, being rational by getting some folks to think that he is a madman? That is, if he anticipates that Biden is thinking along the lines outlined in this excerpt above, does it actually make sense for Putin to push this line of thinking in a calculated manner, increasing the chances that Biden will blink first.

Ah, but should Biden see through this and therefore discount the whole thing?

Of course you could model trickery attempts as their own strategies, with some (unknown) probability of success. But when you start introducing more and more options like this, you run into the second limitation of game theory — real-life strategic interactions are hellishly complex. This puts them beyond the modeling power of human theorists — perhaps the A.I. from War Games could handle this, but not even the most piteously overworked grad student is going to draw you a game tree that incorporates every possible feint and misdirection and signal. There are whole scholarly books that try to think about every possible nuclear move and countermove; they’re intellectually interesting, but they end up giving you a near-infinite menu of models to choose from, and thus they’re not very useful in real life.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/nuclear-game-theory-and-its-limitations?s=r

Here’s where we are then, after reading all those excerpts:

  1. There is (and there is no sugarcoating this) an increased chance that a nuke will be launched this year.
  2. It helps to try and think through this problem, because the phrase “skin in the game” is applicable for all humanity where this problem is concerned
  3. Game theory is a good place to start, because it seems to be the best, most appropriate tool in our toolkit
  4. Who better to tell us how to think about the game theoretic aspects of a nuclear war than Thomas Schelling? He won a Nobel Prize for it, and his book is the book to read about the topic!

… except it ain’t really about game theory!

But as subsequent writers have pointed out, Schelling’s work wasn’t really a work of game theory. Game theory, as an economist knows it, is an exercise in pure rationality — two rational actors, each knowing that the other knows they’re rational (and knowing that the other knows, and so on) think through the possible set of strategies that they and their opponent(s) might take. This process of thinking through all of the possible moves causes them to arrive at some kind of strategic equilibrium (usually some kind of Nash equilibrium, although there are other kinds that people think about). At that point, playing out the moves of the game is simply pro forma; what people will do is either predetermined, or randomized.
Schelling’s concept of deterrence, in contrast, is full of signaling, misdirection, and guesswork about the opponent’s motives and thoughts. It’s the kind of thing that could only be rationally calculated in its entirety by a supercomputer like the one in War Games. Schelling’s ideas are more like the way real people play most games — feints, blunders, deception, and looking for tells.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/nuclear-game-theory-and-its-limitations?s=r

But if you ask me, that is exactly why you should read Schelling about this topic! Precisely because it isn’t just about basic game theory, and because it takes into account signaling, misdirection and guesswork.

Or, if you’d like the same thought expressed in more popular, and less highfalutin’ words, this is a game in which you have to play the man and the cards. And the stakes are ridiculously, scarily high.

As my favorite blogger sometimes says, have a nice day.

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.

Learning to Ask Better Questions

Apologies about not writing yesterday, but life has been pretty busy in myriad ways.

Today’s post is a bit of a cop-out, in the sense that I’m simply putting up a list of questions that I got to ask Tyler Cowen today. The call lasted for an hour, and it was every bit as fantastic as I’d hoped it would be.

I haven’t edited the list of questions at all, and the reason I’m putting them up here is because:

  1. Most (but not all) of the questions were related to blogposts he has written, and you may want to read them
  2. Help me learn how the questions could have been better, and what else I could have asked
  3. Hopefully, some of you get inspired to ask better questions!

On Philosophy and Economics and Opportunity Costs (16 minutes)

  1. What has been the opportunity cost to the field of philosophy for you having chosen to study and teach, but especially specialize in, economics?
    1. If one agrees with the central thesis of Stubborn Attachments, should more people be asking themselves this question? And if yes, is it better to ask this question early on in life, or later?
  2. If economics is the study of how to get the most out of life, how should individuals think about what most means to them? Is that a useful way to start thinking about philosophy if you’re an undergrad econ student?
  3. In your ideal university, “Teachers would be compensated on the basis of how many students they could attract, in a manner suggested long ago by Adam Smith, who himself lived under such a system in 18th-century Scotland.” My question is related to another recent blog post of yours: how did Adam Smith and his students think about the elasticity of demand? If we were to implement a system like this today (and god knows I would love to), how should we be thinking about the elasticity of demand?
  4. What has Songdo taught you about urbanization, and what has George Mason’s presence in Songdo taught you about the internationalization of American education?
    1. Which is the model that excites you the most in American education today: Minerva, Harvard or Arizona State University? 
    2. What should other countries be learning from whichever model you picked?
  5. Tim Ferriss famously  rejected an MBA and used that money to learn by investing in start-ups after moving to San Franscisco. David Perell is notably against the kind of education that we deliver in universities, and schools today. David and Seth Godin have working models of what alternative methods of delivering learning might look like. Will the future be more a case of universities looking more like these models, to some extent, or these models looking more like universities?
    1. What would you want to add to David’s liberal arts essay? 
      1. Some cross-subsidization of the non-liberal-arts education by the liberal arts students, intra or inter-personal?
    2. You’d mentioned in a blogpost in 2006 that “there is something about having the person right in front of your face that triggers your biological “pay attention” alert mechanisms”, and that you weren’t in favor of online learning. What, specifically, were the social and technological changes that led you to change your mind?
    3. What technological changes are next when it comes to improving education, and what are the thresholds, in your mind, that need to be reached before you’ll change your mind again?
  6. Deirdre McCloskey has a famous essay on how it is all but impossible to get an undergrad student to do economics. Would you agree with that claim?

On Tyler Cowen and His Work/Worldview (16 minutes)

  1. Our field remains unsure of what principles of differentiation rule how “culture” and “economics” will be related in a particular problem. How should this influence how principles of economics ought to be taught to undergraduates – or indeed, anybody learning economics for the first time?
  2. What should be taught less in a first year graduate sequence, or maybe just taught less, period?
    1. I cannot remember where I read this, but I think the story goes something like this: Alex Tabarrok suggested starting a blog, and you responded by saying let’s write a textbook first. What are the strongest arguments that make Twitter, on balance, a positive force for the world? (I had this backward! Turns out Alex Tabbarok suggested writing a textbook, and Tyler Cowen said they should start a blog first)
    2. You had a post in 2007 about how to study economics in one’s spare time. How would you update your answer today? MRU (or its substitutes), but how should a noob think about what to learn more of, less of – and why?
  3. Are vouchers a bad idea for American education, or more generally speaking? How should we in India be thinking about developing a voucher system, or should we abandon the idea altogether?
  4. Calculus, statistics, programming, Shakespeare and the Bible were your picks when it came to the question of what, at the minimum, one should take away from schooling. The audience we’re speaking in front of today is about the same age as Yana was back when you wrote this post, only a little older. We’ll generalize/localize the Bible, but has your choice changed 17 years down the line?
  5. You had a post on teaching with blogs in 2005. It contained this line: “we are programmed to remember interpersonal exchanges better than written or spoken drones.” One,  your own Bowie moment, so congratulations, but also a question: at the undergrad level, what is the ideal mix of drones versus interpersonal exchanges, and how should we be thinking about it?

On Travel, Arts and Culture (16 minutes)

  1. Is a culture that values honorifics less likely to be a culture of excellence? 
    1. How should one square this with the fact that at least some street food in practically every Indian city is excellent (as opposed to the Philippines).
  2. How does one get better at asking stupid questions while traveling, and how does one maintain the quality of stupid questions as one’s travel increases?
  3. Choices choices: I give you two options, you must choose one, and I must guess which one you’ll choose. You must also explain the reasoning behind your choice. As with your game, so also with this one: feel free to pass on any or all.
    1. Pakistan or Bangladesh, the more exciting growth story from South Asia
    2. Re: pretty much any situation, Alex Tabarrok’s intuition or a really good model, and you cannot give the Samuelsonian response!
    3. A food trip to a part of India you’ve not been to yet (Orissa, perhaps?), or a food trip to a part of China you’ve not been to yet.
      1. On a related note, who in your opinion is India’s answer to Fuschia Dunlop?
    4. For any major city in the world, you get to visit it, but must give up one of the following: the food from that city, or museum visits while in that city. (Paris, if I must pick the city.
    5. Overrated vs. underrated or choices/choices, which game is more fun to play?
  4. If you had to recommend places to travel to within India for an Indian undergrad students, which places would you recommend? What mental model would you recommend they adopt to choose the destination, and what to do at the destination?
  5. Your next book is about recruiting better. What advice do you have for students about getting recruited better?

Questions from students/etc (12 minutes)

  1. Would you prefer a version of The Book of Disquiet in which the thoughts were lexically ordered? It would obviously render the Disquiet part almost wrongly placed, but wouldn’t then would he be able to communicate more thoroughly?
  2. How would you define/what would constitute Social Mobility in a stratified society, especially like India?
  3. Can what we know of economics be taught to aliens? Is there a role for human values in economic thinking?

Ways to Learn Outside of College

Outside of college doesn’t necessarily mean not enrolling in college. It means complementing whatever it is that you’re learning in college.

  1. Listen in on Twitter. I’ll use economics as an example, but I’m sure this applies to practically any subject. Listening in means quite literally listening in to people in the field having a debate about, well practically anything. #EconTwitter is a useful way to get started. This tweet, for example, was fourth or fifth in the “Top” section at the time of writing this blogpost.
  2. Learn what lists on Twitter are, and either follow lists made by others, or start creating your own. This list, for example, is of folks on Twitter who have been guests on The Seen And The Unseen (TSATU).
  3. We’ll resume our regular programming from the next point onwards, but just in case you’ve been living under a rock, listen to The Seen And The Unseen. Multi-hour episodes, well over two hundred of them. Each of them with guests who are experts in the real, meaningful sense of the term. Each backed with impeccable research by Amit Varma. All for free. What a time to be alive.
  4. Following topics on Twitter is often more useful than following people on Twitter, although as always, TALISMAN.
  5. Why not read about each Nobel Prize in economics, say at the rate of one a week? Here’s the complete list of Nobel Prize winners. Here’s the 2020 prize winners page. If you are an undergraduate student, focus on the popular science version. If you are a Master’s student, read the more arcane version. Of course, nothing prevents you from reading both, no matter what level of economics you are comfortable with. 🙂 An idea that I have been toying with for a year: a podcast about the winners, created in the style of this podcast. This also ought to be done for all of India’s Prime Ministers, but that is a whole separate story.
  6. Blogs! There are far too many blogs on economics out there, all of them unbelievably excellent. Some are directly about economics, some are tangentially about economics, some aren’t about economics at all, and those are the very best kind. Read more blogs! Here’s how I read blogs, if that helps.
  7. YouTube. 3Blue1Brown, Veritasium, Kurzgesagt, Sky Sports Masterclasses on Cricket (yes, seriously), and so, so, so many more! One of my targets for the coming months is to curate my YouTube feed the way I have curated my Twitter feed. Suggestions are always welcome!
  8. Podcasts.
    Amit Varma responded on Twitter recently to a question put up by Peter Griffin. The question was this. Amit’s reply was this.
    Alas, this applies to me. My podcast listening has gone down due to the pandemic. One, because I have not been in a frame of mind to listen for extended periods of these past eighteen months. Two, because my listening was usually while driving. But still, podcasts. My top three are (or used to be): Conversations With Tyler, EconTalk and TSATU.
    (And one day, so help me god, I will write a blog post about WordPress’ new editor. Why can one not embed a tweet in a numbered list in the 21st year of the 21st century?! And they call this a modern editor! Bah.)

Questions about Veritasium (as just one example), and how that might possibly relate to economics might arise in some reader’s minds. Two responses: don’t compartmentalize learning. Ask, for example, about the economics of producing videos such as these. Second, learning about other subjects (interdisciplinary learning in fancypants English) is helpful in many, many different ways. Ditto with Sky Sports Cricket Masterclasses. Learn about training like an athlete, and then watch Adam Gilchrist talk about training with his dad. (The first couple of minutes, that’s all).

The larger point about the list is this: there really is no excuse left to not learn a little bit more about any subject. Learning can (and should) be a lifelong affair. And the role of college, especially in the humanities, is to help foster that environment of learning, and to act as guides for young folks just about to embark on their (lifelong) journey of learning.

Or, to put it even more succinctly, we need to have classrooms act as complements to online learning, not as a substitute for it. And that needs to happen today, not some vague day in the future.

So You Want to Work in Public Policy…

If you’re between the age of 18-24, and aspire to work in the field of public policy, how should you prepare for such a career? Outside of the academic requirements and the network that you will build, reading about what public policy experts have done when on the “front-lines” is a useful exercise.

In today’s blogpost, I aim to get you started on this journey by referring to a book, an interview and an article.

The book? To Move the World, JFK’s Quest for Peace.

The book is about the lead-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the crisis itself, its succesful resolution, and the aftermath. It is a short book, and well worth your time if you are an aspiring public policy student.


At the very start of the ExComm process, Kennedy made the basic decision—one that was never second-guessed within the group—that the Soviet weapons must go. Either the weapons would be removed peacefully by the Soviets themselves, or they would become the cause of war.

Sachs, Jeffrey. To Move The World: JFK’s Quest for Peace . Random House. Kindle Edition. (Location 529)

Decide upon a goal. In this case, the goal was to get the Soviet weapons to go. Professor Sachs lays out the consultations that led to this goal being chosen in subsequent pages. But that is step 1. Without a clear goal, the rest of the process is meaningless.

Be crystal clear about the “What are we trying to do here?” question, first and foremost.


That brings you to step 2. And once step 1 has either been decided, don’t make your arguments from now on about step 1. The time for that is now gone. Step 2 is about clear-eyed assessments about what maximizes your chances of getting step 1 done.

The ExComm held divergent views on the substantive effect of the missiles on the East-West military balance. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara held that the missiles had zero net effect, given that the Soviets had intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could target the United States from Soviet territory anyway. The military brass felt otherwise, that Soviet missiles just off the U.S. coast would substantially enhance Soviet military power, especially since the Soviet strategic forces at that point depended overwhelmingly on bombers with a long and difficult flight path to the United States. All agreed, however, that the missiles must go.

Sachs, Jeffrey. To Move The World: JFK’s Quest for Peace . Random House. Kindle Edition. (Location 548)

“How should we go about getting to our goal?” is the difficult, contentious issue. This is where your expertise is called upon as a public policy expert.

This forced a thorough review of options, and it allowed some time for communication between Kennedy and Khrushchev, albeit through a laborious and confused process of letters, public pronouncements, telegrams, and messengers. It gave time for heated emotions—panic, fear, and desire to lash out at the adversary—to be kept in check so that reason could be invoked. “Slow” rational thinking was given time to dominate the “quick” emotional thinking.

Sachs, Jeffrey. To Move The World: JFK’s Quest for Peace . Random House. Kindle Edition. (Location 558)

It sounds peaceful and professional – “a thorough review of options”. But this is where you have to:

  1. Really, really know your subject, or admit that you don’t and get out of the way.
  2. Have a strong point of view on the basis of your expertise, and defend it passionately. Arguing at this stage isn’t just fine, it is expected.
  3. The really, really difficult bit: figure out where your argument is weak, and listen to folks on the other side of this issue. What are they saying that is worth including in your recommendation? What are they saying that makes you want to refine/exclude parts of your proposal? Can a happy medium emerge? Remember, The Truth Always Lies Somewhere In The Middle.

Even if you think the article is mostly fluff, I found this excerpt relevant for this blogpost:

Before making up his mind, the president demands hours of detail-laden debate from scores of policy experts, taking everyone around him on what some in the West Wing refer to as his Socratic “journey” before arriving at a conclusion.
Those trips are often difficult for his advisers, who are peppered with sometimes obscure questions. Avoiding Mr. Biden’s ire during one of his decision-making seminars means not only going beyond the vague talking points that he will reject, but also steering clear of responses laced with acronyms or too much policy minutiae, which will prompt an outburst of frustration, often laced with profanity.

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/14/us/politics/joe-biden-policy-decisions.html

And finally, for those of you who are hoping to get into public policy and are currently studying economics:

I would like economists to be working with engineers, to be working with public health, to be working with the medical professionals so that we’re actually working on the real systems of our time and adding our pieces to that, understanding and studying that so that we have an answer to robotics, not a pure theoretical model, which is nice and fun, but something that can be helpful.

https://conversationswithtyler.com/episodes/jeffrey-sachs/

The point isn’t to build a theoretically correct model. The point is to build a model that maximizes the chances of getting to the goal we established in step 1: What are we trying to do here?

Or put another way, if you have to choose between being theoretically correct and doing whatever it takes to achieve step 1, choose the latter. If I had to choose between the two, that is what I would do.


There’s tons of other books, papers, blogs and newsletters to read on this topic, of course. If you asked me to pick just one, make it Anticipating the Unanticipated. Spend the summer reading every single one of their posts and taking (and then publishing!) notes. Better, if you ask me, than any other way to learn.


[Thank you to all those who reached out to check if I was ok. It means a lot. There’s been a covid death in the family, and a covid scare. We’re getting back to a semblance of a routine, but it has been tough and slow going. Please, stay safe, all. And again, thank you for your wishes.]

Notes from the Cowen-Roberts Talk about the Corona Virus

Russ Roberts and Tyler Cowen got together to talk about the corona virus some days ago, and what follow are my notes from reading the transcript. If you want to listen to the talk, or read the transcript, here is the link.

Excerpts above, my notes pertaining to the excerpt below.

 

I think Skype coffee is a really good thing. I recommend that to everybody. People you might normally have coffee with, get a cup of coffee and sit on Skype or Zoom and chat with them, and that way it’s not so bad. It’s not great, but it’s not so bad.

Skype or Zoom, and coffee or beer. Whatever works best for you, but socializing is important, and be sure to not under-rate it.

The understanding that it may be really some period of time before you are able to resume normal movements and interactions. Any given day it may seem fine, but what mental readjustment are you making?

The reason I excerpted this is because people here in India – at least the ones I speak to – seem to assume that everything will be back to normal in a matter of days, at worst a couple of weeks. I wish that were the case, but we’re going to be in for the long haul. At the absolute least, a month – almost definitely more. That’s the kind of timeline we’re looking at.

But nonetheless, if something is doubling every five to seven days, some very bad events are not so far away. But because they’re not vivid people, including a lot of economists I know, they’re not able to make that mental leap. I think my background with thinking about economic growth is a significant reason why I think I’ve seen some of the dangers here coming.

Take a look at the chart below (this is from Gapminder):

In particular, take a look at the horizontal axis. Each tick is a doubling, as opposed to the vertical axis, where each tick is the standard 10 units. The bubbles on the right are waaaaaay further apart than are the bubbles on the left. I said that, and you understood it, but your brain refuses to acknowledge or remember it, because we are a visual species, not a mathematically oriented one. Exponentials are hard for us to grasp, and we therefore can’t understand what doubling every five days means.

There seem to be many open questions, but the risks do seem to be rising and I would include the global front, the economic front. Tensions between the United States and China are much worse than they had been. China is calling it a virus from America. Trump is calling it the Chinese virus. It’s even possible, that’s the single worst outcome of all of these events.

If you’re confused about the how and the why, here’s a tweet:

And it’s as if we’re trying to put the economy in a coma, to cite an analogy Larry Summers gave. So I think we should be trying to put the economy in a coma. I’m okay with government doing that, but I think personally we need to be doing that quicker than what the government is up to.

In this blog post that I put up a while ago, a student had asked about how long we can afford a lockdown, implicitly asking what economic costs we were willing to tolerate to defeat this. Tyler Cowen’s response above is effectively saying that there’s no limit, no matter what the cost, this needs to be defeated. Or, if you want another way to put it: economic prosperity is the means to an end, not an end in itself.

I know one of my proposals is we should have things that make it more fun for people to be at home. So some of the entertainment companies are having free streaming on cable of some of their back catalog. Maybe that’s a marginal effect — but if it saves a few lives? So whatever we can do so that people are willing or indeed maybe even in some cases eager to stay home, making childcare issues easier.

Restaurants should be shut, but not takeaways, bars should be shut, but delivery of alcohol should be legalized, internet broadband should be a critical service, Netflix et al could chip in with some shows being made freely available – and so on. Note that there is always YouTube!

That’s the actual destruction going on is the relationships, the organizational capital, the intangibles that will decay. Not over two weeks, probably not over four weeks but over four or five months or longer. Then I think that’s a matter really of great concern.

I have only glanced through the book, not read it in detail, but reading this excerpt reminded me of The Third Pillar, by Raghuram Rajan.

This is from a Prakash Loungani review of the book: “Still, Rajan argues, markets and the state have usurped communities’ power, and the balance needs to be reset. Power must devolve from global and national levels to the community. Rajan notes that as machines and robots begin to produce more of our goods and services, human work “will center once again around inter-personal relationships.” Communities could well be the workplace of tomorrow.”

Not only is Rajan almost certainly right, but the current virus allows for an opportunity to the third pillar to be stronger than before. Governments and markets by themselves will struggle, community needs to come to the fore.

So I think the reopening decisions, especially in more bureaucratic corporations, it will be very hard for everyone to sign off and agree. Yes, we’re going to go ahead. There’s going to be an open Disneyland again. We’re going to have spectators at NBA games. The risk of bad publicity, social media storms against companies whether true or not, someone might have died as a result of going to a game. Over some time horizon social norms may shift and a lot of people might just say, “Look, we’re just going to take these chances and deal with it.” But I don’t think we’re close to that. And certainly, our legal system is not close to that. And human resources departments are not close to that.

You are responsible for five people’s jobs, and you need to sign a letter authorizing them to come back to work in mid-April. If you sign that letter, and they come to work, and they get the corona virus, then is it on your head? Would you sign that letter? What if it’s five hundred? Five thousand? 1.3 billion? Again, this will almost certainly last for more than two weeks.

I think the upside is to believe that at least biomedicine will be far swifter and better funded and less regulated, in the good sense of that word, and our response capabilities, when all this is over, for the next event will be far, far greater. We may overreact in some 9/11 kind of ways like we’ve done arguably with airport procedures, but if there’s one part of the economy that will get a huge, beneficial boost, I think it is our biomedical capabilities and our public health infrastructure.

If I may offer my two cents on this, specific to India: offices will now be very, very reluctant to buy desktops for their employees. I work in a college, and can attest to how many jobs are literally tied to their desk. Not as important as bio-medicine, but a change nonetheless. Second – and I hope this is true – classes will not be the same ever again.

Given that most people are not at all harmed by coronavirus, the safety of the vaccine has to really be very high. Right?

First, do no harm!

I think the thing I’m recommending for a lot of people now is to find a sphere of activity, no matter how small or how local, that you feel you can control and you can do at home and you can contribute to. This feeling of powerlessness may set in, that will cause people to panic more or become too depressed or just make them much less productive, or spread to their families, or maybe cause them to go out and want to get drunk and become a spreader in some manner, so really to think long and hard.

Teach something to somebody. If nothing else, teach into the void: create YouTube videos on a subject that you are an expert in. That’s my personal recommendation.

The degree of optimism or pessimism, it really seems to matter for economic stimulus.

Yup.

Buy the patent rights at auction, give them a huge prize, tens of billions of dollars, if they deserve it, I’m all for this. Even if you think it has no impact this time, this is not our last pandemic. It will matter for the next time around. I think those prizes should be large and credibly promised, and I would like to see us get on this.

Getting the incentives right for designing expensive-to-produce but needed-by-everybody medicines is very, very tricky. Even if you have read the entire transcript, please go back and read this section again.

Like they’re taking tools out of the toolbox from the last crisis. Things they thought should have been done and weren’t and saying now is the time to see I was right all along. It makes me very nervous. I’m seeing high levels of epistemic non-rationality. But that said, I really am not here trying to argue for doing nothing. I don’t think we can let all the cards fall to the ground. What’s your view on that?

I think of this as a statistician. When we have guests over, I and my wife often argue about how much food we should make/order. I usually argue for making too much, and she worries about leftovers. But here’s the thing: it’s almost impossible to get it just right. It’s a very hard problem to solve! So, if you must make an error, which one? Order too much or too little?

It’s the same problem at play here. We’re never – never – going to get fiscal policy just right. Give up that dream right now. You can either err by giving too much fiscal aid, or too little. What would you rather do? My personal opinion: the same as with the food. I’d rather have too much fiscal policy than too little. This time, you see, is different.

But that being said, the specifics are going to be a headache. Does anybody have the answers? Right now, no.

I think some schools will do online education well for a subset of classes and we’ll end up in a world where 20% of what is now done face to face will be done online and that will be cheaper and better. I fully get, you cannot do a face to face discussion humanities class that way, but I think we’ll see much more online education.

Again, that’s a good – nay, wonderful! – thing.

Going around and talking about redistributing the wealth, letting in so many more immigrants, whatever you think of those points of view, I think they will have much, much less social impact and we will be more inward looking, more nationalistic, less cosmopolitan. I think you’ll see this already.

Tribalism will rise, in short. And that’s a horrible – and tragic! – thing. But he’s right: it will rise.

I think there’ll be a huge wave of promiscuous sex once there’s the first break in the virus for instance.

Nothing will ever explain the principle of diminishing marginal utility better. Ever. Especially to undergraduate students.

Don’t trust everything you read out there. The degree of misinformation is very high. The degree of uncertainty from the best and most reputable sources is very high. There’s no magic bullet on how to figure out what’s going on. I can’t quite say, “Oh, trust the authorities.” It’s not exactly how it’s gone, but there’s not any single way to really know what’s happening. That’s very frustrating. I would say do your best and keep in mind that’s a highly imperfect endeavor. There’s a lot you won’t know and some of the things you think you know are probably wrong.

Potentially the most underrated part of this conversation, and I’ll expand on this. First the obvious: treat everything you receive on WhatsApp as a joke. Discount most of what you read, particularly when received as forwards, in emails, in discussions. But, and this is where it gets hard, even stuff that you read on really reputed sites, treat with a pinch of salt. Not because the people who came up with that content want to lie to you, but because there is nobody on this planet who really and truly knows everything.

And that applies to this site too, of course. Read everything, trust nothing, and tread carefully. Macro is easy in comparison.

Once again, the link to the conversation.

 

 

 

 

 

Quick Notes from Tyler Cowen’s Interview of Garett Jones

We’ll see how this goes, but a very quick introduction before we get started. A friend, Aadisht Khanna, has a blog with a very ambitious aim (and name): Aadisht Logs Everything. Every now and then, I speak to him about some of these posts, and we end up having a lot of fun talking about stuff we get reminded of as a result of he writing these posts and I speaking to him about them. They’re all available here, should you want to check it out.

But why not try and take quick notes on everything I see, read and here? The idea isn’t to write long and detailed posts – that’s happening on the blog, slowly but surely.

But an ongoing repository of my notes on stuff I have read, listened to, viewed, not to mention conversations I’ve been a part of – maybe that’s a good idea too? We’ll see how it goes.

We begin with the thing I read the most recently, which is an episode from what is probably my favorite podcast: Conversations with Tyler.

The episode I read most recently was the one with Garett Jones. Here we go.

  1. The first section was essentially about getting incentives right. The idea is simple, the devil lies in the details is the big takeaway for me, and that applies to practically everything in life.
  2. New Zealand’s contract for its central banker is a form of skin in the game, and that is a gloriously unexplored idea. My own take on this is what if professors were paid a part of their salary on the basis of students who chose to attend their class, and all classes were made optional in terms of enrollment and attendance? Refer to point 1 before you rush to criticize!
  3. The Rajya Sabha elections are staggered in much the same way, of course, and as I understand it, for the same reason as staggered elections in the House of Representatives, and I agree: it is an excellent idea.
  4. About Garett Jones and Tyler Cowen’s discussion re: governance in Europe, does it imply too much centralization, and isn’t that, on balance, a bad thing? Need to read up more about this.
  5. And Scott Sumner’s question about Switzerland is along those lines only, no?
  6. I haven’t read the book in question, but I found it interesting that one of the chapters was titled “The Big Benefits of a Small Increase in Democracy”. Either extreme isn’t desirable, in other words: not too much democracy, but not too little of it either. The Truth Lies Somewhere in the Middle!
  7. This was immensely thought provoking for me, along so many dimensions:

    That’s true, but that’s partly because the rich white elites are acting as the self-appointed representatives of other individuals and groups in society.

  8. Again, thought provoking, and the basis on which the point was made is added to the must-read list:

    Once he pointed out, in sort of the climax of the book, that long-run cooperation focusing on some kind of cultural norm and infusing that throughout the system was crucial to firm success, and that failed firms will be those often that failed to coordinate on a good equilibrium, I decided that was central to seeing not just how firms work, but how societies work as a whole.

  9. If you ask me, Seth Godin and Tyler Cowen should have a conversation, and we should get to listen to it/read it. Here’s one reason, here’s the second, and what follows is my third:

    JONES: Yeah, that’s the thing — figuring out which things within capitalism — what is it about living in a free society with competitive markets where, at least in our youth and middle age, we feel a need to sell ourselves as valuable creators. There’s something about that that probably is what’s most valuable for boosting cognitive skills. It’s a sort of demand-side desire to try to use our minds in socially productive ways. And I think in communism, we can —

    COWEN: So marketing makes us smarter?

    JONES: That’s what I would say, yeah.

  10. Chad Jones, Paul Romer and diminishing returns reminded me of this book, and this TED talk.
  11. Isn’t this one more reason to admire Tyler Cowen more as well?

    Oh, that’s so hard. I’d say Buchanan because he . . . Tullock had more weird ideas. Buchanan took the time to do something that I personally am not that skilled at and not that interested in, which is building an intellectual empire, building an organization and a culture that shares those ideas. And that’s really how you get important ideas into an ecosystem, by taking the time to build an organization, to build a culture, to work with people, and Buchanan did that. That gave him a power that Tullock couldn’t quite have.

  12. And isn’t this a a macro-description of point 11, applied to a nation?

    There is this case that America, at its top 20 percentile of experience — it’s been a nation that’s been built on a hope and vision, not American exceptionalism in that it’s something you’re endowed with, but it’s an American exceptionalism in the sense that it’s something that people create. And a sense of adventure that is central to the American experience. You could think of it as a pioneer. It’s a mixture of a pioneering spirit with an element of strong social capital.So to me, of course, the Mormons then are the embodiment of this. They’ve got this strong social capital, strong enough to stand up to other people, but at the same time, willing to take huge risks and endure great persecution in order to build a new world.And that’s an extreme version of what Americans have done for quite some time. It’s this rare blend of social capital and adventurousness at its best times. And that’s not just a 0.1 percent experience; it’s more like 20 to 30 percent of the US experience. And that’s something that a lot of countries just never get.

Livemint Interviews Cass Sunstein

Quick update, especially pertinent given the behavioral economics workshop at Gokhale Institute: Cass Sunstein interviewed by Anil Padmanabhan.

 

Who is Cass Sunstein, you ask?

Here’s a slightly old profile. Here’s the link to his Amazon author page. Here is an interview he did with Tyler Cowen. Here is his faculty page. Here’s a piece I loved reading (written by him).