Have we become uniquely stupid?

For those of you who have read the essay, the title of today’s blogpost is a dead giveaway: I am referring to Jonathan Haidt’s essay in the Atlantic, titled “Why The Past 10 Years Of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid“. The subtitle is equally depressing: It’s Not Just a Phase.

It’s been clear for quite a while now that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history. But Babel is not a story about tribalism; it’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. It’s a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.
Babel is a metaphor for what some forms of social media have done to nearly all of the groups and institutions most important to the country’s future—and to us as a people. How did this happen? And what does it portend for American life?

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/05/social-media-democracy-trust-babel/629369/

The essay is a lengthy read, but a rewarding one. Jonathan Haidt takes us through the evolution of the internet, with the emphasis on the social aspect really beginning to take off post 2010 or so, and gives us a book to read that goes on my to-read list: Nonzero: History, Evolution and Human Cooperation.

The next section is where the story really picks up, for we are introduced to the “villains” of the piece: the Like, Share and Retweet buttons. It’s not the buttons themselves that are to blame, of course, much like the atom not being at fault for the atom bomb. It’s what we have done with the Like, Share and Retweet buttons that is the problem:

By 2013, social media had become a new game, with dynamics unlike those in 2008. If you were skillful or lucky, you might create a post that would “go viral” and make you “internet famous” for a few days. If you blundered, you could find yourself buried in hateful comments. Your posts rode to fame or ignominy based on the clicks of thousands of strangers, and you in turn contributed thousands of clicks to the game.

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/05/social-media-democracy-trust-babel/629369/

Goodhart’s Law is massively underrated. Rather than optimizing for the quality of the content of one’s creation, we optimize for it’s virality. The virality ought to be a function of the quality, but we’ve skipped the intermediate step, with consequences that have become manifest and deep-rooted. Or as Jonathan Haidt puts it, “these platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves”.

He then goes on to quote from Madison’s Federalist No. 10 on the innate human proclivity towards “faction”.
I have watched “The Last Dance” on Netflix more times than I should have, but this reminds me of Michael Wilbon talking about how everybody in Chicago hated the Pistons (around the 28 minute mark in episode 4, if you’re interested). He repeatedly involves the phrase “this was personal”, and that’s one way to understand what factionalism means. Tribalism in sports, but elsewhere too, is the kind of factionalism you want to think about in this context, and you might also benefit from reading the transcript of Ezra Klein’s conversation with Tyler Cowen:

https://conversationswithtyler.com/episodes/ezra-klein-2/

Factionalism (or tribalism. I’m not sure if the two mean exactly the same thing in an academic sense, but I am using them interchangeably here) hasn’t necessarily gone down, but we seem to have found new things to be “tribal” about.

As I understand it, Haidt is making the point that our tribalism when it comes to politics is now more deep-rooted than ever, but is also more trivial than ever before. Which politician is wearing what kind of clothes for which occasion excites more debate online than substantive issues that warrant more debate. Or as I prefer to put it, our agreement with stated positions and policies is these days a function of who said it, rather than what has been said. Such tribal loyalty when it comes to close friends is one thing, although even that has its limits, but fealty of such an extreme nature when it comes to political discourse ought to worry most of us.

And as an aside, the last question that Tyler Cowen asks in that extract above is a question to which I don’t have a great answer. I agree with the point in his question, but like him, wonder about the underlying cause.


An extract twice removed now:

The digital revolution has shattered that mirror, and now the public inhabits those broken pieces of glass. So the public isn’t one thing; it’s highly fragmented, and it’s basically mutually hostile. It’s mostly people yelling at each other and living in bubbles of one sort or another.

https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/12/26/21004797/2010s-review-a-decade-of-revolt-martin-gurri

Amit Varma made a very similar point in a recent podcast with Shruti Kapila recently, in which he pointed out that social media has, in effect, decentralized the news (I’m quoting from memory here, so please forgive me if I’ve got the exact wording wrong). Amit Varma says that this is on balance a good thing, but with some negative consequences. Jonathan Haidt disagrees:

Mark Zuckerberg may not have wished for any of that. But by rewiring everything in a headlong rush for growth—with a naïve conception of human psychology, little understanding of the intricacy of institutions, and no concern for external costs imposed on society—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a few other large platforms unwittingly dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together.

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/05/social-media-democracy-trust-babel/629369/

Where do I fall on this Haidt-Verma spectrum? Closer towards the Haidt end, I’d say, but I do have to remind myself that I have written this and you are reading it, so maybe decentralization isn’t all that bad? But that’s as far as I’m willing to go – on balance, I find myself closer to Haidt’s position, at least for the moment.


But the enhanced virality of social media thereafter made it more hazardous to be seen fraternizing with the enemy or even failing to attack the enemy with sufficient vigor. On the right, the term RINO (Republican in Name Only) was superseded in 2015 by the more contemptuous term cuckservative, popularized on Twitter by Trump supporters. On the left, social media launched callout culture in the years after 2012, with transformative effects on university life and later on politics and culture throughout the English-speaking world.

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/05/social-media-democracy-trust-babel/629369/

Haidt is writing this from an American perspective, for an American audience. But we in India have our own share of names for The Other, don’t we? It’s not just the fact that we have relatively trivial tribalism in areas as important as political discourse, but the fact that the discourse itself is not just trivial, but downright nasty. And the nastier it gets, the higher the support from your own side!


I’ll skip talking about a couple of sections from Haidt’s essay, not because they’re not important, but because they aren’t directly relevant to us here in India. But the subtitle of his essay gets an entire section, where he speaks about how things are likely to get much worse in the years (months) to come:

in a 2018 interview, Steve Bannon, the former adviser to Donald Trump, said that the way to deal with the media is “to flood the zone with shit.” He was describing the “firehose of falsehood” tactic pioneered by Russian disinformation programs to keep Americans confused, disoriented, and angry. But back then, in 2018, there was an upper limit to the amount of shit available, because all of it had to be created by a person (other than some low-quality stuff produced by bots).
Now, however, artificial intelligence is close to enabling the limitless spread of highly believable disinformation. The AI program GPT-3 is already so good that you can give it a topic and a tone and it will spit out as many essays as you like, typically with perfect grammar and a surprising level of coherence. In a year or two, when the program is upgraded to GPT-4, it will become far more capable. In a 2020 essay titled “The Supply of Disinformation Will Soon Be Infinite,” Renée DiResta, the research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, explained that spreading falsehoods—whether through text, images, or deep-fake videos—will quickly become inconceivably easy. (She co-wrote the essay with GPT-3.)

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/05/social-media-democracy-trust-babel/629369/

Speaking of the amount of shit that had to be created by a person, read this article written by Samanth Subramanian in February 2017.


So what might be done? Jonathan Haidt has a three-pronged solution:

What changes are needed? Redesigning democracy for the digital age is far beyond my abilities, but I can suggest three categories of reforms––three goals that must be achieved if democracy is to remain viable in the post-Babel era. We must harden democratic institutions so that they can withstand chronic anger and mistrust, reform social media so that it becomes less socially corrosive, and better prepare the next generation for democratic citizenship in this new age.

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/05/social-media-democracy-trust-babel/629369/

He outlines the steps involved in each of these, and if you haven’t already, I would encourage you to go read the entire essay, and these outlines in particular. I find myself to be in broad agreement with both the suggestions as well as how they might be implemented, but also worry about whether we have the political and social will to actually do so.


Finally, a coda of sorts:

The most pervasive obstacle to good thinking is confirmation bias, which refers to the human tendency to search only for evidence that confirms our preferred beliefs. Even before the advent of social media, search engines were supercharging confirmation bias, making it far easier for people to find evidence for absurd beliefs and conspiracy theories, such as that the Earth is flat and that the U.S. government staged the 9/11 attacks. But social media made things much worse.

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/05/social-media-democracy-trust-babel/629369/

And I would feel very bad if you, the reader, were to read either my post or Haidt’s essay in order to confirm your already existing fears about the ill-effects of social media. And so I urge you to read this column by Tyler Cowen next:

Calling something “extremist” is not an effective critique. It’s a sign that the speaker or writer either doesn’t want to take the trouble to make a real argument, or is hoping to win the debate through rhetoric or Twitter pressure rather than logic. It’s also a bad sign when critics stress how social media have fed and encouraged “extremism.”


What the U.S. needs is more consideration of more extreme ideas. If you see someone inveighing against “extremism” or “extremist ideas,” beware: That is itself an extreme position. True moderation lies in calm and reasoned debate.

https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2022-05-06/extremist-ideas-are-not-always-bad-and-are-often-popular

My take on this essay? I think Tyler is saying that we shouldn’t be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Social media has done two things: made it easier to spread “extreme” ideas, and made it much more likely that we will react with extreme prejudice and nastiness to these ideas.

The first of these is A Very Good Thing and the second of these is a Very Bad Thing. But we would do well to hold on to the first, rather than abandon both.

How? Ah, now if only we had some extreme ideas about that.

On Xi Jinping’s Stubborn Attachment(s)

These are not good times for the credibility of China’s GDP growth targets. Just weeks after unveiling an ambitious target of 5.5% real GDP growth for 2022, the central government effectively ensured that target will not be met by requiring local governments to impose strict lockdowns to contain the spread of Covid-19. The restrictions cover most of China’s major cities, have had a clear negative impact on economic activity in March that will only worsen in April.

https://andrewbatson.com/2022/04/18/why-gdp-growth-targets-are-underrated/

So begins a thought provoking blog post on China’s growth prospects for this year, written by Andrew Batson. I’m a very (very!) amateur student of China, and follow a more or less random group of people on topics related to China – but Andrew Batson’s blog, I think, should definitely be on everybody’s list.

This one speaks about growth prospects in China this year, but so much else besides. Let’s learn a little bit about China by parsing through it.


The first point that he makes is that growth targets this year are all but likely to be missed. This, of course, is because of the lockdowns in Shanghai and other parts, and pretty much everybody knows that they’re not going well – and that’s putting it mildly. Targets were missed last year, and the year before – so why, one might be entitled to ask, should one have them at all in the first place?

There’s shades of Goodhart’s Law in the paragraphs that follow, and when I read the piece the first time, my blogging antennae were up. Aha, I thought to myself, one more post in an ever increasing canon. But the post then moves in (for me) an entirely unexpected direction, and in a way that makes it even more interesting.

Targeting GDP growth, Batson says, is not A Perfect Thing, but is, all things considered, Still A Good Thing Given The Alternatives.

https://andrewbatson.com/2022/04/18/why-gdp-growth-targets-are-underrated/

One way to understand Batson’s defense of GDP growth targets is by internalizing what I think is his key point: giving up on a GDP growth target doesn’t mean there will be no targets – it simply means there won’t be economic growth targets.

That is to say (and this is my understanding of his point), it’s not as if giving up on GDP growth targets will mean a very laissez faire approach to the economy. Instead, China will be set other, non-economic targets. Such as what, you ask?

…“regulatory storm” of 2021 with its multitude of highly interventionist policies aiming to reshape entire industries. Limiting the power of large private companies was even a fairly explicit goal: it’s probably not a coincidence that the main targets of last year’s political-regulatory campaigns were real estate and the internet, the two economic sectors that have created the biggest private-sector fortunes. All of this was certainly enabled by Xi’s dictum that there are more important things than GDP growth. The costs and economic downsides of the regulatory storm were put aside in favor of other goals.

https://andrewbatson.com/2022/04/18/why-gdp-growth-targets-are-underrated/

Regular listeners of Amit Varma’s excellent podcast, TSATU will no doubt be aware of the line “Politics is downstream from culture”. The quote is originally by Breitbart, of course, as Amit always points out. The reason I bring it up over here is because economic growth, if you ask me, is downstream of politics. In this framing, economic growth serves political needs, and those political needs are downstream of culture.

Rarely does one get to quote Brietbart in one paragraph and then follow it up with a supporting quote that references Lenin, but hey, welcome to 2022:

…China’s Leninist political system, which is organized around mobilizing officials to direct social transformation. As Ken Jowitt put it: “The definitional tendency of Leninist regimes [is] their attempts to control and specify the substantive dimensions of social developments, not merely the framework within which such developments occur.”

https://andrewbatson.com/2022/04/18/why-gdp-growth-targets-are-underrated/

As Andrew Batson goes on to argue in the following paragraphs, de-emphasizing growth targets in a liberal political framework is very different from de-emphasizing them in a Chinese set-up. The focus on growth for its own sake is very different from the focus on growth to serve other aims. Batson argues that Deng Xiaoping was optimizing for economic growth, and that Xi Jingping is optimizing for national greatness. National greatness includes, but never as a primary target, economic growth.

But that pursuit of national greatness, perhaps, has been taken too far in Chin’s case:

In December, when when Xi chaired the annual Central Economic Work Conference, the signal was clear: the priority is now the “stability” of the economy.
Since then, various political slogans and campaigns have been much less in evidence and the focus has been on more practical short-term measures. Senior officials have even promised not to introduce policies that “adversely affect market expectations”–effectively admitting that they had been doing just that in the recent past.

https://andrewbatson.com/2022/04/18/why-gdp-growth-targets-are-underrated/

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, and this is applicable to individuals as much as it is to nations. Be very clear about the answer to that irritatingly simple question:

What are you optimizing for?

Tim Harford on The Ease of Doing Business Report

But before anything else, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the title of the article – if you haven’t seen the movie, please do. One of my favorite Judie Dench movies.

You may have heard of the problems associated with the Ease of Doing Business report. (The reason I have linked to the Wikipedia page rather than the original page is because it wasn’t opening for me. Your mileage may vary.)

Even a spreadsheet can become a victim of its own success. Just ask the World Bank’s Doing Business report. While many worthy publications from the World Bank are never downloaded, Doing Business has been a smash hit for years. No longer. Amid an ugly scandal about data manipulation that has left the head of the IMF, Kristalina Georgieva, fighting for her career, Doing Business has been cancelled.
The power struggle at the top of the fund involves: a three-way tussle for influence between the US, Europe and China; rivalry between Georgieva, former chief executive at the World Bank, and the current, Trump-nominated bank president David Malpass; and domestic US politics. (Democrats have long disliked the Doing Business report’s low-regulation tone.)
The accusation is that in 2017 the World Bank’s leadership, including Georgieva, pressured the Doing Business team to improve China’s ranking in order to keep the Chinese government happy. The case for the defence is that Georgieva’s team were merely double-checking a sensitive number, that China’s ranking barely moved (from 85th to 78th), and anyway China is now ranked far better (25th) than when Georgieva was at the bank. The fight is as fascinating as it is unedifying.

https://timharford.com/2021/11/notes-on-a-statistical-scandal/

By the way, if you want to learn how to write columns well, you could do a lot worse than reading these three paragraphs.

A short, interesting sentence to begin the column, followed by an easy to read first paragraph that explains what the problem is. The next two paragraphs provide context, give additional details, and bring the reader up to speed, so that Tim Harford can get to the points that he wants to make regarding the whole issue. And contrast that with what I have managed to do so far: four paragraphs, one lengthy excerpt, and two tangential points, one of which is meta. Ah well.


But all of that aside, take some time out to read Tim Harford’s column before reading what follows.

  1. What was the report optimizing for?

    Originally, it seems to have been an attempt to help interested entities understand how easy (or not) it was to do business in a particular country. This helps entrepreneurs (domestic and international) understand some of the potential impediments to starting a business. The report lays out the processes involved in starting a business, and speaks about the length of time required to complete those process. That is surely a good thing, correct?
  2. Is a report not the same as a ranking?

    What matters more to you as a student when it comes to examinations? Are examinations a way for you to reflect upon how much you’ve learnt and what remains to be learnt, or are examinations a way to understand where you are in the pecking order? The problem with the Ease of Doing Business report wasn’t the report itself, it was the rankings that were generated on the basis of the reports.
    As Tim Harford says in his column: “But Klein has one regret: the original decision to publish an overall ranking of which countries were the best and the worst in the world for doing business. Such aggregate rankings make little sense, but they are ubiquitous because they are clickbait. The Doing Business aggregate ranking was no exception. Without it, the report would never have received so much attention. But without the ranking, it is doubtful anyone would have cared enough to try to manipulate the data.”
    And of course the inevitable followed: the rankings became more important than the report itself.
  3. A rare point of disagreement. Here is the quote from his column: “This newspaper recently celebrated the demise of the Doing Business indicators, complaining that countries were “expressly changing policies to score better”. That is a strange objection. Unless the indicators are valueless, when countries try to score better that is a feature, not a bug.”

    When Tim Harford says “this newspaper”, he is referring to the Financial Times, where he happens to be a columnist. I’m unable to access the original FT article from where this point was excerpted, but I happen to agree with excerpt above, and therefore disagree with Tim Harford. That being said, I certainly do wish that the original FT article had been worded better in the case of the sentence that we’re able to read.
    Think about that phrase up above: ““expressly changing policies to score better”.
    I think what they wanted to say was this: countries should ideally have been trying to figure out how to change policies so that in reality, on the ground, it became easier to do business. This should then have been reflected in the rankings. That would have been Utopian. Instead, policymakers and politicians in some cases tried to change the policies so that the ranking improved, without there being much change on the ground. That word, “expressly”, is doing a lot of lifting in that phrase – because all of what I have written is what I think they were trying to get at.
    Put another way, the indicators are not valueless, unless they’ve become the target. And that, really, is all that the FT was trying to say: the indicators did, in fact, become the target. Countries were more focused on the outcome (the ranking) rather than the process (has it actually become easier to do business?), and that is never a good idea.
  4. Consider this quote: “The Doing Business aggregate ranking was no exception. Without it, the report would never have received so much attention. But without the ranking, it is doubtful anyone would have cared enough to try to manipulate the data.”

    It is a question we should all be asking ourselves repeatedly: what are you optimizing for?
    In this case, was the World Bank optimizing for drawing attention to the report? We live in a world in which signaling matters, Goodhart’s Law is real and status is the name of the game. So if the World Bank was optimizing for publicity, it should have acknowledged that all of what eventually happened was a very real risk.
    But if the World Bank was optimizing for preparing a good report that stood up to scrutiny, then it should have acknowledged that the opportunity cost of such a strategy is that hardly anybody would ever read it. But such, alas, is life.

Growth. Just, only, simply Growth.

Anybody who has been subjected to an introductory econ class by me has inevitably been through this:

I’ve been talking about Gapminder in my classes for over a decade now, and have written about it on these pages a number of times. I’m still to come even remotely close to being bored: it is simply that good. But today, I want to point out a feature of this graph that is a nice way to get started on thinking about economic growth.

As I always say when I introduce Gapminder to students for the first time, this is what Hans Rosling1 used to call the “Health and Wealth” chart – for obvious reasons. This is the crucial bit though: there is no country that is towards the top left of this chart, and there is no country that is towards the bottom right.

Rich countries – that is, countries with high GDP per capita – have better health outcomes. Poor countries – that is, countries with lower GDP per capita – have worse health outcomes. Yes, we are measuring health through only one parameter, and yes we can never be sure in what direction the causality runs2 – all that I’ll happily concede. But still, richer countries have better health outcomes. I’m, as they say, willing to die on this hill.

Growth matters.


Growth, or GDP per capita, or material well-being – I’ll conflate these terms and give textbook authors a heart attack in the process – they aren’t an end in and of itself. They’re the means to achieving ends: health, education being just two of them.

And yes, growth comes at a cost, and there are problems with growth – many, many problems. But still.

Growth matters.


And as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Lant Pritchett is a bhakt when it comes to worshipping growth:

Broad-based growth, defined as the process that raises median income, is far and away the most important source of poverty reduction. There is no instance of a country achieving a headcount poverty rate below 1/3 of its population (at moderate poverty line of $5.50) without achieving the median consumption of that of Mexico. This is not to say that there do not exist anti-poverty programs that are cost-effective and hence should be expanded, or, conversely, that there are anti-poverty programs that are not cost-effective (or even have zero impact on poverty) and should be cut back or eliminated. Analyses of these types of programs would enable a more efficient use of resources devoted to poverty reduction. But large and sustained improvements in global poverty will almost certainly have to focus on how to raise the productivity of the typical person in a poor country, which is a key source of national income growth.

https://econofact.org/poverty-reduction-and-economic-growth

Pritchett’s fervent defense of the idea of worshipping growth stems from two places. One, as a worthy idea in and of itself, but more so because he thinks that development economists have lost their way a little bit:

The only solution to world poverty is vast increases in the productivity per person which would be the result of sustained economic growth that is broadly shared and increases in national development. This is going to require the answers to many complex and interesting questions, and research into those questions is, to my mind, the domain of development scholarship. And, when national development is achieved the kinky development agenda is (nearly) completely solved through general social progress.

https://www.ideasforindia.in/topics/poverty-inequality/getting-kinky-with-chickens.html

(By the way, this article carries my all-time-favorite title ever.)

He is saying, in plain simple English, that growth is what matters. Everything else that is currently going on in development economics is secondary.

Growth matters.


And as one might anticipate by now, Gulzar Natarajan agrees:

I am strongly inclined to argue that foreign aid should be confined to either development of pure physical infrastructure or for R&D or for state capacity building and should avoid advocating or supporting specific social development programs in areas like health, education, nutrition, agriculture etc. As I will try to explain, there is something about social development programs that demands that these societies struggle hard on their own to make difficult collective social and political choices.

https://gulzar05.blogspot.com/2020/09/leave-poverty-alleviation-to-developing.html

And this excerpt too:

If Kenya needs to fix its school education system, its stakeholders need to grapple with the real reasons why children are not attending schools, why teachers are not accountable, why the quality of instruction is so poor, and prioritise resource allocation and make political choices accordingly. There is a path dependency associated with reaching the destination. Technical solutions are a diversion from the real task.
For example, take the issue of teachers accountability to the parents. A biometric attendance solution is a good innovation but in a complex system can at best offer the illusion accountability and that too for a short-time, while also postponing the imperative to undertake the reforms like making the school and teachers accountable to the local community.

https://gulzar05.blogspot.com/2020/09/leave-poverty-alleviation-to-developing.html

What he is really saying is that Goodhart’s law is a real problem, and we should cut to the chase and focus on the real, underlying problem, rather than chase relatively easily measurable metrics.

That is, getting teachers to punch in on time is no guarantee that they’ll teach well, much like getting students to attend classes is no guarantee that they’ll learn well. But making attendance mandatory, and measuring it, gives us the satisfaction of Having Done Something.

But the point of getting education “right” is to make people more productive. The point of getting education “right” is not to have teachers (or students) turn up on time!

And the point of helping folks become more productive is, as always the fact that:

Growth matters.3

  1. legend. Absolute legend.[]
  2. it runs both ways, but you get to say that only after many years of kadi tapasya[]
  3. In the post coming up on Monday, I’ll review a book that helps us understand why[]

Nilay Patel interviewed Marques Brownlee, and I took notes. Lots of notes.

I’ve been watching MKBHD videos for a while now, but a favorite activity for my daughter and I this past summer has been to watch them together.

As anybody who has watched them will attest to, they’re impeccably produced, and always manage to strike that perfect balance between being fun and informative. And trust me, getting that balance right is hard. But my daughter, who notices these things much more than I do, also points out his (Marques Brownlee‘s) diction, the way he sets up his backgrounds (or set, or whatever you call it) – and also how much better his voice seems to be than in other videos.

And since she’s mentioned it, it’s hard to ignore. It’s clear that a lot of work goes into producing these videos – and to put out over a hundred of them in one year is seriously impressive – which his channel did last year. What’s even more impressive is the fact that he plans to launch more channels this year, let alone videos.

I got to know about this in a very well done podcast, in which Nilay Patel spoke with Marques about what I wrote about in the preceding paragraph, and a whole host of things besides. Reading the transcript as an economist was interesting, for a lot of things resonated with concepts we teach (and don’t, but should) in class. They weren’t referring to the concepts, of course, for both are (probably) blessedly unaware of boring ol’ econ texts – they were just solving, or thinking, about the challenges they face in the course of their work.

But if you’re somewhere between the age of 18 to 24, and wondering where the hell (and how) to apply things we teach you in your classes – well what better way to learn than this? Ec101 applied to MKBHD videos – whatay way to learn, no?

Notes and brief explanations follow:

  • “You’ve got to embrace uncertainty.”

    A point that both of them agreed upon, and the context was noise in the background. As a statistician, when I think noise, I’m thinking randomness, and that makes this quote even better. You can have the most refined system in the world for doing stuff, but you have to make leeway for unanticipated stuff. Things can go wrong, pandemics can spread, neighbours can make lots of noise. Anticipate it: embrace it!

    The larger point, in simpler words: make a plan, of course, but budget for chaos. It’s always there.
  • “I couldn’t believe I was finding something that I didn’t see in those other videos. So I was like, the obvious answer is to add to that collection of information, so when someone else is choosing what to buy, they can make a better choice than I did.”

    Scratch your own itch is advice that you often hear in entrepreneur world, and Marques is speaking about exactly that over here. Except of course, he isn’t just speaking about it, he is quite literally doing it. In fact, he did it 11 years ago, and has just kept at it ever since. That’s a pretty good business model, if you ask me.

    Teach like you wish you had been taught is what I want to do in life, by the way, although I cannot claim to have come anywhere close to figuring a business model out.
  • “So there’s a lot more going on, but I think the teamwork of it all is something that can be pretty underrated.”

    Marques says this in the context of how he plans to scale up his work this year. Here’s the thing – learning how to do something (assuming you want to learn it in the first place) is a lot of fun. Teaching others how to do it is also a whole lot of fun.

    Building a team of such people, and getting them to do what you want to get done – and that too, just so – that is oh-my-god-hard. “Pretty underrated”? That’s pretty understated!
  • “We have a big cast of characters at The Verge. MKBHD, that’s just you. You are a pretty unscalable property. That group of people you’re bringing in and hiring, is that to help you spend more time in front of the camera or is that an attempt to scale you in a different way?”

    Marques’ answer is pretty instructive, but if you’re looking to start a business, and looking to scale it, one challenge you will face is getting folks to do what you want them to do, plus anticipating the fact that in businesses such as this one, Marques himself is the biggest draw. Imagine The Seen and the Unseen without Amit Varma, or Mark Wiens’ videos without Mark Wiens. You have two choices: plan on not scaling, or fight a very hard battle. It’s easy to draw a diagram that teaches you the theory of scaling – doing it in the real world is bloody hard.
  • “You were just intently focused on completing a motion graphics course that you had been taking. And now it’s several years later and you’re not that deep in the weeds. You’ve just hired a motion graphics person and you’re talking about scaling your business and using your facilities in a different way.”

    That’s part of a question that Nilay asked Marques, but if you’re not thinking pin factory, your econ prof and you need to talk. One important part of scaling is what Adam Smith referred to as the division of labor. You can’t – nobody can – do every single thing in a business. Some parts of it need to be outsourced to lawyers and PR firms, as they speak about in the interview later, some parts to motion graphics persons – whatever.

    But you have to let certain tasks go. Which tasks? To whom? How to recruit the most perfect person possible? How to get that person to stay? How to get that person to work with the other folks on the team? Pretty underrated indeed!

    Oh and by the way, this part we don’t teach you in college. We should, if you ask me, but we don’t.
  • “We’ve basically shot all of our videos with my directors on Zoom and I’m just like, “man, this is not even close.” It’s very fun, and then that novelty fades and you just miss having everybody there.”

    This might not be true (hopefully!) after 2021, but if you’re looking to intern this summer, or start work this year, this is a real problem. Americans have this thing they call “watercooler conversations”. If you’re Indian, we’re talking about chai/sutta breaks. Doesn’t matter if you’re a smoker or not, that’s not the point. Conversations in a more relaxed environment after you’ve been in the heat of battle together is where informal debriefings happen, and that is going to suffer this year. There are businesses trying to virtualize this – but color me skeptical. In person is always better, and that’s the worst part of graduating in this of all years.
  • “One question from our video team that I thought was really interesting: as you’ve been on the path of growing bigger and bigger, you haven’t had a boss. How do you grow and improve when the audience is overwhelmingly telling you that you’re great? Where do you find the incentive or the self-criticism to improve? You’ve obviously wildly improved over time, but where does that really come from?”

    Marques’ answer to this question is worth reading in its entirety, but the larger point is that you need people who have the ability to give you frank feedback. That’s hugely underrated. A spouse, a friend, a significant other, a business partner, a junior – whoever. But you need it!

    This reminds me of a reply that Seth Godin gave to a question Tim Ferris asked him in a podcast some years ago:

    “But the other kind is so rare, so scarce, so precious I only get little dribs of it now and then. Which is someone who gets you, someone who can see right through to your soul who, with generosity and care, can look you in the eye, hand you back something and say: I think this would be better if you did it again. I had a business partner, Steve, who was like that in 1979 and ’80, ’80 and ’81. And finding that again in a consistent way is really precious and really hard.”

    (It goes without saying: listen/read the whole interview. Just wonderful.)
  • “We’ve never really set view count goals, but we did have a goal to make 100 videos in the calendar year and we did end up doing that, which is great. A lot of that stuff that we’re aiming for is more, I guess qualitative is the word, but it’s hard to define.”

    What are you optimizing for? This is related to yesterday’s post, and it ought to be a question you ask yourself everyday. I don’t ask myself this question everyday, but I wish I did. It really and truly helps, because if what you are doing isn’t helping what you’re optimizing for, then you shouldn’t be doing it.

    Marques isn’t optimizing for views. He’s not looking to maximize hits, views or any of those metrics. He’s setting a target for quantity, as he says in the quote above, but he also is (implicitly in the quote, but trust me explicitly in his work) optimizing for quality. As I said towards the end of yesterday’s post, get the process right. The rest takes care of itself. (See also: Goodhart’s law)

    Also read this excerpt from Tyler Cowen’s interview of Jimmy Wales:

    “When we think about things at Wikipedia — for example, we could probably increase engagement if we use some of the very basic machine learning techniques to start showing people random promotional links to other things than Wikipedia and then have the machine learn over time how to show you links that are more interesting so that you end up staying on the site longer.

    Now, it might turn out that that’s completely normal and thoughtful, in fact, if you go to a well-known economist, that it turns out that the way to keep you on the site longer is to show you other concepts of economics and economic theory. But it might turn out, and probably would turn out, the best thing to do is, when you go to look up Tyler Cowen, to show you on the sidebar links to Kim Kardashian, Donald Trump, whatever the hot topic of the day is and so on, which is not really what you want from an encyclopedia.

    When we think about that, our incentive structure at Wikipedia is not to optimize time on-site. It’s to say, look, every now and then, normally at the end of the year, we say, “Hey, would you donate some money?” Nobody has to donate. The only reason people do donate — and this is what donors tell us — is they think, “This is meaningful. This is important to my life. This should live. This should exist.”

    Bottom-line: If you are not clear about what you’re optimizing for, you will struggle. Get that clear, for yourself, and be ruthless about sticking to it. (It’s easy for me to say this, but it is very difficult for me to do it. Just so we’re clear!)
  • “I live inside of Google Calendar and Google Tasks. I would be a lost human without those things. I kind of think about this a lot — how much time I spend doing the thing versus managing how we make the thing. And it turns out that the management part has become a lot more of my job, but almost necessarily, to make it a better thing.”

    Managing time is hard. It is really, really, really hard. I have tried I don’t know how many different things, apps, methods and what not, but it is hard. If you are going to make a plan (for spending your day, for studying for your exam, for starting a business, whatever) budget twice the amount of time you think you will take to do something, because you will waste time. That, I am sad to say, is my lived reality.

    Nilay’s next question is about exactly this, by the way.
  • “I think I tweeted a couple of weeks ago how many emails I get that are just like, “Hey, this is us. We’ve got this idea. When can we hop on a call?” But I don’t really want to do that. If you can’t get your idea down in a couple sentences in an email, it’s probably not a good enough idea.”

    Something that I have started to do over the last two years or so: whenever I have to give an assignment, it’s usually along these lines.

    “Write in fifteen sentences (or lesser) your understanding of [whatever it is that they’re supposed to write about]. No conjunctions, no colons, no semi-colons.”

    It is fascinating to me how what seems to be good news to the students turns out to be a problem, because Pascal.
  • “We say no to 99 percent of the things that we get offered to do. But that last 1 percent of things, we think very deeply about, and work with a lot of people to try to make the right decisions and pull it off well.”

    Derek Sivers has an interesting book about this.
  • “If it’s a bad product, it’s not worth doing it at all, even if we would’ve made a ton of money. If it’s a bad integration or if it’s a bad company to work with, I have to say no, because it just doesn’t fit. So that fit is often more important than the math of the per-minute or per-project basis.”

    The preceding questions (to this quote) are about what metrics Marques uses, and you should read about it if you are in this business, but the larger point is what Marques is saying here – and this was referred to earlier in this post as well. Metrics are all well and good, but do the work – and work means quality work. The rest follows.
  • “I know celebrity culture is different in everyone’s heads, but I look up to Michael Jordan the athlete and nothing else about him.”

    My personal opinion, but that is exactly how it should be. But that is a separate post in its own right.
  • “The way I see YouTube is, it’s kind of like driving for Uber. If you stop driving for Uber for a week, you won’t make any money that week. And I think adding more people to this team makes it feel like putting that Uber on autopilot so I’m not doing quite as much of the lifting, but it still has to drive.”

    Read The Four Hour Work Week.

Up until the last bullet point above, this post was 2,455 words in length. That, I suppose, is about enough for a blogpost. But there’s more, much more, in this interview. So please, read/listen to it in its entirety.

But hey, I’m clearly on a roll, so I cannot resist one final piece of advice. Take notes, and write down your thoughts about what you’ve consumed. Even if nobody else is ever going to read it.

It really and truly helps.

Links for 19th February, 2019

  1. “…granted, most supply has moved to Facebook and other social networks; it is no longer possible to build a viable web business with display ads. At the same time, the web is still as open as can be, which means there is room for new business models like subscriptions, a model that has only gotten started and is already producing far better content than the old mass market media model every (sic) did”
    The always excellent Stratechery blog on Spotify moving into the podcasting business. Read this to understand how pricing works in the world of the internet, and how an ad-based business is going to be difficult to sustain.
  2. “Goodhart’s law states that once a social or economic measure is turned into a target for policy, it will lose any information content that had qualified it to play such a role in the first place.”
    A current favorite of mine as an example: students must attend at least 75% of all classes in a semester assumes that a student will auto-magically learn once in class – for that is the reason behind the 75% attendance requirement. Do read, though. I’m sure you can think of a million different applications.
  3. “The constitution ensured that the Senate could protect the people against themselves, and simultaneously ensured that the Framers armored the Senate against the people. Should America be too Democratic, and grant too much power to the House, Madison worried that government would have a propensity “to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factitious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.””
    As an Indian, I enjoyed reading this as a reminder of the thinking behind the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha. And which is why I’d recommend you read it too!
  4. “What these results suggest is the headline inflation – expected to be in the 3% handle in the near future – will eventually start converging, over a 12-month period, towards core inflation which is currently running above 5%. If this were to come to pass, space for any monetary policy easing cycle – notwithstanding a one-off cute in February or April this year – would virtually evaporate.”
    Expect there to be an intense discussion about the differences between headline (overall) and core (overall minus fuel and food) inflation. This article is a decent analysis of the link between the two in the past, and today.
  5. “Consider Ms. Nishimasa’s daily routine. The preschool her two youngest children attend requires the family to keep daily journals recording their temperatures and what they eat twice a day, along with descriptions of their moods, sleeping hours and playtime. On top of that, her 8-year-old son’s elementary school and after-school tutoring class require that a parent personally signs off on every homework assignment.”
    A fascinating read from the NYT, to help us better understand the culture that is Japan.