How Are You Optimizing?

One of the more popular blog posts on this blog this year was an essay I wrote in March, the title of which was Maximizing Soul. The essay was a lament of sorts about how obsessed we as a society have become about measuring every last thing that we do, and how we have become all about efficiency.

We have become a society of optimization through minimization. We’ve become very good at extracting the very last bit of juice out of a lemon.

https://econforeverybody.com/2021/03/08/maximizing_soul/

That essay was more about society and culture than it was about the economy directly. But more recently, Gulzar Natarajan wrote a blog post making what I take to be more or less the same point, but in the case of the global economy:

The Covid 19 pandemic has underscored the perils with efficiency maximisation at all costs and the importance of resilience. The excessive concentration of manufacturing, especially of critical Pharma products, in China and the supply chain disruptions have provided the most salient reminders. This post discusses the problems of pursuing efficiency at all costs and to the exclusion of all else in case of global manufacturing supply chains.

http://gulzar05.blogspot.com/2021/12/the-shift-from-efficiency-maximisation.html

The title I wanted for today’s blogpost was a bit of a mouthful: “How are you optimizing for whatever it is that you are optimizing for?” I went, instead, with what you see above. But the question I wanted to ask was the one you see in this paragraph.

Say you want to maximize profits (and who wouldn’t, eh?). Three ways you can do this: maximize revenue, minimize cost, or attempt to do both. And Gulzar Natarajan’s point in his blogpost is that the global economy has focused perhaps a wee bit too much on the cost minimization bit – and that we have, in the process, gone a bit too far.

Thanks to business schools and management gurus, it had become articles of faith that businesses should outsource, focus on comparative advantage, specialise functionally, concentrate suppliers and production facilities, minimise inventories, tighten supply chains, contract labour services, minimise tax payout through tax avoidance, and so on. For sure, when done in proportion, all of them have merits and are desirable. But when taken beyond reasonable proportions, they generate distortions.
A common underlying factor behind all these concepts is efficiency. Conventional wisdom has it that their pursuit leads to greater efficiency in some form or other (mainly cost reduction), all of which generally lead to greater profitability, the primary objective of businesses. Therefore efficiency maximisation by pursuing these concepts to their extremes becomes an innate and inexorable dynamic of the market. It does not help that globalisation and advances in information and communications technology and transportation end up furthering these trends.

http://gulzar05.blogspot.com/2021/12/the-shift-from-efficiency-maximisation.html (Emphasis added)

In effect, is blog post is making the point that cost minimization was done at the cost of ignoring the building up of risk:

Businesses and consumers doubtless benefited from these trends. It led to cost reductions which got distributed between higher profits (for businesses) and lower prices (for consumers). A virtuous cycle of consumption, production, and trade led to expansion of aggregate output.
Then the pandemic struck. Lockdowns and quarantines ensued. Supply chains were disrupted. Outsourced suppliers and producers were cut-off or failed to keep their commitments. The lack of diversification at country and company levels among suppliers and producers became painfully evident. Businesses realised that their pursuit of efficiency maximisation and cost reduction had gone too far.

http://gulzar05.blogspot.com/2021/12/the-shift-from-efficiency-maximisation.html (Emphasis added.)

My essay, written in March, tried to argue for maximizing profit by increasing revenue (so to speak), rather than by only minimizing costs. Gulzar Natarajan’s essay, I think, makes a complementary point. If one focuses on minimizing cost by ignoring everything else, there is another problem, that of increasing risks by increasing dependencies on a very small set of ultra-efficient supply chains.

The story in 2022 (and beyond) is going to be one of building more resilient systems. The opportunity cost of this strategy is that these new systems may not be as hyper efficient as the ones that existed pre-covid.

And that Gulzar Natarajan seems to say, is just fine by him.

And I completely agree.

Three Charts Related to China

Read this post, and spend a good amount of time asking yourself some questions about the three charts. Here are my questions (note that I don’t have the answers):

  • Is China’s decoupling a good thing or a bad thing? For whom?
  • What time horizon should we use to think about the answer to the first question? Why?
  • To what extent is China’s reduction in exports as a percentage of GDP deliberate? Was it deliberate all along, or did they observe a trend, think through the consequences, and then make it a deliberate policy?
  • Is China’s decline the share of global GDP growth a good thing for the world? Why?
  • What about India, is it a good thing for India? If yes, along which dimensions? If no, along which dimensions?
  • Does China count the last chart in this blog post as a victory or a defeat, or is it “too soon to tell”? Whatever the answer, why so?
  • What are other data related stories from China that we have not been paying attention to?

I don’t have, as I said, the answers. And maybe I have missed asking some obvious questions. If you have material that will help me think through these issues, please do share.

Improving the Quality of Social Science Research in India

Gulzar Natarajan points us towards an excellent paper written by Jacob Greenspon and Dani Rodrik, on who is writing papers in top tier journals today.

Developing country representation has risen fastest at journals rated 100th or lower, while it has barely increased in journals rated 25th or higher.

Click to access a_note_on_the_global_distribution_of_authorship_102521.pdf

Take a look at the table below, and note how developing country authorship has barely budged from 3.5% to 4.4% across the two time periods the authors have chosen to work with.

https://drodrik.scholar.harvard.edu/files/dani-rodrik/files/a_note_on_the_global_distribution_of_authorship_102521.pdf

What is the problem being addressed here? The fact that there isn’t enough representation in the very top tier journals of authors from developing nations.

How might this problem be resolved? In one of two ways: either the current top tier journals figure out a way to have more representation from developing countries, or developing countries start on the (rather long) journey of creating journals that will replace the ones currently at the top.

In his blogpost, Gulzar Natarajan points out nine ways in which both of these solutions might be implemented:

  1. Hire more local Principal Investigators, both for its own sake, but also because of the large positive externalities they will generate
  2. Develop academic consortium(s) such as NBER in developing countries. Gulzar Natarajan uses the example of India, but this could of course be done in many other countries as well
  3. Give more personalized, contextualized lectures in Indian universities
  4. More mentorships
  5. More referees from India in top tier publications, at least for “India” papers. (Note again that Gulzar Natarajan is writing this for an Indian audience, the same applies for other countries)
  6. Create and share data repositories.
  7. Build out better conferences.
  8. Build out more university level tie-ups on an international basis
  9. Build out better Institutional Review Board certifications for local Indian universities.

The author is kind enough to mention the place at which I currently work (the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics) as an Institute which may be able to play a role in furthering this initiative.

We’ve tried to do work on some of the initiatives he has outlined, including building out on mentorships, trying to build out better (and more) university level tie-ups, and one of the few silver linings to the last eighteen months has been the fact that it has never been easier to get professors from the world over to “come” and speak via video conference. But much more – much, much more! – remains to be done.


In an ideal world, each university in India would have a faculty member whose sole full time job it would be to figure out how each university is working on each of these nine points, with some sort of a coordinating agency working with (and across) each participating university. This is, of course, easier said than done.

Its necessity, if you ask me, is indisputable.

On Valuing Zomato, But Don’t Stop There

If you are a student of economics, you should be able to understand the basics of valuation. It is up to each one of us to determine our level of expertise, but at the very least, we should be able to understand valuations that others have arrived at.

And a great way to learn this is to devour, as greedily as possible, every single blog post written by Professor Aswath Damodaran.

Here’s an excerpt from his blogpost on valuing Zomato:

Eating out and prosperity don’t always go hand in hand, but you are more likely to eat out, as your discretionary income rises. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the number of restaurants increases with per capita GDP, and that one reason for the paucity of restaurants(and food delivery) in India is its low GDP, less than a fifth of per capital GDP in China and a fraction of per capital GDP in the US & EU.

http://aswathdamodaran.blogspot.com/2021/07/the-zomato-ipo-bet-on-big-markets-and.html

Read the whole thing, and if it is your first time reading about this topic, read it three times. I’m quite serious! Also download the spreadsheets, and play around with the assumptions in them. It is a great way to teach yourself Excel and valuations at the same time. Excel and valuations is also a great way to understand the concept of complementary goods, and I’m only half joking.


So, ok, you have now got a little bit of a grip on valuation. That’s great, but you shouldn’t stop there. Valuing a company is fine, but how does one think about the valuation of this company (Zomato) in the context of this sector (online food delivery)?

Here are some facts. Zomato raised $1.3 bn through an IPO which was oversubscribed 38 times and which valued it at $14.2 bn. At about the same time, its competitor Swiggy raised $1.25 bn in a Series J fund raise which gave it a post-money valuation of $5.5 bn.
The post-IPO public market price discovery of Zomato shows that Swiggy is 2.6 times under-valued.

https://gulzar05.blogspot.com/2021/07/some-observations-on-zomato-and-swiggy.html

Also from that post, a great way to understand how to start to think about the price one can get in the market. That is, you can learn all the theory you want about valuation, and pricing and what not. At the end of the day, the price you command in the market is about so much more than that:

4. But, if markets stay as frothy as it’s now, Swiggy’s promoters and investors need not worry. Unlike Zomato’s promoters who, judging from the first day pop left huge money on the table, Swiggy’s promoters could rake in much more by pricing its IPO closer to the comparator market price. Swiggy and other could benefit from the later mover advantage.
5. There appears to have been a first mover disadvantage for Zomato in leaving money at the table and not maximising its IPO takings. Conversely there may have been a first mover advantage for its investors in maximising their returns.

https://gulzar05.blogspot.com/2021/07/some-observations-on-zomato-and-swiggy.html

And you shouldn’t stop there either! Valuing a company is fine. Thinking about that company in the context of its competitors is great. Thinking about the IPO rush in the start-up world, and what it means in the context of the overall economy is fantastic.

The Indian startup scene has been set ablaze by the spectacular IPO of Zomato. In a largely conservative market this constitutes a huge collective leap of faith since the company has consistently made increasing losses and several questions hang on its profitability. With some more blockbuster IPOs lined up, the party is likely to go on for some time. Some high-profile boosters even think of it as a new dawn in risk capital raising. The problem is with those left standing when the party ends, as it must. And it’s most likely to be not pretty.

https://gulzar05.blogspot.com/2021/07/the-startup-ipo-bubble-reaches-india.html

The world’s unicorn herd is multiplying at a clip that is more rabbit-like. The number of such firms has grown from a dozen eight years ago to more than 750, worth a combined $2.4trn. In the first six months of 2021 technology startups raised nearly $300bn globally, almost as much as in the whole of 2020. That money helped add 136 new unicorns between April and June alone, a quarterly record, according to cb Insights, a data provider. Compared with the same period last year the number of funding rounds above $100m tripled, to 390. A lot of this helped fatten older members of the herd: all but four of the 34 that now boast valuations of $10bn or more have received new investments since the start of 2020.

https://www.economist.com/business/2021/07/19/technology-unicorns-are-growing-at-a-record-clip

Why is this happening now? Is it because of loose monetary policy the world over? Is it because of optimism about what the world will look like post-covid? Neither, and something else altogether? Or both and something else also? What might the ramifications be? How should that influence your thinking about the next three to five years in your life – when it comes to going abroad to study, or starting an MBA, or being in the job market?

Note the chain of thought in this blogpost: valuing a company, thinking about that specific sector, thinking about IPO’s in general, thinking about the overall economy… and getting all of that back to your life. Apply this to all of the news you read, everyday, and you’ll soon start to build your own little picture of the world. That is, you’ll start to see the world like an economist. And trust me, that is a superpower. 🙂

On Economists and Plumbers

Whenever an undergraduate student asks me for advice about what to do after graduation, I always recommend two things. A gap year, if possible. And some work experience, especially if the next degree they plan to acquire is an MBA.

The gap year because I think our society needs to learn how to learn outside of college. That is a whole other blogpost, and I’ll get to it this Friday.

The work experience before embarking on an MBA? Because you need to learn what folks in HR do (and don’t do) before you learn about HR in an MBA course. Because you need to experience the agony of a performance appraisal before learning about management in an MBA course. Because you need to fight for budgets for your team before learning about finance. Because you need to know what a deliverable is in the real world before earning the right to moan about assignments in college. Doing an MBA without having worked is a little like learning how to ride a bicycle without ever having seen one, and without actually riding one while learning how to ride it. If that makes no sense to you, great. That’s what that metaphor was supposed to do.


And Gulzar Natarajan says much the same thing, with two crucial differences. He admonishes, rather than advises. And the folks he admonishes happen to have won the Nobel Prize in Economics, so the audience is ever so slightly different:

I think India is a good example of [a country] where they literally had not thought through their own plumbing. If you think of what happened to the urban migrants, India’s welfare system is actually completely designed on the assumption that people live in their stable families which live in one place for year after year. In your village, you’re entitled to apply for the public distribution, which is essentially nearly free food . . . and in rural areas there is the rural employment guarantee system. Both of those are designed for rural citizens who live in their own village. You’re not entitled to go to any village and say: ‘I want my employment guarantee.’ There might be as many as 50m of these low-income migrants who temporarily live in cities. They can’t connect to the welfare system. That’s why there were pictures in the first lockdown of people walking 1,000 kilometres . . . there was no way for them to survive. They just had to go home. That is pure plumbing failure.

https://www.ft.com/content/f998d48a-dd8a-43de-81e5-d530dd9df004

That’s the Banerjee/Duflo quote, taken from Gulzar Natarajan’s blogpost, as is the link itself (I’m not rich enough to subscribe to the FT!).

This is his response:

This is pure rhetoric. It’s the classic hatchet job – form your hypothesis (a system where migrant workers can access food and other welfare benefits), set up a straw man (the public distribution system, PDS, or any welfare benefit), demonstrate how the straw man fails the hypothesis test (the example of covid induced migration), and blame the system (the government “did not think through their own plumbing” on its programs). Before passing such sweeping judgement on something like the PDS or NREGS, it’s useful to understand its original purpose and its trajectory of evolution. It’s also classic hindsight-based judgement.

http://gulzar05.blogspot.com/2021/06/more-on-why-economists-make-bad-plumbers.html

As always, read the rest of the blogpost. Anything written by Gulzar Natarajan is self-recommending. And while you’re at it, read this post (and all of the posts that he links to!)

But the larger lesson you should take away from his blogpost – if you ask me – is this: designing something is very different from implementing it. If you want to be a good designer, you must have worked in implementation for a bit.

Whether it is MBA after having gained work experience or economists working on policy design – or anything else, for that matter, it is worth keeping this in mind: first the trenches, and then the command centre.


And lastly, while on the theme, here’s a book recommendation for you: Skin in the Game, by Nicholas Nassim Taleb.

And this post too, please:

Hammurabi’s Code is among the oldest translatable writings. It consists of 282 laws, most concerning punishment. Each law takes into account the perpetrator’s status. The code also includes the earliest known construction laws, designed to align the incentives of builder and occupant to ensure that builders created safe homes:

  1. If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.
  2. If it causes the death of the son of the owner of the house, they shall put to death a son of that builder.
  3. If it causes the death of a slave of the owner of the house, he shall give to the owner of the house a slave of equal value.
  4. If it destroys property, he shall restore whatever it destroyed, and because he did not make the house which he builds firm and it collapsed, he shall rebuild the house which collapsed at his own expense.
  5. If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction meet the requirements and a wall falls in, that builder shall strengthen the wall at his own expense.

All About Taxation

I write this blog for folks who are looking to learn more about economics. And if you are in this group, you can’t help but have noticed that there’s been a bit of a brouhaha over taxes, both in the United States of America and in India.

ProPublica has obtained a vast trove of Internal Revenue Service data on the tax returns of thousands of the nation’s wealthiest people, covering more than 15 years. The data provides an unprecedented look inside the financial lives of America’s titans, including Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg. It shows not just their income and taxes, but also their investments, stock trades, gambling winnings and even the results of audits.
Taken together, it demolishes the cornerstone myth of the American tax system: that everyone pays their fair share and the richest Americans pay the most. The IRS records show that the wealthiest can — perfectly legally — pay income taxes that are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions, if not billions, their fortunes grow each year.

https://www.propublica.org/article/the-secret-irs-files-trove-of-never-before-seen-records-reveal-how-the-wealthiest-avoid-income-tax

What exactly is income tax? And what is its history?

Well, the first question is simple to answer (to begin with): it is a tax on your income. Ah, but that then begs the (pardon the puny pun) million dollar question: what is income?

But a question remained: What would count as income and what wouldn’t? In 1916, a woman named Myrtle Macomber received a dividend for her Standard Oil of California shares. She owed taxes, thanks to the new law. The dividend had not come in cash, however. It came in the form of an additional share for every two shares she already held. She paid the taxes and then brought a court challenge: Yes, she’d gotten a bit richer, but she hadn’t received any money. Therefore, she argued, she’d received no “income.”
Four years later, the Supreme Court agreed. In Eisner v. Macomber, the high court ruled that income derived only from proceeds. A person needed to sell an asset — stock, bond or building — and reap some money before it could be taxed.

https://www.propublica.org/article/the-secret-irs-files-trove-of-never-before-seen-records-reveal-how-the-wealthiest-avoid-income-tax

As the article I have excerpted this from goes on to say, folks were warning us even back then that this was not going to end well (it is nowhere close to ending, and it is not going well). But this talks to us about the difficulty of defining income, about which more in a bit. Here’s a brief snippet about how the idea of income taxes originated:

The universal taxes of ancient times, like the one that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem just before the birth of Jesus, were invariably head taxes, with one fixed sum to be paid by everybody, rather than income taxes. Before about 1800, only two important attempts were made to establish income taxes—one in Florence during the fifteenth century, and the other in France during the eighteenth. Generally speaking, both represented efforts by grasping rulers to mulct their subjects. According to the foremost historian of the income tax, the late Edwin R. A. Seligman, the Florentine effort withered away as a result of corrupt and inefficient administration. The eighteenth-century French tax, in the words of the same authority, “soon became honeycombed with abuses” and degenerated into “a completely unequal and thoroughly arbitrary imposition upon the less well-to-do classes,” and, as such, it undoubtedly played its part in whipping up the murderous fervor that went into the French Revolution.

Brooks, John. Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street (p. 93). Hodder & Stoughton. Kindle Edition.

That… is not reassuring.

The chapter on income tax from this excellent, excellent book makes for great reading. As it turns out, it was the (surprise, surprise) Civil War that finally provided the impetus for the imposition of an income tax across the length and breadth of the nation1 And the imposition was celebrated! Well, at least by some:

“I am taxed on my income! This is perfectly gorgeous! I never felt so important in my life before,” Mark Twain wrote in the Virginia City, Nevada, Territorial Enterprise after he had paid his first income-tax bill, for the year 1864—$36.82, including a penalty of $3.12 for being late. Although few other taxpayers were so enthusiastic, the law remained in force until 1872. It was, however, subjected to a succession of rate reductions and amendments, one of them being the elimination, in 1865, of its progressive rates, on the arresting ground that collecting 10 per cent on high incomes and lower rates on lower incomes constituted undue discrimination against wealth.

Brooks, John. Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street (p. 96). Hodder & Stoughton. Kindle Edition.

Back, as it were, to the future. Anand Giridharadas wrote an article in the New York Times about the ProPublica report:

Mr. Buffett is almost the perfectly made billionaire for this moment in which, at last, many Americans are beginning to question not only corruptions of the system but the matter of whether billionaires should exist at all. He doesn’t do the things the worst of them do. He isn’t in it for what they’re in it for. He clearly must care about money, but he also kind of doesn’t care about money. Even in his generosity, he has avoided the imperial lording over that others cannot resist.
And this is what makes him so troubling, because through him we are tempted into believing that a system can be defended that allows a man to accumulate more than $100 billion while people are sleeping, in hock to him, in his mobile homes, shortening their lives with the beverages he’s invested in, scampering around the warehouses whose nonunion status has redounded to his money pile.
It can’t. And who keeps us from seeing that simple, stark truth more effectively, more perniciously, than the Good Billionaire?

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/13/opinion/warren-buffett-billionaire-taxes.html

The second card in my three card trick is a response to this essay, from V Ananta Nageswaran2:

So, notwithstanding Anand Giridhardas, we can still think about the manner in which incomes and capital gains & dividends are taxed. I see three issues, at my level.
There needs to be a discussion on unrealised capital gains and dividends. Dividends are avoided and companies buy stocks back to avoid dividend tax. What if the tax policies take away that choice?
Second, even if we accept that only realised capital gains are to be taxed, why are they taxed at much lower rates than tax on wages?
Third, even if we accept this logic (which, in addition to the above arguments, is also a reflection of who made those laws, their incomes and wealth status, etc., over time and across the world) of the primacy of capital, for the sake of argument and hence accept the conclusion that capital gains will be treated differently from regular labour income, then the question is one of defining short-term and long-term. Why should short-term be just one year? In economics, anyone’s definition of short-term is not one year but a business cycle, i.e., minimum three years. Extending the definition of ‘short-term’ to 36 months from 12 months will earn more revenues.

https://thegoldstandardsite.wordpress.com/2021/06/19/the-inequity-of-the-tax-system/

That is, the author is saying that that are indeed problems with capital being taxed the way it is, but (as he points out elsewhere in the blog) the way forward is evolution, not revolution.

Which brings me to the third card: TALISMAN.

The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle – and that, of course, is the point of the excerpt above too. On the spectrum of Current System Bad:::Current System Good, reasonable people can and should argue about the “sweet spot”.


And if you are a student of economics (and especially public finances), where do you go to learn more before trying to figure out where you should be on this spectrum?

  1. Please read the chapter on income taxes from the book Business Adventures
  2. Read this essay by Tim Taylor (and note that it was written before the ProPublica report came out!)
  3. Farhad Manjoo, a while ago, on abolishing billionaires (and the response to that essay)
  4. Gulzar Natarajan on this issue
  5. And for a theoretical understanding – always a good idea for an issue as complex and important as this one – Chapters 20 and 21 from Stiglitz’ Economics of the Public Sector.
  1. do read the entire chapter, though. The snippet about the experiment in Rhode Island is fascinating.[]
  2. note that I am excerpting the outline of the argument, please visit the blog to read it in full[]

Notes from a paper about behavioral sciences and public policy

The title of the paper is “Overcoming behavioural failings: Insights for public administrators and policy makers“. The authors are Gulzar Natarajan and Dr. TV Somanathan. I found the points in the paper applicable in my own life, and suspect most of you will as well.

  1. Most modern advances in what is referred to as “new public management” focuses, they say, in institutions, processes and protocols. “Missing is the individual”.
  2. They focus on two areas: personal and professional. My notes today are form the first half of this paper, that is, the personal:
    1. Read and digest basic management principles from any one ‘standard’ text. Keep referring to this book throughout.
    2. Do not lick upwards and kick downwards.
    3. Classify work into three categories – the important, unimportant, and the rest. Be assiduous in following-up the important, ruthless with ignoring the unimportant and letting the system take care of it, and use judgement to delegate and intervene only when essential in case of the rest. Be prepared to accept reasonable or satisfactory quality in unimportant matters but seek excellence in important matters.
    4. Learn that you are part of a team, and work accordingly.

      (What this means in practice is that it is the institutional work that matters, not your own personal glory or legacy.)
    5. Writing is a skill which can be learnt and improved. Devote time and attention to improving your writing. Do write and re-write important drafts on policy matters until they convey exactly what you want them to convey. Think of possible ways your writing might be misinterpreted and change the wording accordingly to avoid ambiguity.

      (Write!)
    6. Be as courteous as possible as consistently as possible in your personal and professional life. Courtesy is twice blessed: It helps those who meet you, and enhances your professional effectiveness.
    7. To the extent that any decision is an exercise of judgement, benefitting one party or favouring one viewpoint, it is perfectly reasonable and fair for democratically elected governments and hierarchical superiors to make their informed choices even if contrary to the views expressed by us. As long as the due process has been followed, and there is no illegality, it is our duty to respect the decision and act on it. We need to move on with doing our work.

      (I am not sure I agree with this point. Or at least, I remain conflicted about how to think about it.)
    8. Never stop learning!
    9. Set up ways for feedback to reach you as quickly as possible, as anonymously as possible and as often as possible.
    10. Internships matter.

      They make the recommendation for IAS officers, but it is oh-so-true for academia! That is, more people in academia should step out of their cocoons and see how the real world works.
    11. Build out your network. Nurture it, grow it, tend to it.

      I am really, really bad at this!

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[]

The Solow Model in Action

One of the most useful models to know when you are thinking about the long term growth prospect of any nation is the Solow model. Or as Marginal Revolution University refers to it in what I think is the best video available about the topic online: The Super Simple Solow Model.

Anybody can (and everybody should) see all the videos in that series. What I’m going to attempt to do in today’s post is try and explain to you how to think about the Solow model, and also speak a little about why it (the Solow model) matters.

I’d written a series of short posts about the Solow Model about four years ago: if you (like me) prefer reading to viewing, here they are, in order:

  1. The difference between the long run and the short run
  2. How to think about long term growth
  3. What does capital mean in the context of economics?
  4. Small economies, big economies
  5. The importance of institutions
  6. Understanding depreciation

Now, today’s essay is not so much about the model, but about how to use the model to think about the real non-ivory-tower world.

I often say in classes that economic models are like photographs taken by smartphone cameras. They are abstractions of reality. They can’t possibly capture all the nuances, hues, details and features of whatever it is that you are photographing. And looking at the photograph gives you an idea of what it might have been like to actually be there – but you cannot possibly ever experience it yourself.

Similarly, a model is an abstraction of reality. It cannot possibly capture all that you need to know about the real world. And using a model as a crutch to get to grips with reality is like seeing a photograph and imagining yourself there. As a thought experiment, it’s fun. As a way to reach policy decisions, it is fraught with risk. 1


Noah Smith came up with an excellent post recently about the Global South, which triggered this essay. His essay is a must read, and in a loosely chronological sense, it speaks about the history of convergence in the world. More to the point, it helps one understand the point I was trying to make above:

Economists generally agreed that instead of unconditional convergence, countries showed “conditional convergence” — that poor countries could only reach parity with rich ones if they had broadly similar institutions and levels of human capital . The subtext was that poor countries just didn’t have what it took to become rich. On the political left, this was of course taken as evidence that developing countries were being held down by neocolonialism, or at least that the capitalist global economic system didn’t have what it took to lift nations out of poverty.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/checking-in-on-the-global-south)

But the story soon gets better:

Since the mid-1990s, developing countries began to converge toward levels of income of advanced countries. This process accelerated and became strongest in the 2000s…[This] is not driven by advanced nations lowering their growth performance but rather by developing countries raising theirs…Essentially, the entire distribution of growth amongst rich countries has remained stable over time; in contrast, the entire distribution of poor country growth has shifted up.

https://www.cgdev.org/sites/default/files/new-era-unconditional-convergence.pdf

And today, as Noah points out, the world is a much, much better place than it was about seventy years ago. Nations, particularly those in South East Asia, that would simply not have been thought about as having rapid growth prospects are today all but developed nation status (he mentions Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam and Bangladesh in particular) – and a great way to understand my little series about the Solow model and the MRU video is by reading this essay and reflecting on it.


But the basic point of the Solow model is this: growth matters. It is, in fact, the only thing that matters:

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

I came across this quote in an essay by Gulzar Natarajan, and the rest of the essay is worth reading in its entirety – but I’ll resist talking about it today – maybe tomorrow!


  1. Let me be clear: I am not criticizing modeling as an endeavor. I am simply stating that it has its limitations.[]

Two Very Different Takes

Ajay Shah had what I thought was a pretty good piece in the Business Standard the other day (h/t Murali Neelakantan). While the headline of the piece was “Price controls for vaccines?1, it was essentially about the best way to ensure delivery of the vaccine to every nook and cranny of India.

The great Indian vaccination story has begun. Private health care firms will be required for reaching the masses. A basic tenet of economic policy is that price controls work poorly. If price limits are brought in, this will limit private outreach to cities.

https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/price-controls-for-vaccines-121030700896_1.html

And to make his point, he used the example of demat securities settlement.2

In the event, non-interference prevailed: The price charged by DPs was left to market prices. Competition developed, and the prices charged to customers crashed. Competition ate away the profit rate in the easy urban sites and DPs got the incentive to go forth into the great Indian hinterland, looking for more business. This generated outreach.

https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/price-controls-for-vaccines-121030700896_1.html

Ajay Shah makes the point that this is how markets can work when allowed to, and uses this analogy to make the argument that governments should not cap the prices of vaccines (and their delivery).

So far, from an economists point of view, so good. Markets work when allowed to, and all is well with the world. But Gulzar Natarajan has a different point of view:

This is deceptive and an extremely misleading story. In fact it is shocking that this comparison could even be made. As I shall explain in brief, this extrapolation from the world of demat shares settlement to that of administration of vaccines is all logic with little understanding of the differences between the respective markets.

https://gulzar05.blogspot.com/2021/03/markets-are-not-solution-to-vaccine.html

He raises the following points:

  1. The tendency of those in rural areas to defer medical visits because of poverty/affordability concerns
  2. Share markets are about the luxury of choice. Vaccination isn’t.
  3. Vaccinations lead to large positive externalities3
  4. Market allocation in the face of deep inequality is problematic
  5. Private health clinics may not follow all follow-up protocols.4
  6. Effective markets need strong state capacity. Without it, price gouging, sub-standard medical equipment, fake vaccines are all more than possible.

Read the whole post, please, as usual. Towards the end, he makes the point that it is not about one or the other:

None of this is to say private market should not be part of the vaccine drive. A low enough price should be fixed and vaccines administered privately too. But coverage of the vast majority of Indians in remote and rural areas will have to be through the public system, as has always been the case with all other vaccines.

https://gulzar05.blogspot.com/2021/03/markets-are-not-solution-to-vaccine.html

None of this is meant to be a criticism of either Ajay Shah or Gulzar Natarajan, of course. The point of this post, instead, is to show you three things:

  1. “How might the author be wrong?” is a useful way to read everything.5
  2. The truth lies somewhere in the middle is a thumb-rule that fits almost everything. Especially Indian things. While there are disagreements that I have with Gulzar Natarajan’s piece, he is making the point that ignoring government (or public) delivery of vaccines is fraught with risk – and I agree.
  3. The guy who writes these posts (me, that is) himself didn’t focus enough on pts. 1 and 2 when reading Ajay Shah’s op-ed. Note to self: work harder!
  1. This will be behind a paywall, sorry[]
  2. Don’t worry if you don’t know what this means. Run a simple Google search and plunge right in to the first three articles. You’ll get a reasonably clear idea.[]
  3. I’m quoting him, ok?![]
  4. Of course, neither may public hospitals![]
  5. It’s also a useful way to attend classes[]