- “A few months ago, as I was reading Constance Reid’s excellent biography of Hilbert, I figured out if not the answer to this question, at least something that made me feel better about it. She writes:
Hilbert had no patience with mathematical lectures which filled the students with facts but did not teach them how to frame a problem and solve it. He often used to tell them that “a perfect formulation of a problem is already half its solution.”
A very short, but oh-so-readable essay from Paul Graham. Please read it for a variety of reasons, but mostly to understand that reading is a long term activity with a lot (a lot!) of positive payoffs in the long run.
- “When the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) measures economic output, it categorizes spending with the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA). Some of this spending, which is counted as C, I, and G, is spent on imported goods.1 As such, the value of imports must be subtracted to ensure that only spending on domestic goods is measured in GDP. For example, $30,000 spent on an imported car is counted as a personal consumption expenditure (C), but then the $30,000 is subtracted as an import (M) to ensure that only the value of domestic production is counted (Table 3). As such, the imports variable (M) functions as an accounting variable rather than an expenditure variable. To be clear, the purchase of domestic goods and services increases GDP because it increases domestic production, but the purchase of imported goods and services has no direct impact on GDP.”
From within the link to the Noah Smith article yesterday, a good, short explainer of GDP, and why imports don’t “reduce” from GDP.
- “In economics, there is no free lunch. While TV channels feel that they are saving money by not paying the experts, what they get in return is a total mess and not some meaningful, coherent programming, in which people can take away some learning at the end.”
Vivek Kaul explains why people on the news shout so much. Incentives – it’s all, always, about incentives!
- “In a 2009 summary paper of their respective decision-making sub-fields, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein spell out the conditions required for expertise to exist. They discover that in order for expert intuition to work, the practitioner needs to inhabit a domain where:The environment is regular. That is, the situation must be sufficiently predictable, with observable causal cues.
There must be ample opportunities to learn causal cues from the environment.”
An interesting article about whether ideas from one domain should be used in another, and under what circumstances.
- “Whether the East Asian Model will take hold in East Africa and beyond is not a given. But it also isn’t a stretch to see how the African “Lion economies” could accelerate their transformation by embracing the formula that successively produced the Asian Tigers and China.In his seminal Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen equated personal freedom with economic development. But to reach that objective requires traversing through the phase of “development as imitation” of successful models that came before.”
Can Africa achieve in this century what Asia did in the previous one, following the same playbook? This is going to be the most important question for this century, and this article helps you understand how to think about it. One useful way to start thinking about it, at any rate.
Teaching undergraduates is a whole lot of fun, because generally speaking, their curiosity hasn’t been completely killed just yet. And this seems to be true with the people who have chosen to attend the behavioral economics workshop as well – they’ve (hopefully voluntarily) chosen to spend their afternoons attending a workshop over the course of every workday this week. Catch ’em young!
We kickstarted things yesterday by speaking about ways and means to think about microeconomics in a rather conventional sense. I chose to not bore them to death by talking about utility functions and all of that, firstly because it is the worst way on the planet to get people thinking about economics, and secondly because they are all economics students to begin with – the indoctrination has been done by their colleges already.
I spoke instead about the Choices, Costs, Incentives and Horizons framework, which I have spoken about earlier on the blog. Within each of these concepts, however, I added a sprinkling of behavioral economics. What, for example, are your choices when confronted with a buffet spread?
And how long before you realize, if at all, that not eating it is also a choice? Sometimes, being presented with a choice to consume blinds us to the option of not doing so – which explains why checkout counters at supermarkets tend to have chewing gum on sale.
When it comes to costs, we spoke about opportunity costs and how it is often misunderstood – the people attending the workshop are paying me the fees of the program, plus they are paying fifteen hours of their time. Fifteen hours that they could have spent doing something else.
In addition, we spoke about sunk costs. My favorite example is of how I and my wife were finally able to go out for a movie together after the birth of our daughter – and we ended up watching Happy New Year. And yet, even though the movie was tripe of exceptional quality, we chose to sit through the whole thing. Neither of us enjoyed the movie, and by the end, every second was exquisite torture, but we went through the whole experience. This after I’ve been teaching the concept of the sunk cost fallacy for over a decade.
Incentives are both fairly well understood and applied in conventional economics – but how about negative incentives? Rather than reward yourself with a nice shirt if you lose weight, how about allowing a friend of yours to post a picture of you on Facebook where the paunch is especially noticeable? Which is likelier to be more effective?
Finally, horizons: exercise today evening, or finish an episode of your favorite series on Netflix? We tend to go for short term pleasure over long term gains – and that is to our detriment in the long run. But our brain, unfortunately, is not trained to think about long term consequences.
Finally, we spoke a little bit about signaling and it’s importance to us. That’s a topic deserving of a separate blog post entirely, but I will ask you guys a question I asked everybody in class:
Imagine you are able to attend the best college in the world, and are able to handpick the people who will teach you whatever courses you want. The ideal education, structured just the way you want it. The only problem is, you won’t get a degree at the end of it. Or, you could get, right here and now, a degree of your choice from whichever college you like – but you will not be able to attend a single class. Which of these options would you pick?
The question is based, of course, on a question that Bryan Caplan asks in his excellent book: The Case Against Education. Let me know your answer, I am genuinely interested.
Finally, we spoke about Kahneman’s “fast and slow” thinking. How and why it evolved the way it did, why it may have been of help in the fast, but isn’t much use in the world we live in today.
It was an exceptionally fun session, and hopefully it will continue in a similar vein for the rest of the week.
This week’s posts were going to be about podcasts that I listen to, but I’ll push that out to next week.
I and a colleague of mine at the Gokhale Institute (which is where I work) are running a five day seminar at the Institute on behavioral economics. This one is for undergraduate students only, but based on how this one turns out, we might do a couple more through the year. But for that reason, I figured we might take a look at behavioral economics is, and explore work being done in this area, and why it matters.
In this post, I’ll give you an overview of behavioral economics, and in the five subsequent posts that follow, I’ll detail what we spoke about in each session.
First things first: behavioral economics really is a tautology, because economics is the study of choice, and we make our choices given what we know and given what we feel.
The trouble is, modern economic theory (most, but not all of it) would tend to say that what we feel ought not to matter, and in fact doesn’t actually matter in the real world. Except we’ve all demolished a big fat bowl of ice-cream because we’re feeling blue, the diet be damned. We’ve all bought items on sale on Amazon, when we clearly had no need for them. And we’ve all chosen to play a game on the phone over completing a task at hand, and hang the consequences. I could go on (and not just where individuals are concerned, but firms and governments too!), but you get the picture.
We’re all predictably irrational.
In a sense, behavioral economics is about the first word in that link. As a social scientist, it’s not much use to say that we’re irrational. That’s akin to saying that there’s nothing that we can say, do or predict about the choices that all of us make.
But predictably irrational? Ah, how exactly? If our irrationality can actually be modeled, then perhaps we could understand how and why we make the choices we do. Even better, maybe we could push people towards eating more salads and less ice-cream. Although you should note that there are some people in my tribe who don’t necessarily think this to be a good idea.
Still, the study of
a) whether we think “rationally” or not, and…
b) if not, then can we think systematically about how we are “irrational” and why…
c) and can we use our findings from this exercise to make people, institutions and therefore societies behave differently (and hopefully better)…
…is the study of behavioral economics.
And the five day version (duly expanded) of this is what Savita Kulkarni and I will be talking about at Gokhale Institute over the course of the next five days. And I’ll keep you guys updated as we go along.