Imports, Exports and GDP

“The key is to understand that imports are also included in consumption, investment, and government spending. The real GDP breakdown looks like this:

  • GDP = Domestically produced consumption + Imported consumption + Domestically produced investment + Imported investment + Government spending on domestically produced stuff + Government spending on imported stuff + Exports – Imports

So you can see that while imports are subtracted from GDP at the end of this equation, they’re also added to the earlier parts of the equation. In other words, imports are first added to GDP and then subtracted out again. So the total contribution of imports on GDP is zero.”

That is an excerpt from a lovely little write-up by Noah Smith on his Substack, and one that I’ll be using whenever I teach macro. It’s lovely for many reasons, but most of all for the reason that the bullet point goes a very long way towards making the point that a lot of folks miss: you don’t get rich by importing less.

When I say “you”, I mean the country in question – and this equation, written out this way, helps us understand why. If you’re a student of macro, and are under the impression that India will get richer if only we imported lesser, think about the definition of GDP:

Gross domestic product (GDP) is the total monetary or market value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a specific time period.

https://www.investopedia.com/terms/g/gdp.asp

If you think about it, how can imports possibly qualify as being produced within a country’s borders? As Noah says, the equation can also be written like this:

GDP = Domestically produced consumption + Domestically produced investment + Government spending on domestically produced stuff + Exports

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/imports-do-not-subtract-from-gdp?s=r

Read the rest of Noah’s post, especially if you are a student of macroeconomics. It should help clear up a lot of basic, but important and often misunderstood ideas about GDP calculations.


https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2022/05/13/russia-is-on-track-for-a-record-trade-surplus

Russia has stopped publishing detailed monthly trade statistics. But figures from its trading partners can be used to work out what is going on. They suggest that, as imports slide and exports hold up, Russia is running a record trade surplus.
On May 9th China reported that its goods exports to Russia fell by over a quarter in April, compared with a year earlier, while its imports from Russia rose by more than 56%. Germany reported a 62% monthly drop in exports to Russia in March, and its imports fell by 3%. Adding up such flows across eight of Russia’s biggest trading partners, we estimate that Russian imports have fallen by about 44% since the invasion of Ukraine, while its exports have risen by roughly 8%.

https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2022/05/13/russia-is-on-track-for-a-record-trade-surplus

Think about the previous section, and try and answer this question: is Russia poorer or richer or unchanged because Russia isn’t importing as much, as measured by GDP and changes in GDP?

Well, Russia may be worse off, and Russians may be worse off. It’s leader?

As a result, analysts expect Russia’s trade surplus to hit record highs in the coming months. The iif reckons that in 2022 the current-account surplus, which includes trade and some financial flows, could come in at $250bn (15% of last year’s gdp), more than double the $120bn recorded in 2021. That sanctions have boosted Russia’s trade surplus, and thus helped finance the war, is disappointing, says Mr Vistesen. Ms Ribakova reckons that the efficacy of financial sanctions may have reached its limits. A decision to tighten trade sanctions must come next.
But such measures could take time to take effect. Even if the eu enacts its proposal to ban Russian oil, the embargo would be phased in so slowly that the bloc’s oil imports from Russia would fall by just 19% this year, says Liam Peach of Capital Economics, a consultancy. The full impact of these sanctions would be felt only at the start of 2023—by which point Mr Putin will have amassed billions to fund his war.

https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2022/05/13/russia-is-on-track-for-a-record-trade-surplus (Emphasis added)

Macro is hard! But it also matters, especially at times such as these.

The Solow Model and China

If you don’t know what the Solow model is, here is a great place to get started:

There are 11 videos in that series, and if you can spare the time, please watch all of them. Just two a day (they’re not more than 5 minutes each), and you’ll be done come the weekend.

But in effect, here is what the Solow model says:

  1. Output for a nation is a function of three (actually four) things:
    1. Capital (K): Buidings, ports, dams… infrastructure, basically.
    2. Education Augmented Labor (eL): The amount of hours that a person is able to put in to their work, but with the built in assumption that an educated person is likely to be more productive than a person without education.
    3. Ideas: Read the paragraph below to get a sense of what this means in practice.

Think about this blogpost that you are reading. I wrote it using my laptop, which is my capital. I will spend about an hour (that’s my plan, I’ll update you towards the end of this post about how well it worked out) writing it, and that’s the labor that I’ll be putting into this post. The fact that I have been “educated” in economics should mean that this post will be easier to write for me than, say, a gardener. The gardener could have written this post as well, of course, but it’s safe to assume that she would first have had to learn about the Solow model, and that, presumably, would have taken longer.

So that’s K and eL where the output (this blogpost) is concerned. But now think about it this way: what if another person, with a similar level of economics education as mine were to write this blogpost instead of me? Would that person have chosen this video, and these paragraphs to explain the Solow model? Maybe they would have recommended some other video, or some other podcast, or chosen to share details of an online textbook in which the Solow model is explained. That’s one way to think about ideas.

And so when you combine the capital (the laptop), the labor (the time I spend on this blogpost, given my education levels) and the ideas (what I choose to put into this blog post, and how), you get the output you’re reading right now.

What if I double the capital? Will the blogpost be done in half the time? Say I have an external monitor attached to my laptop – will two screens mean finishing the blogpost in half the time? It will save some time, but not by a factor of two, surely. Trust me, I have tried.

What if I double the labor? Hire an assistant to write this blogpost with me? The way I work, trust me, it will probably take longer! What if I go get a post-doc, to augment my education? Will that save me time? The hysterical laughter you hear in the background is the response of any PhD/post-doc student anywhere in the world, and that sound means a loud and resounding no.

In a sense, the Solow model asks these and related questions, and answers them using some graphs and equations. Except, of course, the Solow model does it for not one guy writing one blog, but for an entire nation at a time. There is no sense in me explaining the whole model over here, for it would be a case of me reinventing what is already a very good wheel. Please watch the videos.


But the Solow model is a remarkably useful way to get a handle on the long run growth prospects of a country. Is India likely to grow in the future? Well, is it going to add to its capital stock? Yes. Is it going to augment it’s stock of education augmented labor? Yes. Is it likely to produce more ideas than it is right now? Yes. And so the growth prospects for India look reasonably good.

Of course, there is more to the Solow model. All of this holds true given a strong and stable political system, well established rules of law, and strong and capable institutions. But so long as you believe that these are likely to continue to be so in the Indian case, you should be bullish on India.

What about, say, Japan? It has a capital stock that is more in need of replacement than new construction ( a feature of the Solow model that we have not discussed here, called depreciation), so it is unlikely that it will grow its capital stock too much. Here’s an example of what I mean. What about it’s stock of education augmented labor? Well, the news ain’t very good. Ideas? Trending upwards, but not by much. So if I had to bet on which country would grow more over the next twenty years, I would bet on India, not Japan.

Bear in mind that this is a model, and like all models, it is an imprecise abstraction of reality. So it is possible that at the end of the twenty year period, we find out that I am completely wrong. But if you think the Solow Model is a reasonably good model, you ought to bet the way I did.


So what about China?

Well, now, that’s a whole different story, and one that Noah Smith talks about in a recent blog post. Long story short, he doesn’t think China’s growth prospects are that great.

But the story is a little more complicated than that. The Solow model is a good model, sure, but it’s not as if the Chinese authorities/experts aren’t aware of the problem. And in his blog post, Noah looks at arguments put forth by two people who know a thing or two about China, and analyzes them critically.

The first argument is that sure, China’s demographics are on a downward trend, but what if we raised the retirement age for Chinese workers? Would that not solve the problem? Noah says no, probably not, because firms made of exclusively old folks isn’t necessarily a good idea. I wholeheartedly agree.

What about adding to China’s urbanization, and therefore its infrastructure? After all, China’s urbanization rate is “only” 64%. The inverted quotes around only in the previous sentence is because we, in India, are officially at 31%, but as in the case of China, it very much is a function of how you define urbanization. But similarly, in China, the urbanization rate is actually way more than 64%, and the Lewis turning point has already taken place in China, or will do so any moment.

And about ideas, well, China is an even more complicated story. Noah makes the point that China’s industrial policy is essentially a one-man army that is trying something that has never been tried before, and Noah is betting on it not quite working out. And given the events of the last year and a half or so, it is hard to disagree.

And so the Solow Model would probably tell you that China is unlikely to grow as fast in the near future as it did in the recent past, and even if you take into account potential adjustments, it likely will still be the case that China’s growth rate will start to plateau.


Please, read the entire post by Noah. But if you are a student of economics who has not yet met the Solow Model, begin there, and then get on to Noah’s post – your mileage will increase considerably.

More Than An Inconvenient Iota of Truth

Regular people everywhere are being deprived of purchasing power — and tricked by chauvinists and opportunists into believing that their interests are fundamentally at odds. A global conflict between economic classes within countries is being misinterpreted as a series of conflicts between countries with competing interests.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/book-review-trade-wars-are-class?s=r

An extract twice removed, as it were, for Noah Smith extracted this bit in his excellent review of a book called Trade Wars are Class Wars, by Michael Pettis and Matthew C. Klein. I have not read it yet, but it has shot to the top of my reading list.

Any student who has attended a class in which I have taught aspects of international trade will tell you that I bore them to death with one particular theme: that the textbook study of international trade doesn’t adequately cover (in my opinion) the study of inequality.

Now that might sound weird if you are a student new to the study of international trade. What on earth, you might think, does inequality have to do with international trade?

Well, here’s the thesis put forward in the book, via Noah:

Trade Wars are Class Wars offers a provocative thesis — that what looks like economic competition between nations is actually just a manifestation of economic competition between classes within those nations.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/book-review-trade-wars-are-class?s=r

Again, I haven’t read the book, but this is slightly confusing to me. I have always thought of the causality running the other way around: increased competition between nations has exacerbated economic competition (and therefore inequality) within nations. It would seem that the authors think of it differently. Excellent, more things to ponder upon!


Why do I think that international trade is one causal factor where inequality is concerned? Let’s begin with an excellent article published by The Economist a few years ago:

In rich countries, skilled workers are abundant by international standards and unskilled workers are scarce. As globalisation has advanced, college-educated workers have enjoyed faster wage gains than their less educated countrymen, many of whom have suffered stagnant real earnings. On the face of it, this wage pattern is consistent with the Stolper-Samuelson theorem. Globalisation has hurt the scarce “factor” (unskilled labour) and helped the abundant one.

https://www.economist.com/schools-brief/2016/08/06/an-inconvenient-iota-of-truth

Please, pretty please with a cherry on top, read the whole thing, especially if you have studied the Stolper Samuelson theorem. This article remains the best explainer that I have come across.

But what is being said here should be at least somewhat surprising to a student just beginning to study international trade. Trade, it would seem, may well be welfare enhancing, but it does not affect everybody a) equally and b) not necessarily positively! But, you might think as an Indian student, this might imply that unskilled labor in India might benefit from international trade.

Remember, one thing a good student of economics always bears in mind is a specific question: relative to what? That is, unskilled labor in India might well benefit from international trade, but relative to what? And the answer turns out to be, well, an unexpected one:

But look closer and puzzles remain. The theorem is unable to explain why skilled workers have prospered even in developing countries, where they are not abundant.

https://www.economist.com/schools-brief/2016/08/06/an-inconvenient-iota-of-truth

What might explain this?


Enter Professors Maskin and Kremer:

Nineteenth-century economist David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage predicts that China’s poorest workers should benefit most from the growth in trade. Before globalization, that country had a huge supply of unskilled workers and relatively few high-skill workers, who were thus in high demand; the situation was just the opposite in the United States. When two such countries begin to trade, the theory states, the less-developed nation has the advantage in producing relatively low-tech products—so demand and income for under-educated workers should shoot up, while their high-skill countrymen suffer. Thus, the theory predicts, globalization should lower inequality in the developing world.
Instead, as Gates professor of developing societies Michael Kremer explains, in much of the developing world, “The empirical evidence is not really consistent with the idea that trade is reducing inequality.” He and Adams University Professor Eric Maskin, a 2007 Nobel laureate in economics, have therefore proposed a new model to help explain the discrepancy between traditional theory and current reality. The key, they say, lies in a more nuanced understanding of how global production cycles sort workers into different jobs.

https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2015/03/how-globalization-begets-inequality

Here’s one way to understand their model. Note, before you proceed to read, that this is my explanation of their model, and I have simplified it a bit. I’ll add more nuance in as we go along:

Think of two countries, and two types of workers in both countries. Let’s say country 1 has Type A and Type B workers, and Country 2 has Type A1 and Type B2 workers. A and A1 are skilled workers, and B and B2 are unskilled workers. Maskin and Kremer make the point that international trade and the advent of modern globalization has resulted in skilled workers across countries “matching” with each other. As a result, their incomes go up, relative to unskilled workers in their own countries. So while the Stolper Samuelson theorem may be unable to explain why skilled workers have prospered even in developing countries, we now have a plausible answer to the question.

As an illustrative example, consider the fact that I joined a multinational firm called Genpact straight out of college.

And of course, one can think of many countries, not just two, and one can imagine a spectrum of skill sets across workers, rather than a binary framing. The point still holds!


And to complicate the matter further still, there may well be explicit/implicit choices made by policymakers in their own countries.

Back in the good old days, FT Alphaville used to be a free blog. And about seven years ago or so, it carried an excellent, excellent post written by Isabella Kaminska. The title of the (two-part) post was “What Are Chinese Capital Controls, Really?”. The post is a must-read for any student of international trade, but this excerpt is especially relevant for us today:

What those who accused China of using its exchange rate to gain advantage probably misunderstood was that it wasn’t the currency which was being undervalued, it was the people.


There are several other reasons why China should leave its currency unchanged. Contrary to widespread perception, China does not compete on the basis of an undervalued currency. It competes mainly in terms of labour costs, technology, quality control, infrastructure and an unwavering commitment to reform.

https://www.ft.com/content/d11a4c5e-d5fb-32f4-a606-e64d1483cea1 (Emphasis Added)

“It competes mainly in terms of labor costs” is a dry, academic way to put it. Elsewhere in this post, Isabella puts it much more plainly, when she says that it sucked to be a Chinese worker. And it did! Not just because of low labor costs, but because of a whole host of other reasons that should excite students of macroeconomics. Read the whole thing to get a richer understanding of how China has gone about doing what it has. As I always say to folks in my classes who wish we “grew like China”: be careful what you wish for!

You might also want to take a look at David Autor’s work on The China Shock. A good place to begin would be Russ Roberts’ podcast with David Autor, and for those who are interested, there’s a follow-up symposium about this episode as well. The point I’m making is that where trade between China and the USA is concerned, it would seem that inequality has gone up in both countries, but for different reasons.

This applies to international trade in general, of course – I’ve used China and US as examples because we are more familiar with them.

So, to return to the original question: are trade wars class wars? And more importantly, are class wars causing trade wars, or is it the other way around?

And so here we get to the book’s primary thesis. The authors only return to it in the conclusion, having reached it by a circuitous route that took them through history, data, theory, and more history.
The conclusion they ultimately draw is more nuanced than the one initially promised (and that’s a good thing, since nuance is good). In Klein and Pettis’ telling, global imbalances feed inequality in the U.S., but the fundamental cause isn’t inequality.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/book-review-trade-wars-are-class?s=r

Yup, that I completely agree with, and “get”. But it doesn’t solve the original problem of course, it only helps us understand that it exists: trade does seem to exacerbate inequality.

How we should think of this problem, how we might resolve it, and with what consequences, is likely to be fertile ground for economic research in the years to come. If you are a student wondering about how to go about picking a topic to work on, well, please do consider this one! And a good place to begin would be Noah’s post, (and the book itself sounds like a must read too).


Bonus material alert: I simply had to share this extract from Noah’s blog, written by Paul Krugman. If you have recently studied macro, you can thank me later for bringing this to your attention:

[E]conomic explanations…have to [describe] how the actions of individuals…add up to interesting behavior at the aggregate level.
And the key point is that individuals in general neither know nor care about aggregate accounting identities…. [I]f you want to claim that a rise in savings translates directly into a fall in the trade deficit, without any depreciation of the currency, you have to tell me how that rise in savings induces domestic consumers to buy fewer foreign goods, or foreign consumers to buy more domestic goods. Don’t tell me about how the identity must hold, tell me about the mechanism that induces the individual decisions that make it hold…. [O]nce you do that, you realize that something else has to be happening — a slump in the economy, a depreciation of the real exchange rate, it depends on the circumstances, but it can’t be immaculate, with nothing moving to enforce the identity….
Accounting identities… inform your stories about how people behave, [they do] not act as a substitute for behavioral analysis.

https://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/16/mistaken-identities-wonkish/?pagewanted=all

Why Is Reading the News Online Such a Pain?

Livemint, Hindu Business Line, Business Standard, Times of India, The New York Times, The Hindu, The Washington Post, The Economist, Bloomberg Quint and Noah Smith’s Substack.

These are, as of now, my sources of news online that I pay for.

There are other newsletters that I subscribe to and pay for (The Browser is an excellent example), and I read stuff published in other newspapers too, but I’m restricting myself to only the current news sources that I pay for. I would like to subscribe to the Financial Times and to Stratechery too, but my budget line begins to cough firmly and insistently at this point, more’s the pity.

But here’s the thing: reading news online sucks.


Some are worse than others, and I’m very much looking at you, Business Standard. Their app is a joke, and the number of times one has to sign in while reading the paper on a browser isn’t funny. Some are, relatively speaking, better. The NYT website and app are both pretty good, as is the Economist. But still, it isn’t friction free, and there really should be a way to get the user experience to be better than it is right now.

And more than better, a more urgent word is uniform. Here’s a simple use case: let’s say I want to read articles on the current lockdown in Shanghai. I have to go to each website, and either run a search, or navigate to the appropriate section. But on each website, the search button will be located in a slightly different place, with a slightly different user experience. Each website while have their own navigation system. Each website will have different ways to filter search results.

Some will allow you to copy excerpts, some won’t. Some will allow clips and force an appendage at the end (“Read More At XYZ” – I’m looking at you, ToI). But by the time I finish visiting the third website to read about the topic I wanted to – current lockdowns in Shanghai – I’m pretty much done out of sheer exasperation.


It shouldn’t be this hard!

Workarounds kind of exist. For example, I can add the RSS feeds to Feedly, or any other feed reader of your choice. If you’re not familiar with Feedly, or RSS readers in general, here is an old post about it. But the reason I say kind of is because most (if not all) newspapers will not provide the full article in the RSS feed. You have to click through to read the full thing.

Not much use, is it?

Which, to be clear, is entirely understandable. User tracking, ads, and all the rest of it, I get it. But it does mean that Feedly isn’t a great way to keep track of all these articles in one place.

What I would really like is an app/service that aggregates all news sources in full in one place, and allows me to sign in to premium news sources via that app/service.

Does such a service exist? Or are there workflows that solve this problem?

Please, do let me know!

On Noahlism

About the title of today’s blogpost: I couldn’t resist, I’m sorry. The post is about something Noah Smith calls the “The Two Paper Rule”, about which much more below – but the title is courtesy Paul Krugman. About which, also, more below.


Noah wrote this post a while ago, in May 2017. His original post is about a Very Simple Idea that hopefully solves a Very Real Problem. Here’s the Very Real Problem:

I don’t know why academic literatures are so often referred to as “vast” (the phrase goes back well over a century), but it seems like no matter what topic you talk about, someone is always popping up to inform you that there is a “vast literature” on the topic already. This often serves to shut down debate, because it amounts to a demand that before you talk about something, you need to go read voluminous amounts of what others have already written about it. Since vast literatures take many, many hours to read, this represents a significant demand of time and effort. If the vast literature comprises 40 papers, each of which takes an hour to read, that’s one week of full-time work equivalent that people are demanding as a cost of entry just to participate in a debate! So the question is: Is it worth it?

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/the-two-paper-rule?s=r

Anybody who has suffered through a PhD knows the problem all too well. These days, anybody who has been asked to do a literature review for any paper knows the problem all too well. There is just too much to read.

And folks who want to make sure that uppity folks don’t get, well, too uppity always have a fail-safe defense at the ready: “Have you read all the relevant literature?”. There’s so much stuff that is being published about everything imaginable, that you’re never going to be able to get through even a fraction of it. Why, there’s even a law about it! And there’s a law about the law, which only goes to prove the point further, I suppose.


And here’s Noah’s Very Simple Idea to solve this Very Real Problem:

My solution to this problem is what I call the Two Paper Rule. If you want me to read the vast literature, cite me two papers that are exemplars and paragons of that literature. Foundational papers, key recent innovations – whatever you like (but no review papers or summaries). Just two. I will read them.
If these two papers are full of mistakes and bad reasoning, I will feel free to skip the rest of the vast literature. Because if that’s the best you can do, I’ve seen enough.
If these two papers contain little or no original work, and merely link to other papers, I will also feel free to skip the rest of the vast literature. Because you could have just referred me to the papers cited, instead of making me go through an extra layer, I will assume your vast literature is likely to be a mud moat.
And if you can’t cite two papers that serve as paragons or exemplars of the vast literature, it means that the knowledge contained in that vast literature must be very diffuse and sparse. Which means it has a high likelihood of being a mud moat.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/the-two-paper-rule?s=r

I love this idea, and for the following reasons. One, I have an immediate repartee whenever I’m attacked with the “But have you read the literature?” question. And it’s not just a repartee, but a genuine request that serves two purposes. The person asking the question had better be able to come up with at least two papers on the spot. There is otherwise not much point in they having asked the question! Second, assuming the person does come up with two papers I haven’t read, there’s more to read and more to learn.

But second, as a student, what a wonderful way to start building up a repository of papers about a series of subjects! Always ask your profs, no matter the subject, about the two papers worth reading about today’s topic, and keep a running list. (Hint: this is a great way to spend a summer!)

Third, and I’m personally very curious about the results in this case, what about asking young profs and old profs this very question about the same subject? If the answers differ, this is a field worth examining rather more deeply, for it obviously has evolved fairly rapidly. I did my PhD in business cycles, and trust me, the answers would never have been the same – by age, adherence to a particular school of macroeconomics thought, or even by nationality.


Paul Krugman loved the idea (Noah links to Krugman’s blog towards the end of Noah’s blog post, but the link seems to be down. The excerpt below is from Google’s cache):

What about trade? Autor/Dorn/Hanson on the China shock may not be the last word, but surely a revelatory approach. In a strange way, I’d put Subramanian and Kessler in the same category: realizing that this globalization is different from anything that came before is a big deal.
I guess that in a way I’m pushing back against Noah’s nihilism (noahlism?) even while endorsing his method. I think there has been a lot of good economics done, even if there are also vast literatures not worth your time.

Click here to access the link, too long to post in its entirety

… and you now know, of course, where the title of today’s post comes from! What I think Krugman is getting at when he refers to his pushing back against Noah’s idea is that perhaps just two papers is too restrictive. And if that be the case, Tyler Cowen agrees:

The difference between total value and marginal value may be relevant. You might conclude a field literature has low total value, but the marginal value of learning more about that area still could be quite high. That is in part because muddy fields and results don’t spread so readily, and so dipping into the muck can yield some revelations. That is another reason why I would not offer the “two paper standard” as practical advice.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2017/05/vast-empirical-literature.html

I have quoted only one of Tyler’s points (he’s got nine others), but in general, I don’t think we should be taking the two part of the two paper rule as being sacrosanct. In some cases you may need to read five, in some rarer cases ten. So long as the number is reasonable (and the standard will change), we can still live with the spirit of the two paper rule.


But if you are a student in college, the two paper rule is a good way to build up a repository of about fifty odd papers that you Really Should Have Read. Twenty five courses (roughly speaking), two papers each.

Well, get started! 🙂

Game Theory and Nuclear War

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But back to game theory and nukes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… except it ain’t really about game theory!

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

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

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

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

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

The Chinese Tech Crackdown, Take 2

On Tuesday, I ended my post with this:

At the moment, and that as a consequence of having written all of this out, this is where I find myself:
China is optimizing for power, and is willing to give up on innovation in the consumer internet space. America is optimizing for innovation in the consumer internet space, and is willing to cede power to big tech in terms of shaping up what society looks like in the near future.
Have I framed this correctly? If yes, what are the potential ramifications in China, the US and the rest of the world? What ought to be the follow-up questions? Why? Who else should I be following and reading to learn more about these issues?

https://econforeverybody.com/2021/07/27/the-three-article-problem/

How might I have been wrong? V Ananta Nageswaran and Nitin Pai wrote posts recently that helped me learn about some answers to at least the first of my questions above.

Let’s find out how I might have been wrong!


Noah Smith had hypothesized that the tech crackdown is because China’s goals are about asserting its power internationally. And not soft power, but the tanks and boots on the ground type power.

China may simply see things differently. It’s possible that the Chinese government has decided that the profits of companies like Alibaba and Tencent come more from rents than from actual value added — that they’re simply squatting on unproductive digital land, by exploiting first-mover advantage to capture strong network effects, or that the IP system is biased to favor these companies, or something like that. There are certainly those in America who believe that Facebook and Google produce little of value relative to the profit they rake in; maybe China’s leaders, for reasons that will remain forever opaque to us, have simply reached the same conclusion.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/why-is-china-smashing-its-tech-industry

Nitin Pai disagrees:

Now, it’s unclear if the opportunity costs of talent are so stark in China that the government must crack down on consumer internet companies in order to incentivise people to get into hardware. But Smith’s explanation is consistent with the popular view that China’s leaders are astute and inscrutable strategists who think really long term.
..
..
My answer is simple: it’s about political power. In fact, if we frame the question differently, the answer becomes readily apparent: “Why is the autocratic leader of the Chinese Communist Party attacking media companies that directly reach almost everyone in the country?” Because size, reach and control of consumer data gives them narrative power comparable to what the Party has. Further, the ability to tap foreign capital gives them more freedom, albeit of the kind with Chinese characteristics. The Party doesn’t like that. And Xi likes it even less. That is why he moved aggressively to pre-empt a challenge to the Party’s narrative dominance and preserve its monopoly on power.

https://www.nitinpai.in/2021/07/27/why-china-is-attacking-its-consumer-internet-companies

Another way to think about it: it is about soft power, but the soft power that the CCP would like to project to its own people. There is only one storyteller that shapes the societal narrative in China, and anybody else who wants to play is going to be cut down to size. Ruthlessly.

(Of course, it is not just about soft power being projected to its own people. But nobody in China is crazy enough to want to play the hard power game with the CCP. That’s a well established monopoly. But Nitin is saying that the CCP wants all aspects of power to be within its complete control, soft and hard.)

As he puts it towards the end of his post:

It’s consistent with what it has been doing since Mao Zedong’s time: ruthlessly cutting down challenges to its hold on Chinese minds.
That’s it, folks. Nothing more to see here.

https://www.nitinpai.in/2021/07/27/why-china-is-attacking-its-consumer-internet-companies

Ananta Nageswaran also blogged about this yesterday:

In the meantime, a blog post by Noah Smith, an economics teacher and a (former?) columnist for Bloomberg wrote that China’s crackdown on consumer-internet companies was to ensure that China’s financial and intellectual resources were not diverted for creating low value addition. It did not strike him that such an explanation – if it were true – did not do any credit to China. It reeks of central planning and omniscience. Two, even if it were true and even if it was meant to be a benign explanation, malign explanations cannot be ruled and need not be ruled out.
Mutually exclusive explanations help keep the narrative simple and, two, it helps make the narrator appear smart because he/she has figured out the ultimate explanation. More often that not, reality is grey. Or, it has many shades.

https://thegoldstandardsite.wordpress.com/2021/07/28/fintech-edtech-and-china/

In other words, he’s saying that even if what Noah is saying makes sense, there is more to it than that. It’s not just the opportunity cost of having some of the best minds in China work on consumer tech. What else might it be? Ananta Nageswaran finds himself in agreement with Nitin Pai:

I agree. It is political power and the interpretation (of Xi and correctly so) that information (Nitin calls it mindshare) about people’s behaviour that these companies have give them the ability (and the chance) to set the narrative later, in Xi’s thinking, seizing it from the CCP.

https://thegoldstandardsite.wordpress.com/2021/07/28/fintech-edtech-and-china/

A minor point I would like to make here: I don’t think information and mindshare are the same thing, though they certainly are related. The information that tech firms have allows them to shape (sometimes in entirely unexpected ways!) the narrative, and therefore influence mindshare. Information is the tool and mindshare is the outcome – or at least, that is how I see it.

Please read Sanjay Anandram’s quotes from that blogpost too. I learnt about (and am going to shamelessly borrow) the RFRE principle.


So is it Noah’s story, or Nitin and Ananta Nageswaran’s? Regular readers know what’s coming next: the truth lies somewhere in the middle! Or at least, that’s my take, and it seems to be Ananta Nageswaran’s as well:

Of the three explanations that have been on offer, Noah Smith’s is the least persuasive. In some respects, Nitin and Sanjay are aligned and they diverge in some other aspects.
As always, the real motivation behind some of the recent decisions of the government in China will have elements of all three and more.

https://thegoldstandardsite.wordpress.com/2021/07/28/fintech-edtech-and-china/

To a student reading this: spectrum based thinking is a gift. Reasonable people can and should argue about where the truth lies, but always think intervals, never point estimates.

And having read all of the pieces that I have linked to across these two posts, I find myself in the same space on the spectrum as Ananta Nageswaran. That is, it’s not just the Noah Smith/Dan Wang argument at play (regarding which, Noah has updates. Scroll to the bottom of the post where he links to pieces that bolster his argument). But it is more about the CCP asserting its power.

Ananta Nagewaran ends with a Bruno Maçães quote: “the main players compete not under a common set of rules but in order to define what the rules are”.

It is a weird coincidence, but I just introduced some students to Frederich List yesterday. The more things change…

The Three Article Problem

I’ve been mulling over three separate columns/posts/interviews over the past few days. Today’s post was supposed to be me reflecting on my thoughts about all of them together, but as it turns out, I have more questions than I do thoughts.

Worse (or if you think like I do, better) I don’t even have a framework to go through these questions in my own head. That is to say, I do not have a mental model that helps me think about which questions to ask first, and which later, and why.

So this is not me copping out from writing today’s post. This is me asking all of you for help. What framework should I be using to think about these three pieces of content together?

All three posts revolve around technology, and two are about the Chinese tech crackdown. Two are about innovation in tech and America. And one of the three is, obviously, the intersection set.


The first is a write-up from Noah Smith’s Substack (which you should read, and if you can afford it, pay for. Note that I am well over my budget for subscribing to content for this year, so I don’t. But based on what I have read of his free posts, I have no hesitation in recommending it to you.)

In other words, the crackdown on China’s internet industry seems to be part of the country’s emerging national industrial policy. Instead of simply letting local governments throw resources at whatever they think will produce rapid growth (the strategy in the 90s and early 00s), China’s top leaders are now trying to direct the country’s industrial mix toward what they think will serve the nation as a whole.
And what do they think will serve the nation as a whole? My guess is: Power. Geopolitical and military power for the People’s Republic of China, relative to its rival nations.
If you’re going to fight a cold war or a hot war against the U.S. or Japan or India or whoever, you need a bunch of military hardware. That means you need materials, engines, fuel, engineering and design, and so on. You also need chips to run that hardware, because military tech is increasingly software-driven. And of course you need firmware as well. You’ll also need surveillance capability, for keeping an eye on your opponents, for any attempts you make to destabilize them, and for maintaining social control in case they try to destabilize you.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/why-is-china-smashing-its-tech-industry

As always, read the whole thing. But in particular, read his excerpts from Dan Wang’s letters from 2019 and 2020. It goes without saying that you should subscribe to Dan Wang’s annual letters (here are past EFE posts that mention Dan Wang). As Noah Smith says, China is optimizing for power, and is willing to pay for it by sacrificing, at least in part, the “consumer internet”.

That makes sense, in the sense that I understand the argument.


The second is an excellent column in the Economist, from its business section. Schumpeter is a column worth reading almost always, but this edition in particular was really thought-provoking. The column starts off by comparing how China and the United States of America are dealing with the influence of “big” technology firms.

As the column says, when it comes to the following:

  1. The speed with which China has dealt with the problem
  2. The scope of its tech crackdown
  3. The harshness of the punishments (fines is just one part of the Chinese government’s arsenal)

… China has America beat hollow. As Noah Smith argues, China is optimizing for power, and has done so for ages. As he mentions elsewhere in his essay, “in classic CCP fashion, it was time to smash”. Well, they have.

But the concluding paragraph of the Schumpeter column is worth savoring in full, and over multiple mugs of coffee:

But autarky carries its own risks. Already, Chinese tech darlings are cancelling plans to issue shares in America, derailing a gravy train that allowed Chinese firms listed there to reach a market value of nearly $2trn. The techlash also risks stifling the animal spirits that make China a hotbed of innovation. Ironically, at just the moment China is applying water torture to its tech giants, both it and America are seeing a flurry of digital competition, as incumbents invade each other’s turf and are taken on by new challengers. It is a time for encouragement, not crackdowns. Instead of tearing down the tech giants, American trustbusters should strengthen what has always served the country best: free markets, rule of law and due process. That is the one lesson America can teach China. It is the most important lesson of all.

https://www.economist.com/business/2021/07/24/china-offers-a-masterclass-in-how-to-humble-big-tech-right

This makes sense, in the sense that I understand the argument being made. Given what little I understand of economics and how the world works, I am in complete agreement with the idea being espoused.


The third is an interview of Mark Zuckerberg by Casey Newton of the Verge.

It is a difficult interview to read, and it is also a great argument for why we should all read more science fiction (note that the title of today’s post is a little bit meta, and that in more ways than one). Read books by Neal Stephenson. Listen to his conversation with Tyler Cowen. Read these essays by Matthew Ball.

Towards the end of the interview, Casey Newton asks Mark Zuckerberg about the role of the government, and the importance of public spaces, in the metaverse. Don’t worry right now if the concept of the metaverse seems a little abstract. Twenty years ago, driverless cars and small devices that could stream for you all of the world’s content (ever produced) also seemed a little abstract. Techno-optimism is great, I heavily recommend it to you.

Here is Mark Zuckerberg’s answer:

I certainly think that there should be public spaces. I think that’s important for having healthy communities and a healthy sphere. And I think that those spaces range from things that are government-built or administered, to nonprofits, which I guess are technically private, but are operating in the public interest without a profit goal. So you think about things like Wikipedia, which I think is really like a public good, even though it’s run by a nonprofit, not a government.
One of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot is: there are a set of big technology problems today that, it’s almost like 50 years ago the government, I guess I’m talking about the US government here specifically, would have invested a ton in building out these things. But now in this country, that’s not quite how it’s working. Instead, you have a number of Big Tech companies or big companies that are investing in building out this infrastructure. And I don’t know, maybe that’s the right way for it to work. When 5G is rolled out, it’s tough for a startup to really go fund the tens of billions of dollars of infrastructure to go do that. So, you have Verizon and AT&T and T-Mobile do it, and that’s pretty good, I guess.
But there are a bunch of big technology problems, [like] defining augmented and virtual reality in this overall metaverse vision. I think that that’s going to be a problem that is going to require tens of billions of dollars of research, but should unlock hundreds of billions of dollars of value or more. I think that there are things like self-driving cars, which seems like it’s turning out to be pretty close to AI-complete; needing to almost solve a lot of different aspects of AI to really fully solve that. So that’s just a massive problem in terms of investment. And some of the aspects around space exploration. Disease research is still one that our government does a lot in.
But I do wonder, especially when we look at China, for example, which does invest a lot directly in these spaces, how that is kind of setting this up to go over time. But look, in the absence of that, yeah, I do think having public spaces is a healthy part of communities. And you’re going to have creators and developers with all different motivations, even on the mobile internet and internet today, you have a lot of people who are interested in doing public-good work. Even if they’re not directly funded by the government to do that. And I think that certainly, you’re going to have a lot of that here as well.
But yeah, I do think that there is this long-term question where, as a society, we should want a very large amount of capital and our most talented technical people working on these futuristic problems, to lead and innovate in these spaces. And I think that there probably is a little bit more of a balance of space, where some of this could come from government, but I think startups and the open-source community and the creator economy is going to fill in a huge amount of this as well.

https://www.theverge.com/22588022/mark-zuckerberg-facebook-ceo-metaverse-interview

I think he’s saying that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and god knows I’m sympathetic to that argument. But who decides where in the middle? Who determines the breadth of this spectrum, governments or businesses? With what objective, over what time horizon, and with what opportunity costs?


At the moment, and that as a consequence of having written all of this out, this is where I find myself:

China is optimizing for power, and is willing to give up on innovation in the consumer internet space. America is optimizing for innovation in the consumer internet space, and is willing to cede power to big tech in terms of shaping up what society looks like in the near future.

Have I framed this correctly? If yes, what are the potential ramifications in China, the US and the rest of the world? What ought to be the follow-up questions? Why? Who else should I be following and reading to learn more about these issues?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, and would appreciate the help.

Thank you!

Noah Smith Interviews Marc Andreessen, Part II

We pick up from where we left off yesterday:


My partner Alex Rampell says that competition between an incumbent and a software-driven startup is “a race, where the startup is trying to get distribution before the incumbent gets innovation”.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

Please listen to that podcast episode about Dominos thinking of itself as a tech company that happens to deliver pizzas. From another episode from that same podcast, this gem of an appropriate example:

In February 2013, Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, told “GQ,” “the goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”

https://www.delltechnologies.com/en-us/perspectives/podcasts-trailblazers-s01-e01-disruption-entertainment-industry/

As time passes, I am increasingly skeptical that most incumbents can adapt. The culture shift is just too hard. Great software people tend to not want to work at an incumbent where the culture is not optimized to them, where they are not in charge. It is proving easier in many cases to just start a new company than try to retrofit an incumbent. I used to think time would ameliorate this, as the world adapts to software, but the pattern seems to be intensifying.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

I hope he is wrong, for my sake, and for the sake of my alma mater, which is where I have chosen to work. But, um, I increasingly fear that he’s (surprise, surprise) right. Introducing technology has been hard in my workplace, but the fault lies with the culture of the workplace, not with the technology.

But as I pointed out in yesterday’s post, the regulatory capture and the cultural conformity of the higher education space in India means that most students (and their parents, or should it be the other way around) still prefer a “top” college.


A good test for how seriously an incumbent is taking software is the percent of the top 100 executives and managers with computer science degrees. For a typical tech startup, the answer might be 50-70%. For a typical incumbent, the answer may be more like 5-7%. This is a huge gap in software knowledge and skill, and you see it play out every day across many industries.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

Incumbents in higher education in India – the percentage of folks with computer science degrees? Let’s move on.


First, COVID is the ultimate cover for restructuring — what my friend and former CFO Peter Currie used to call “shake and bake”. It’s an opportunity for every CEO to do all the things he/she may have wanted to do in the past to increase efficiency and effectiveness — from fundamental headcount resizing and reorganization, to changing geographic footprint, to exiting stale lines of business — but couldn’t because they would cause too much disruption. The disruption is happening anyway, so you might as well do everything you’ve always wanted to do now

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

75% minimum attendance, or else we reserve the right to say that you haven’t learnt enough to write the semester end examination. All classes in offline mode, only. Rote memorization tests in examination halls, with no textbooks/supplementary materials allowed. Laptops/tables/smartphones may not be used in class.

Here’s my question to those of us who work in higher education in India. Do we expect all these things to come back once the pandemic is behind us, or are we having thoughtful discussions about how the post-covid higher education field will look in India?

Today, because of the pandemic, we are at an extreme end of the spectrum which describes how learning is delivered. Everybody sits at home, and listens to a lecture being delivered (at least in Indian universities, mostly synchronously).
When the pandemic ends, whenever that may be, do we swing back to the other end of the spectrum? Does everybody sit in a classroom once again, and listens to a lecture being delivered in person (and therefore synchronously)?
Or does society begin to ask if we could retain some parts of virtual classrooms? Should the semester than be, say, 60% asynchronous, with the remainder being doubt solving sessions in classroom? Or some other ratio that may work itself out over time? Should the basic organizational unit of the educational institute still be a classroom? Does an educational institute still require the same number of in person professors, still delivering the same number of lectures?
In other words, in the post-pandemic world…
How long before online learning starts to show up in the learning statistics?

https://econforeverybody.com/2021/01/28/the-long-slow-but-inevitable-death-of-the-classroom/

And finally, Marc Andreessen’s response to Noah’s question about what advice he (Marc) would have for a young 23 year old American:

Don’t follow your passion. Seriously. Don’t follow your passion. Your passion is likely more dumb and useless than anything else. Your passion should be your hobby, not your work. Do it in your spare time.
Instead, at work, seek to contribute. Find the hottest, most vibrant part of the economy you can and figure out how you can contribute best and most. Make yourself of value to the people around you, to your customers and coworkers, and try to increase that value every day.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

The last sentence in that excerpt is another way of saying that the world is a non-zero sum game.

And I couldn’t agree more!


Noah Smith Interviews Marc Andreessen

Every now and then (and I wish it was more often), I like reading something so much that I don’t just take notes, I put them down here rather than in Roam. It forces me take more careful, structured notes, and the act of writing it all down allows for more thoughts to bubble up – which is the whole point, no?

Noah Smith’s interview of Marc Andreessen definitely qualifies. It was interesting throughout, and I related with some of the points/concepts more than I would have wanted to1.

Before we begin, a quick aside: most of my thoughts and reactions to the interview are because of what I do, and where I’m located. I am in charge of one course at my University, and am also in charge of placements. This University is located in India. So my excerpts, and my reaction to those excerpts are contingent on these two things.

We’ll follow the usual format: excerpts, and then my thoughts.


Consider the three primary markers of the American Dream, or more generally middle class success — housing, education, and health care. You have written at length on how all three of these success markers seem further and further out of reach for many regular people. I think — and you would agree? — that these three deficits are not only causing problems for how people live and how the economy functions, but are fouling our politics quite dramatically.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

Education, in India at any rate, can either scale, or it can maintain quality. It has never been able to do both. How to increase scale without losing quality, and how to maintain affordable quality without gaining scale – both of these are really, really difficult questions to answer. The impossible trilemma of higher education in India, as it were. The BSc programme at the Gokhale Institute is (in my opinion, and it is of course a biased one) affordable quality. Far from perfect, I’ll be the first one to admit, and could always be a whole lot better, but I genuinely do think we’re doing good work. But scaling is impossible. And we all know of educational institutes that have managed to scale really well, but don’t do so well when it comes to quality.

And when I say quality, it is very much a “you know it when you see it” definition I am going with. Not NAAC reports or percentage of students placed.


Housing, education, and health care are each ferociously complex, but what they have in common is skyrocketing prices in a world where technology is driving down prices of most other products and services.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

Before you begin to read the rest of this post, please do learn more about the Baumol cost disease effect. That is certainly one of the factors at play. This post is the probably the best essay to read about the topic, but be warned: micro, when done right is (also) hard.

This chart from the interview is easier to think about if you’ve studied the Baumol effect well:

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

Software is a lever on the real world.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and (note that the emphasis on “lever” is in the original)

The Archimedes reference is obvious, but that’s not the reason I want to focus so much on just this one sentence. How exactly is software a lever on the entire world? Marc gives the examples of Lyft and Airbnb in the interview, but they’re the outcomes for having deployed software. The inner mechanism (I think) is that software goes a very long way towards reducing transaction costs, search costs and therefore overall friction in economic transactions.

The guy driving the rickshaw, and waiting for a customer at a traffic intersection isn’t aware of the person two blocks away who is outside their apartment building, waiting for a ride. Search costs. These are minimized because of the app.

The whole “bhaiya, xyz jaana hai” – “Itna duur, itna late, double bhada” – “kya bhaiya, itna thodi lagta hai” song and dance is avoided (although not always in a way that is fair to the rickshaw driver). Transaction costs. These are minimized because of the app.

And so more transactions take place than they would have if Uber/Lyft/Ola had not been around. And the same is true for Zomato, or Swiggy, or Airbnb or… you get the picture. This (I think) is the lever at play. More gets done because software is involved.

There are legitimate worries about whether the system is always fair, always perfect – and the short answer is always “no”. A better question to ask is if the world is better for these services being around – and the short answer (I think) is “yes”. The best question to ask is how these services could be made better – and Andreessen has suggestions later on in the interview about this.


Software is alchemy that turns bytes into actions by and on atoms.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

A lovely way to think about what software does, when used well.


Everywhere software touches the real world, the real world gets better, and less expensive, and more efficient, and more adaptable, and better for people. And this is especially true for the real world domains that have been least touched by software until now — such as housing, education, and health care.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

The Baumol effect has some potentially disturbing implications:

When we recognize that all prices are relative prices the following simple yet deep facts follow:
If productivity increases in some industries more than others then, ceteris paribus, some prices must increase.
Over time, all real prices cannot fall.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2019/05/the-baumol-effect.html

As a society it appears that with greater wealth we have wanted to consume more of the goods like education and health care that have relatively slow productivity growth. Thus, preferences have magnified the Baumol effect.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2019/05/the-baumol-effect.html

But I think what Marc Andreessen is (in effect) saying is this: sure, even accounting for the Baumol effect, are there ways to reduce search and transaction costs in education, healthcare and housing? And if yes, can we drive down prices in these sectors while maintaining (or even increasing!) quality? That’s the power and potential of software.

And yes, each one of us will react with differing levels of skepticism to the proposition. That’s fine, and I’d say desirable. But the idea is worth thinking about, no? (And if you say no, it’s not, I’d love to hear why you think so.)


It’s more the importance of communication as the foundation of everything that people do, and how we open up new ways for people to communicate, collaborate, and coordinate. Like software, communication technology is something that people tend to pooh-pooh, or even scorn — but, when you compare what any one of us can do alone, to what we can do when we are part of a group or a community or a company or a nation, there’s no question that communication forms the backbone of virtually all progress in the world. And so improving our ability to communicate is fundamental.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

Remember the “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room” quote2? The potential advantage of Clubhouse, Spaces (or whatever it will be called on all the apps that copy the concept) is that it solves for the geographic constraint when it comes to your menu of rooms to choose from. That’s what makes Twitter so great too – you never have to worry about being the smartest person on Twitter (and I mean that in the nicest way possible!).

It is a great time to be young and angry about the quality of the education system, because the internet can solve some of your problems better than was ever possible in the past.


It’s so striking that in our primarily textual technological world, people are instantly enthusiastic about the opportunity to participate in oral culture online — there is something timeless about talking in groups, whether it’s around a campfire 5,000 years ago or on an app today

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

At the Gokhale Institute, we were lucky enough to listen to a talk by Visvak where he spoke about some of the positive aspects of Clubhouse during the recent elections in Tamil Nadu. The ability to listen to, and possibly chat with, people with skin in the game who are actually Doing The Work, is truly remarkable. And again, what we have isn’t perfect, and it could be better, and there will be problems. The question to ask is if the world is better with Clubhouse (and it’s imitations) or without? And the better question to ask is how to improve upon it. But when I have the opportunity to listen to Krish Ashok talk about food on Twitter Spaces, and I see people just straight up ask Krish Ashok to host a Spaces about chai – well, what a time to be alive. No? (And if you say no, it’s not, I’d love to hear why you think so.)


Substack is causing enormous amounts of new quality writing to come into existence that would never have existed otherwise — raising the level of idea formation and discourse in a world that badly needs it. So much of legacy media, due to the technological limitations of distribution technologies like newspapers and television, makes you stupid. Substack is the profit engine for the stuff that makes you smart.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

I don’t exactly disagree with Marc Andreessen over here; but I have a lot of questions. I’ll list them here:

  • Substack is a substitute for blogs or newsletters, but with the additional ability to charge payments from subscribers for some (or all) of your posts. Is that a good definition of what Substack is?
  • Not all Substack writers will initially get enough paying subscribers. In fact, I think it is safe to say that most will never get (enough) paying subscribers. If the first sentence in the excerpt above is to be agreed with, what other incentive is at play for “enormous amounts of new quality writing” to come through? This is not intended as sarcasm or implied criticism – I really would like to know.
  • Especially in India, I completely agree that legacy media makes you stupid. It is the middle part of that sentence that I am not so sure about: I do not think it is just the technological limitations of distribution technologies that is at play. It’s a much broader question, but what other factors would you think are at play, and how does Substack help mitigate those other problems?
  • Is bundling inevitable on Substack? Shouldn’t it be? How will this play out? Will Revue stand a better chance as a bundle because it can be combined with so many other offerings?

This isn’t a complete list of questions, and I am not sure of the answers. But this is the part of the interview that I understood the least, for sure.


A longish excerpt in a longish post, but a very important one:

M.A.: My “software eats the world” thesis plays out in business in three stages:
1. A product is transformed from non-software to (entirely or mainly) software. Music compact discs become MP3’s and then streams. An alarm clock goes from a physical device on your bedside table to an app on your phone. A car goes from bent metal and glass, to software wrapped in bent metal and glass.
2. The producers of these products are transformed from manufacturing or media or financial services companies to (entirely or mainly) software companies. Their core capability becomes creating and running software. This is, of course, a very different discipline and culture from what they used to do.
3. As software redefines the product, and assuming a competitive market not protected by a monopoly position or regulatory capture, the nature of competition in the industry changes until the best software wins, which means the best software company wins. The best software company may be an incumbent or a startup, whoever makes the best software.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

For a great, and relatively early example of this playing out in practice, please listen to this podcast episode:

One simple viral video drove a pizza company to reinvent itself as a tech company. Walter Isaacson tells the story in this episode of Trailblazers.

https://www.delltechnologies.com/en-us/perspectives/podcasts-trailblazers-s01-e03-fast-food-delivery/

See this, for example, from the transcript:

So this is the part of the Domino’s story that struck me more than anything, when he simply declared for all to hear, we no longer think of ourselves as a pizza company. We think of ourselves as a technology company. I said, excuse me? Well, turns out, they’re headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They’ve got 800 people working in headquarters. Fully 400 of those, half of their headquarters employees, are engaged in software analytics and big data. They really– once they finally got the product right, they really are, from this point going forward, as much a technology company as they are a food company. And many of the initiatives have to do with making it as easy, as convenient, as kind of natural and impulsive almost to order Domino’s, much more so than any other pizza company.

https://www.delltechnologies.com/en-us/perspectives/podcasts-trailblazers-s01-e03-fast-food-delivery/

But, but, but – and this is where the “what I do and where I’m from part” really comes into play – has higher education in India successfully (or even partially) gone through Marc Andreessen’s three stage transformation?

Short answer, no.

Long answer: because “assuming a competitive market not protected by a monopoly position or regulatory capture” doesn’t apply in the case of higher education in India (yet). See this, this, this, and this from earlier on in EFE.

But especially see this! College, as I’ve written in this post, is a bundle. It sells you the learning (Coursera), the signaling (LinkedIn) and the peer network (Starbucks):

If you want to go up against college as a business, you need to sell the same thing that college is selling. And the college sells you a bundle.
A business that seeks to do better than college must do better on all three counts, not just on learning. All of the online learning businesses – Coursera is just one very good example – aren’t able to fill all of the three vertices just yet.
And that’s why education hasn’t been truly shaken down by the internet just yet:
Because college today is more about signaling than it is about learning, and because when you pay money to a college, you are getting a bundle.

https://econforeverybody.com/2020/03/12/signaling-bundling-and-college/

And partially by regulatory capture (UGC approved degree, yay!) and partly by cultural conformity (Sharmaji ka beta went to IIT. Whaddya mean, you will learn from YouTube. Kuch bhi!) we still celebrate getting into a “top” college.

Since “top” colleges know this, there is no incentive for them to change. And since ed-tech firms in India also know this, they design excellent software that is designed simply to get students into these colleges3.

And so we in the education sector in India continue to wait for the revolution.


Phew! That’s enough for today. I’ll be back tomorrow with Part II of my reflections on this interview.

  1. about which more below[]
  2. Was it really by Confucius? I don’t think so.[]
  3. that is a sweeping generalization, yes. I’m more than happy to be corrected on this. Please tell me more about ed-tech firms that are about learning for its own sake, not about entrance examinations[]