The Positive Externalities of Writing a Blog Post

If I ever meet Zeynep Tufekci, a beverage of her choice is due to her from me.

Last week’s post about her take on metaepistomology bought forth two very pleasant consequences. Whether they were intended or not is a question I myself have been grappling with, but I shall deal with that question (and that story) later on this week.

About those consequences:

  1. A student from the BSc program at the Gokhale Institute wrote in asking if we could have a discussion about metaepistomology – and you’ll permit me a self-congratulatory pat on the back for getting folks interested in a word as daunting as that. This of course means that I will have to spend a fair chunk of my time today reading up about metaepistomology myself, but I know that can only be a good thing.

    (Or do I?)
  2. Another student from the same program asked why a course on philosophy wasn’t a part of the program in a formal sense. To which I had no good answer, beyond saying that the course constraints were such that it could not be fit in.

Which, let’s be upfront and honest, is no answer at all. So, the topic of today’s blogpost: if there were to be a summer school, or a workshop, or a weekend course – whatever – on philosophy at the undergrad level, what all should it contain?

I don’t have a formal training in philosophy, having never taken the subject in my own undergrad days. It wasn’t on offer, I am sad to report, when I was doing my Masters. But I have tried to read a little bit here, and a little bit there, and have jotted down the list below as a starting point. Note that I have tried to ask what should be included in a summer school for students of economics who are studying philosophy for the first time, rather than first time students of philosophy. Also not that I am a complete amateur: please, point out obvious omissions!

That, I’m guessing should be more than enough for a 30 hour introduction, and the reading list is already monstrous.

So when I ask of you, what am I missing, I’m really asking the following: who/what would you include (and why) and who/what would you remove (and why). If there is anybody reading this who could help, please do write in.

Thank you!

Team Lockdown, or Team Get Back to Work?

An anonymous reader writes in with the question below:

As a student of economics, our mind forces us to think rationally, even during the present time of corona pandemic which is taking a toll on several lives. The question which is bothering me is about the enactment of lockdown and bypassing the one of the fundamental right of livelihood without constitutionally declaring emergency in the country due to COVID-19. As we’re constantly keeping an eye on news, the millions of businessman, traders, labor whose daily living is in danger (for at least coming 2 more weeks) has been taken away with an announcement of PM.
Are we sacrificing our country’s livelihood in the wake of moral persuasion by PM or it is the just the ignorance/illiteracy towards our fundamental rights?


First things first: I’m the very opposite of a legal scholar! But here’s my attempt at answering the question, first from a legal viewpoint, and second from a philosophical viewpoint.

You’d think I’d want to answer this question from an economist’s point of view, considering my “profession” and “qualification”, but honestly, this is best viewed and thought about from the prism of philosophy.


But legal aspects first:

As best as I can tell, the right to livelihood is guaranteed by Article 21:

Article 21 reads as:

“No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to a procedure established by law.”

Although Article 19 also deserves a closer look, especially sub-clause (g) of clause (1) of Article 19:

19. Protection of certain rights regarding freedom of speech etc
(1) All citizens shall have the right
(a) to freedom of speech and expression;
(b) to assemble peaceably and without arms;
(c) to form associations or unions;
(d) to move freely throughout the territory of India;
(e) to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India; and
(f) omitted
(g) to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business

But both Articles 19 and 21 have far too many loopholes, exceptions and what-have-yous. Again, I am not a legal expert, but this, with regards Article 19 seems pertinent:

(6) Nothing in sub clause (g) of the said clause shall affect the operation of any existing law in so far as it imposes, or prevent the State from making any law imposing, in the interests of the general public, reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub clause, and, in particular, nothing in the said sub clause shall affect the operation of any existing law in so far as it relates to, or prevent the State from making any law relating to,
(i) the professional or technical qualifications necessary for practising any profession or carrying on any occupation, trade or business, or
(ii) the carrying on by the State, or by a corporation owned or controlled by the State, of any trade, business, industry or service, whether to the exclusion, complete or partial, of citizens or otherwise

And Article 21 ends with “according to a procedure established by law”, and so I’m sure the legality is not, therefore, an issue at all.


Now that the legal aspect is out of the way, let’s try and figure out the philosophical issue at hand here.

Seen Sophie’s Choice? (I haven’t, because the one of the premises is so horrifying that I have never been able to get myself to watch it). Spoiler alert, consider yourself warned!

She reveals to him that, upon arrival at Auschwitz, she was forced to choose which one of her two children would be gassed and which would proceed to the labor camp. To avoid having both children killed, she chose her son, Jan, to be sent to the children’s camp, and her daughter, Eva, to be sent to her death.

Seen Eye in the Sky? Again, spoiler alert, but here’s the core dilemma of the movie:

You can kill three terrorists who have committed unspeakable crimes by ordering a drone to shoot a missile at a home in which they are hiding. BUT: you will also end up killing a little girl who is selling bread right outside that home, blissfully unaware that there are terrorists inside. Do you order the strike?

Heard of the trolley problem?

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:

Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply: What is the right thing to do?

Here, as simply put as possible, is the dilemma in front of the leaders of almost all nations on the planet:

Let people move about freely, letting them earn their living, BUT also be spreaders of COVID-19, thereby putting themselves, and an untold number of others at risk


Confine people at home, therefore saving at least some lives, BUT therefore deny people, especially the poor, the chance to earn a living.

Put another way:

do we optimize for health and life, at the cost of untold economic suffering (Team Lockdown)…

…or do we optimize for the opportunity to earn money, at the cost of people (for no fault of theirs) losing their lives? (Team Get Back to Work)


My personal opinion? A human life is a non-negotiable. That, to me, is axiomatic. And on first blush, you might think that therefore I am Team Lockdown.

But will the lockdown, at the margin, cause deaths inflicted by the imposition of the lockdown? Almost certainly yes. So both policies will result in the loss of some lives. That’s just the hard truth.

Then, morally speaking from my perspective, we ought to choose that policy which minimizes death and suffering.

Can Team Get Back to Work minimize death and suffering, or do a better job of minimizing death and suffering than Team Lockdown?

In my opinion, no.

Therefore, Team Lockdown for me.

But that being said:

Can Team Lockdown try and ensure that those most impacted by the lockdown get all the support we (all of us) can possibly give? That, in my opinion, now becomes a moral imperative.

Beginning with tripling the current stimulus!

That’s just my opinion, for reasons explained above. That doesn’t necessarily make it right, and I’m more than open to listening to opposite points of view. Here’s one from the other side, for example. The-Pensford-Newsletter-3.23.2020

But right now, and at the current margin?

I’m Team Lockdown.


My thanks to the anonymous reader for raising this question; it helped me clarify my own thinking on the issue!

Links for 7th June, 2019

  1. “In 1982, Deming’s book Quality, Productivity, and Competitive Position was published by the MIT Center for Advanced Engineering, and was renamed Out of the Crisis in 1986. In it, he offers a theory of management based on his famous 14 Points for Management. Management’s failure to plan for the future brings about loss of market, which brings about loss of jobs. Management must be judged not only by the quarterly dividend, but also by innovative plans to stay in business, protect investment, ensure future dividends, and provide more jobs through improved products and services. “Long-term commitment to new learning and new philosophy is required of any management that seeks transformation. The timid and the fainthearted, and the people that expect quick results, are doomed to disappointment.””
    I cam across this link via Amit Paranjape on Twitter. I was familiar with Deming’s role in Japan, but hadn’t read the book referenced here, in this excerpt. Duly added to the list.
  2. “While the Constitution provides for setting up of SFCs at regular intervals, this has
    not been adhered to by the states. The paper reviews the reports of the latest SFCs of 25 states in India. This involves examining the status of constitution of SFCs, their functioning and the approach adopted by them in carrying out their task and the principles adopted by them in allocating resources to local governments both vertically and horizontally. It also quantifies the devolution recommended by the SFCs in order to get a comparative picture of funds devolved by them across states. It is observed that there is huge variation in the recommended per capita devolution across States. We do not find any relation between the recommended per capita devolution and per capita income of States, but per capita devolution is in general very low across states in India. Is it that the state governments arbitrarily reject the recommendations or are the SFCs themselves to be blamed for non-acceptance of their recommendations? The paper also examines the quality of SFC
    reports from the point of view of their implementability and finds that at times state governments are constrained to implement these recommendations on the grounds of poor quality of SFC reports.”
    Financial decentralization (well, decentralization in general) has never really worked in India. Financial decentralization in particular is an important, under-rated topic in economics. This paper is not a good place to learn about these topics, but it is good analysis of how State Financial Commissions haven’t really worked at all in India.
  3. “What is Luminary’s problem? The answer is that their strategy is not well thought out. They give all of the appearances of starting with the notion ‘Netflix for Podcasts’ and then jumping to the later Netflix model to start that (where Netflix spends $$ on its own content) rather than where Netflix started which was streaming older ad-free content.Where should they have started? They should have started with an idea — “we are going to bring expensive to produce audio content to the Internet” — and then asked who their customers would be, what technology choices they would make, what is the core of their business and who precisely will they compete against?”
    Worth reading for three reasons. One, it helps you understand what podcasts really are, and how they started. Second, because this article helps you understand how to evaluate business models. Third, because Joshua Gans is worth following in any case.
  4. “This very short sketch of the well-known effects of the first globalization allows us to remind ourselves of both its positive and negative sides: huge technological progress as against exploitation, increased incomes for many vs. grinding poverty and exclusion for others, European mastery of the world vs. a colonial status of Africa and much of Asia.In what ways should it inform our thinking about the current globalization?”
    An important question to ask, and one that is succinctly answered in this op-ed. A good article to read to get a sense of global economic history, and what inequality means in that context.
  5. “I haven’t studied philosophy, but from the outside it mostly seems to revolve around three basic issues:Reality (ontology)

    Values (ethics and aesthetics)

    Knowledge (epistemology)

    Here are three basic questions, one from each field:

    A. Why is there something rather than nothing?

    B. Is it better that there is something rather than nothing?

    C. Can we answer questions #1 and #2? If so, how?”
    A lovely, and slightly unusual post from Scott Sumner – he does return to typical topics towards the end. But enjoyable, to help you understand how to think about philosophy, economics and therefore monetary theory. And try coming up with your “three questions”!

Links for 27th May, 2019

  1. ” In today’s world, we’re typically writing contracts in natural language, or actually in something a little more precise: legalese. But what if we could write our contracts in computational language? Then they could always be as precise as we want them to be. But there’s something else: they can be executed automatically, and autonomously. Oh, as well as being verifiable, and simulatable, and so on.”
    Stephen Wolfram on computational languages, and what it might mean for all of us in the future. Can’t say I understood all of it right off the bat, to be honest – which is why I’ll be reading it again sometime later.
  2. “I was interested in the notion that you could take a busy place — an airport and a marketplace, you can call it kind of a mall, with hundreds of shops and all that comes with it — and cohabit it with a magical park, which is nature at its best, which is relaxing and serene, and is the escape from all of that busyness.Airports are not exactly relaxed places, and I thought, what would be better than to create a place of total serenity?

    We’ve planted thousands of trees and all kinds of other vegetation. And now, six months since we planted it all, it’s already a lush jungle.

    You walk through the trails, and you forget you’re in a city, and you forget you’re in an airport, and you forget you’re in a building. You’re just out there in nature and, in that sense, it’s completely magical.”
    Singapore’s Changi airport now has a seven storey waterfall apparently. Of course it does.

  3. “Econtwitter is wonderful. Yesterday, an undergraduate emailed me to ask for book recommendations about the overlap between economics and philosophy. I recommended:Amartya Sen The Idea of Justice
    Michael Sandel What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets
    Agnar Sandmo Economics Evolving
    D M Hausman and M S McPherson and D Satz Economic analysis, moral philosophy, and public policy
    Then I asked Twitter, and here is the resulting, much longer, list. I won’t editorialise about them, although some are not good undergraduate intros in my view. One striking thing is how few recent overviews there are, however (as @esamjones also pointed out on Twitter). Huge thanks to all who made suggestions. This is a fantastic collective list.”
    Whatever bookmarking method you use, add this to that resource. And as she mentions, #econtwitter, really is wonderful. Diane Coyle with a very important, very useful list. Undergrad resources for the intersection of economics and philosophy.
  4. “If you missed the Chinese mission, maybe it’s because you were focussed on the remarkably inexpensive spacecraft from SpaceIL, an Israeli nonprofit organization, which crash-landed into the moon on April 11th, soon after taking a selfie while hovering above the lunar surface. The crash was not the original plan, and SpaceIL has already announced its intention of going to the moon again. But maybe you weren’t paying attention to SpaceIL, either, because you were anticipating India’s Chandrayaan-2 moon lander, expected to take off later this year. Or you were waiting for Japan’s first lunar-lander-and-rover mission, scheduled to take place next year. Perhaps you’ve been distracted by the announcement, in January, on the night of the super blood wolf moon, that the European Space Agency plans to mine lunar ice by 2025. Or by Vice-President Mike Pence’s statement, in March, that the United States intends “to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years.””
    The New Yorker explains how the moon is becoming a rather crowded place, and is likely to only get even more crowded in the years to come – and also explains why.
  5. “Santacreu and Peake compared research and development (R&D) efforts of the U.S. and China for the period 1999-2015. As of the most recent year, China’s R&D intensity, measured by R&D spending as a percentage of GDP, was 2.1% of GDP versus 2.8% for the U.S.However, China’s R&D intensity grew from less than 1% over the period studied, therefore increasing considerably faster than that of the U.S. “Because R&D intensity is a proxy for technological advancement, these data suggest that China is catching up to the U.S. in technology,” the authors wrote.”
    Ask yourself this: in about thirty years from now, are you more likely to see the world’s innovation hub be in China or America? This article points to the likely answer.