Argue More!

Argue More!

The point of arguing with an author is not to “win” the argument. 

Quite the opposite. The point of arguing with the author is to work with the author.

Mihir Mahajan, regular reader of EFE, raised some questions about my post the other day on middle income traps.

It might help to take a look at the chart from the earlier post before you go through his questions.

Here are his questions:

  1. “The 1960 vs. 2022 nature of graph and the 1-6 ratings of income are quite confusing”
  2. “The “middle income trap” is too dense and you pointing to Nicaragua shows that the journeys of different countries could be going in different directions within that group”
  3. “The range of 1.75-3.75 on both axes is deceptive though. While the higher scales 4+ is rich in general, the relative gap between India/Nigeria and China is very high — not sufficient distinction there.”
  4. “Putting China in “middle income trap” is odd because it has gone from below 2 in 1960 to above 3 in 2022 (based on the axes).”

Before I get around to answering his questions, I have a question for you. 

Do you have any questions of your own, for having read his questions? Go read my post again, stare at the chart, go over Mihir’s questions, and then think about whether you have any questions of your own.

I’ll answer each of Mihir’s questions below, but the point of this post is really what follows after, so please do stick around until the end!

  1. “The 1960 vs. 2022 nature of graph and the 1-6 ratings of income are quite confusing”

    Yup, absolutely. It takes a while to figure out what is going on in an Economist chart, and while that is a problem, I’d argue that the rewards are usually worth it. By the way, if you are an Economist subscriber, you absolutely should read their newsletter on visualization and charts.

    A useful principle to keep in mind is that when you look at a chart, train yourself to not look at the data first. First be clear about what is on the axes (all of them). Then be clear about the title of the chart. It helps to take a look at the source of the data. Then start taking a look at the chart itself.

    Homework: what does “income per person, relative to the United States, log of %” mean? Can you explain this phrase to somebody else? If you can’t, you haven’t understood it well enough!
  2. “The “middle income trap” is too dense and you pointing to Nicaragua shows that the journeys of different countries could be going in different directions within that group”

    The central square in the chart is too dense, but that’s just fine by me. Why? Because the outliers are then even more worthy of analysis. If you cannot “make it” into the central square, then you’re even more special relative to that crowded space.
    Botswana is special because it was poor in 1960, and is not just middle-income today, but on the verge of breaking into the high-income space. That’s a special story!

    Argentina, on the other hand, is special for the wrong reason. It was a high-income country back in 1960, but has since slid down into a middle-income country grouping.
    Both of these countries, within the context of this chart, also help you understand Mihir’s second comment here. Because this is a static image, and because we’re comparing two different points in time, we don’t get a sense of the trajectory of a country. Botswana is on the way up, and Argentina has slid down – but you need to know this separately. This isn’t clear from looking at the chart.

    To be clear, this isn’t a criticism of the chart, but rather a way of recognizing that your work as a student doesn’t stop for having studied the chart. Au contraire, this chart should spur you to read more about whichever country seems interesting to you.

    “Tell me more about Botswana’s growth story over the last sixty years or so. Assume I know very little about Africa in general, and Botswana in particular. Your answer should include Botswana’s internal politics, key leaders, relationship with her neighbors and with the superpowers during the cold war, her natural resources and some background on major ethnic and religious groups in Botswana”

  3. “The range of 1.75-3.75 on both axes is deceptive though. While the higher scales 4+ is rich in general, the relative gap between India/Nigeria and China is very high — not sufficient distinction there.”

    Log scales can be tricky, and the best way to understand this is by thinking about how earthquakes are measured. And yes, Mihir is spot on about how you need to keep this in mind. The lower ends of the middle income square (left to right and bottom to top) actually cover very large ground, and countries in the left-bottom corner are very different from countries in the right-top corner of the middle square. Dividing the middle square into a 3×3 grid would be a great idea. (Hi, The Economist. Hint, hint)
  4. “Putting China in “middle income trap” is odd because it has gone from below 2 in 1960 to above 3 in 2022 (based on the axes).”

    It’s their chart to make, and ours to interpret as we see fit, so while I get where Mihir is coming from, I’m fine with both the boundaries of the middle square, and with the framing that The Economist has used. China’s growth trajectory over these past sixty years or so has been fantastic, but the question is about whether it can keep that break-neck growth rate up going ahead. A very wise economist won a Nobel Prize for coming up with a simple model that says “Nah, probably not”. So while I understand Mihir’s point, I can see the logic used by The Economist as well. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but macro is hard.

But now that I’ve replied to his comments, let me come to the main point of today’s post.

What stops us from asking questions as we read? Why, that is, do we read unquestioningly?

Maybe that’s too specific a question, so let me step back and frame it more generally. 

Why don’t you argue more often with whatever you’re reading?

Make sure you understand where they’re coming from, and that you understand their line of reasoning, to the extent possible. And also that you understand how and why they reached the conclusions they did. You don’t have to agree with either the line of reasoning or the conclusion, to be clear.

But asking smart, probing questions about both the premises and the conclusions can help you become a much  more engaged reader. This, in turn, can help you to both understand what you’re reading, and to decide whether you agree with the author.

It’s a rare old skill, and I’d encourage you to apply it, always, while you’re reading.

So please, disagree more with what you read on my blog, and let me know of your disagreements.

Help me learn better!

Three Charts Related to China

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

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

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

Questions from a student

To said student, thank you for your email, and your very kind words. I have answered them below.

To anybody who is reading, and has other questions, please send them across. I’ll either answer them myself, to the best of my ability, or pass them on to people who might be better able to answer them.

  1. What according to you should have been our immediate response?
    Hindsight is a beautiful thing, and so it is easy to say now that the we could’ve, should’ve, would’ve.
    But there’s only one real answer to this question: stay home! Don’t step out unless absolutely necessary, wash hands once you’re back, and minimize the number of people you meet. That, if it has not happened already, should happen going forward.
    Social distancing matters!
  2. Do you think the Prime Minister asking us for a lock-down on Sunday is just a preparatory step for further havoc?
    Havoc is the wrong word to use, and second-guessing intentions is likely to be counter-productive at the best of times, let alone now. That being said, more lockdowns in more parts of the country is a quite reasonable expectation under the circumstances.
    As the Prime Minister of India and the Chief Minister of Maharashtra have said, that doesn’t mean it is time to panic: quite the opposite. But, and I do not care how often I end up saying this:
    Social distancing matters. That’s up to all of us, and it is important that we do it.
  3. For how many more days can India afford the lockdowns. (Economic Cost) (sic)
    Wrong question, I would say. Can we afford to let up in terms of stopping the lockdown even for a single day, or ending it prematurely? Because the economic costs of doing so will far outweigh whatever so-called economic gains might result as a consequence of allowing people to meet and work. Second, what cost a human life?
    TL;DR? Forget everything else, stay at home, and get as much work done as possible with that constraint in mind.
  4. Would COVID-19 spread post Summer?
    Who can say? We just don’t know enough about the virus to say anything definitively. We do know that the Spanish flu struck in three different waves over a period of two years, but that does not mean this will be similar. Could be worse, could be better – the immediate danger is to stop its spread in its current form.
  5. For how many more days do you think colleges and schools should be closed and if they’re closed how can we use technology to make sure education is still going on?
    See the answer to the second question: the answer is “for as long as it takes”. Fortunately, online resources are not only available, they’re very, very good. There’s the Khan Academy, there’s Marginal Revolutions University, there’s Coursera, there’s EdX, there’s MIT OCW, there’s Seeing Theory – and that’s not even all of the starters, forget the main course! That apart, (if you will pardon the self-indulgence) feel free to read all the articles on this very blog! And don’t forget Twitter: here’s just one of many examples possible. Finally, blogs are underrated: read ’em!
    And on a related note, socializing in these times needs to be tweaked. Take online coffee breaks with friends from around the world. A simple Zoom/Skype call to chat is a very good idea. And here’s an example of online co-working spaces: feel free to join.
  6. Should we try to protect lives or livelihoods? ( In case of quarantine for months).
    I am not trying to be funny when I say this – livelihoods kind of depends on lives being there in the first place, no?
    Or as the Hindi saying has it: jaan hai to jahaan hai! Lives, first and always.
  7. I’m rephrasing the last question for sake of clarity and brevity: given limited state capacity and given socio-cultural problems such as private hospitals refusing to treat patients, what should we do?
    Do whatever we can to help, and listen to the authorities. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but we’re all in this together – trust the people in charge, and extend help wherever possible. That’s the best answer I’ve got.


I’d recommended a while ago – way before this crisis started – a book called the Checklist Manifesto to this student. The final question is how one can make use of that book now. To which my answer is very simple: attach a checklist at every room’s door, asking if basic sanitation is being practised. Second, prepare a checklist for your daily routine, and do something useful every day. Third, pick up a new hobby and practise it every single day that you are at home. Fourth, practise online socialization and get good at it! Voila, there’s a meta-checklist, if you will.

Thank you for writing in, and I reiterate: if you think I can help, please don’t hesitate to write in. I’ll try my best!