Links for 19th April, 2019

  1. “I don’t seem to have any less energy. When I’m in the Johnson library I’m still there from 9 to 5. And I’d like to feel — but I don’t really feel — that I’ve learned something about writing. If I told you what I thought people would laugh because my books are so long, but I often think of Renoir and how his painting got simpler and simpler and better and better. I don’t say my writing has gotten better but sometimes you think, Oh, I can do this.”
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    A fascinating interview in the NYT of Robert Caro.
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  2. “From Wednesday, the payment company is to begin contacting essay-writing firms, giving them notice that they should “move their business elsewhere”.But this will not be an “overnight ban” – as there will be debates over which services are helping students to cheat and which are offering legitimate tutoring assistance.”
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    A very, very large can of worms has been opened by Paypal.
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  3. “If you neutrally described the typical Sopranos episode, almost anyone hypothetical juror would hand down centuries of jail time. As you watch, however, righteous verdicts are far from your mind. Why? ”
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    I’ve just begun watching the Sopranos, so this didn’t make too much sense right now, but this part caught my eye in the whole article.
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  4. “The challenge is how do we adapt to that increased efficiency, which is very much like what happened to agriculture. Agriculture has become so efficient that now it’s kind of irrelevant to the economy, less than two percent of our working population. And that what’s happening to traditional capitalist—particularly manufacturing—activity. Today in America only a four-and-a-half percent of workers are doing production work in manufacturing. There are more 50-year-old men on disability than doing production work in manufacturing—precisely because it’s become so productive. Fewer people are producing goods. More people are producing services.”
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    Larry Summers looks back at 2008. Somewhat standard stuff, but this excerpt above was quite interesting.
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  5. “Land and money are two of the most neglected concepts in economic theory. Land is immobile, irreproducible and appreciates in value over time due to collective investment – none of these features apply to capital goods. Yet modern economics and national accounts treat them as one and the same.”
    The quote above was quoted in the article – a meta quote, if you will – but the article is a good reminder of the importance of the idea of rent.
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Links for 3rd April, 2019

  1. “There is something touchingly human in the dispersal of these games—in the vision it evokes of travelers packing for long, hard journeys and remembering to take with them something to kill time, something to satisfy their impulse to play. Anthropologists often regard these old games as novelties, Crist told me, but they can narrate plenty about their era. “Games function socially as a way for people to interact with one another,” he said. “People will play games when they vaguely know each other, to get to know one another.”
    Samanth Subramanian on the oldest board game known to us – dates back to around four thousand years ago. Games were, and are, a way to connect socially with people.
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  2. “But even with increasingly powerful computers and more efficient algorithms thrown at the problem, some whole numbers have stubbornly refused to yield any winning tickets. And 33 was an especially stubborn case: Until Booker found his solution, it was one of only two integers left below 100 (excluding the ones for which solutions definitely don’t exist) that still couldn’t be expressed as a sum of three cubes. With 33 out of the way, the only one left is 42.”
    The rest of the article, fascinating in its own rights, contains many more excerpt-able quotes. But if you are a fan, as I am, it had to be an excerpt that ended with that sentence!
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  3. “Nine years after giving grants for youth in Uganda to start businesses, those who didn’t receive grants had caught up on income! Nevertheless, “grants had lasting impacts on assets, skilled work, and possibly child health, but had little effect on mortality, fertility, health or education.”
    Honestly, there’s no particular reason why I chose to go with this quote in particular. David Evans has done yeoman service in putting together extremely brief summaries of I don’t know how many papers presented at the annual Center for the Study of African Economics (CSAE) conference.
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  4. “Take the example of San Francisco; with nicer streets, even more people might want to move there. That would push up rents by an amount roughly equal to the value created — putting the gains from the higher quality of life into the pockets of landowners. In a normal market economy, those higher rents would then induce more construction and, eventually, a corresponding decline in rents. But San Francisco is a “not in my backyard” locale where the amount of new construction just isn’t that high, for legal and regulatory reasons. Again, as both Ricardo and George realized, the incidence of the benefit falls upon the very scarce factor, namely land.”
    What happens when you apply the Ricardian theory of rent to San Francisco? Tyler Cowen provides the answer. Also think about where else, besides land, this argument might apply. Cough *education* cough.
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  5. “As Ansón puts it: “In principle, because of how it started, a tapa is something that you eat with one hand, a cocktail stick, a fork, or a spoon, allowing you to hold a drink in the other. This style of eating creates a kind of harmony between solid and liquid.”
    This will, if you are as big a fan of food as I am, take up a lot of your time – but also, it will be worth it. Also, if you are anything like me, it will make you want to go to Spain! A lovely, interactive website about Spanish gastronomy.

Why is economics important?

Or put another way, what is economics all about, and why should we be studying it?

I’ve been teaching economics for a number of years now, and the stock answer I get when I pose this question is generally a paraphrased version of the definition bequeathed us by Lionel Robbins. And that’s probably because some blessed cog in the Indian education system decided that that was the definition to go with in a textbook.

But no, scarce means and unlimited wants (or whichever remixed version of that song you have listened to) is not  the definition of economics.

Or shouldn’t be, at any rate.

Economics is about getting rich.

Most people recoil instinctively when they hear this, because we have a bit of a cultural stigma associated with getting rich. Rich in India is the big bad industrialist from Bollywood, or the cunning conniving politician, or the sly, evil hoarder.

Not always nowadays, thank god. The word rich also summons up images of start-ups these days, which is wonderful – but still, rich is not necessarily a “good” adjective.

And the reason  it isn’t a “good” adjective is because we view getting rich as a zero sum game. For every big bad industrialist, there is the poor struggling worker. For every cunning, conniving politician, there is the struggling-to-make-ends-meet-common-man. For every hoarder, there is the poor farmer. Which is what the phrase “zero sum game” means: for me to get rich, somebody somewhere must get (and stay) poor.

There existed a long time ago in England a man who would have shaken his head rather vigorously at the last sentence in the paragraph above. Trade, that man would have said, is anything but zero sum. I trade with you because I get rich. The magic is this: you trade with me because you get rich as well. Trade, slightly puzzlingly, leaves both of us better off.

Think about the last time you ordered a meal online. Maybe it was because you were in office and couldn’t cook a meal yourself right then, or maybe it was because you were at home but too tired to cook. In either case, it was too expensive in terms of time and/or money to cook a meal yourself. And so ordering a meal left you better off.

But did the restaurant suffer because you ordered that meal? Nope! It  too was better off because you ordered that meal. As, by the way, was Zomato or Swiggy that arranged for you to get that meal from that restaurant. And the guy from Delhivery who actually delivered the food. Nobody lost out on this trade. And nobody loses out on millions of these kinds of trades that take place every minute on every corner of the globe.

In fact, the more there are of these trades, the richer we are. And since both you and I are getting rich, both of us think its a good thing. And so allow me to amend that definition I put above by adding just one word to it:

Economics is about us getting rich.

And that’s a damn good thing.