Robin Hanson on MS Dhoni (well, kind of)

Does adding the phrase “well, kind of” make a clickbait-ish title less clickbait-ish? Asking for a friend.

My favorite book to read about cricket when I was growing up was a book called “Cricket Skills and Techniques: A Comprehensive Guide to Coaching and Playing“, written by Douglas Wright. The only reason it was my favorite is because that’s the only book on cricket coaching that we had at home. Don’t ask me how we ended up having that copy at home, because nobody at home played (or coached) cricket. Still, in those bad old days of no cable television, let alone the internet, I must have read that book dozens of times.

Written in 1971, it was as stodgy about the “how to play cricket” approach as it is possible to be. The whole “back and across”, bat coming down straight, “flick on the legside only when the ball is outside of the leg stump” approach. It’s been years, but I really do doubt if the word “lofted” was used even once in the entire book.

Think of it this way: if Suryakumar Yadav were to occupy one end of the spectrum, the batting techniques in this book would lie at the other.

Would somebody steeped in thinking about batting like this ever have selected MS Dhoni to be a batsman for India, let alone the captain of the Indian Test Cricket team?

Robin Hanson says that academia suffers from the same problem:

I conclude that each typical academic journal not only sees itself as covering a limited topic area, it also sees itself as being willing to consider only a limited range of concepts and argument types. Furthermore, these limits are quite strongly selective; the vast majority of statements that ordinary people actually generate on such topics, even when they are trying to talk seriously, are seen as unsuitable.

There is, in other words, A Correct Way to do research. Just like there is A Correct Way to hold the bat, and A Correct Way to hit the ball. And deviations from ACW are not to be acknowledged, let alone tolerated.

And the point that Robin Hanson is making is that if an academic journal be thought of as the Indian cricket team, and a paper within it as MS Dhoni, well, that paper would never have been published – let alone be thought of as one of the best papers ever to have been published.

And the question that needs to be asked, of course, is how many Dhonis have been left out in the cold when it comes to academic research?

Hanson’s blog post goes a bit deeper, and asks why this should be so. Why are the gatekeepers in academia so very khadoos? Because, he posits, they think it to be the rational approach. They claim, he says, that:

To make progress on our topics, our discipline’s concepts and methods are quite sufficient. Sure others might in principle use other concepts and methods to draw relevant conclusions on our topics more easily than do we, but the chance of that usually seems so low that we just habitually ignore all purported candidates of this sort. There are just not usually clues that could plausibly indicate such a scenario well enough to get us to consider including heterodox articles in our journals, or to consider citing them in our articles. The enormous costs to us of evaluating the quality of such heterodox contributions completely swamps any value they might have to offer.

You might miss out on the odd Dhoni if you are a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist, in other words, but that’s fine, because you will have to evaluate a million Dhoni look-alikes who simply aren’t anywhere near as good. But just looking at the few who are the best and in the traditional mould is enough to find the absolute best in the country. So why bother with all those ugly hoikers of the ball? Stick to what we know!

This “leaves money on the table”, of course. Many unorthodox cricketers (academic papers) could be unearthed if only we broadened our methods of evaluation a little bit.

For me this issue highlights the great potential of innovations in how we evaluate contributions. Today, a reviewer typically takes an hour or two to review a dense 4-8K word research paper, where anyone in a discipline needs to be qualified to evaluate any article in that discipline (again, really sub-discipline). In this case, yes, everyone in a discipline must know well the same concepts and methods, and so each discipline can’t accept many such concepts and methods.
But, it should be possible to instead have different people review different aspects of a paper, so that the concepts and methods of a paper don’t have to be limited to just one sub-discipline. Some academic reviewers could specialize in evaluating the concepts and methods of ordinary conversation, to make those available to paper authors. And it should be possible to get quick less-expert less-formal evaluations from betting markets, with bettor incentives tied to much-rarer more expert and expensive evaluations. Using such methods, academic journals should be able to consider submissions using a much wider range of concepts and methods.

And well, we did broaden our methods of evaluation in cricket! We did find Suryakumar Yadav, and dozens, if not hundreds, of wonderful (and unconventional) cricketers. How did we do this? As Amit Varma has pointed out so many times, by getting the correct incentives in place – by having a tournament called the IPL, in other words. Scouts for teams in the IPL are looking for people who will get the results that are needed, techniques be damned (and yes, I know Dhoni made his debut three years before 2008. The point still stands, I’d argue).

How should we get the Indian Publishing League going? Robin Hanson (and I!) would like to know:

Note, however, that such innovations have long been possible, and I have personally seen such proposals enthusiastically rejected. Turns out disciplinary authorities who have risen to the top of their fields via their mastery and control over acceptable concepts and methods may not be eager to invite competition for their prestigious positions from a wider range of people using strange concepts and methods. And as long as no parties near the academic world are able to defy the power of their prestige, this is how things will remain.

Economics in One Sentence

Robin Hanson wrote a blogpost the other day about a book called Fossil Future. I haven’t read the book, and given my infinitely long to-read list, I don’t think I’ll get around to it anytime soon. But the blogpost is worth a read, and for many more reasons than just learning more about the book itself:

My main intellectual strategy is to explore important neglected topics where I can find an original angle to pursue. As a result, I lose interest in topics as they get more attention.

It’s good advice in general, I would argue. Do stuff that other people are ignoring, and do it by picking up on something that others haven’t thought of. There’s some causality at play here, in the sense that other folks are ignoring this (whatever this may be) precisely because there’s a way to do it that they haven’t thought of.

Epstein is right that our elite academic and media systems focus on a few celebrated and quoted climate expert/activists, who are not that representative of the larger world of experts. And these activists are opposed to nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, and hydroelectricity, all of which avoid CO2 warming. They even tend to oppose new solar and wind energy projects, and any land development, that have substantial environmental impacts. It seems that, thought they may deny it in public, what they really want is a smaller human world, with fewer people using less material and energy.

Other people have written on this topic, with varying degrees of exasperation. But I think Robin Hanson latches on to an important point: the key issue is a fundamentally different worldview. It’s not so much about the opportunity costs of more materials and energy – there is no price at which the trade-off is worth it is the opinion of some climate experts/activists. “OK fine, where do you lie on the spectrum of trade-offs when it comes to more energy being generated?” is a question that doesn’t make sense, because they wouldn’t want to be on the spectrum altogether. As Robin Hanson makes clear in the blogpost, it isn’t about painting one side of this debate as being “right” or “wrong”, it’s about folks on both sides not willing to think about the world in opportunity costs:

He doesn’t really distinguish the marginal value of more energy from that of more other kinds of modern inputs and capital. And he doesn’t seem to want to admit that CO2 emissions might have mild negative externalities which could justify mild taxes.

And Robin Hanson then comes up with one of my favorite sentences ever:

“As an economist I’m sad to think we can’t make a more reasonable choice in the middle, where everything we value gets traded off via conscious calculation mediated by mundane prices.”

Who defines what is reasonable? Where is this “middle” to be found? Do we all value everything equally? How do we set up markets and institutions that allow for these trade-offs? How do we get prices to become mundane? What does that even mean? What if certain things don’t have prices, mundane or otherwise?

Start thinking about these questions, and whether you like it or not, you’ve enrolled yourself in an econ course. And in my opinion, the world would be a much better place if everybody did just that: enrolled in an econ course.

Opportunity costs matter.

So You Think You Know Economics

I hope you do, and I think I do – know economics, that is.

But I’ve always thought about economics (how to get the most out of life), here on earth. I haven’t thought about what economics might be like on other planets, on space stations, or on whatever else lies ahead of us in terms of both space and time (pun kind of intended).

Paul Krugman had a fun paper about this written more than forty(!) years ago. The paper is freely available, and you can download it over here, but there is also a Wikipedia article about it, if you would prefer to begin there.

As the Wikipedia article says, the summary of the paper was this:

How should interest rates on goods in transit be computed when the goods travel at close to the speed of light? This is a problem because the time taken in transit will appear less to an observer traveling with the goods than to a stationary observer.

The next line in the Wikipedia article is genuinely funny, and that in typical Krugman style:

This paper, then, is a serious analysis of a ridiculous subject, which is of course the opposite of what is usual in economics.

But a much more recent post by Robin Hanson invites us to do a serious analysis of a no-longer-ridiculous subject: how should one think about social analysis of a future that is much more about space travel.

We understand space tech pretty well, and people have been speculating about it for quite a long time. So I’m disappointed to not yet see better social analysis of space futures.
In this post I will therefore try to outline the kind of work that I think should be done, and that seems quite feasible.

I teach Principles of Economics for a living, but have only very rarely (well ok, almost never) thought about Principles of Economics as it relates to space travel. As Tyler Cowen might say, most of the basic principles will remain the same, and demand curves will slope downwards, but what will actually change?

This is surprisingly hard to think about, because I tend to just assume that economics is always earth bound. And it takes me time to wrap my head around the fact that I’m thinking about economics in a very different context. Robin Hanson helps us overcome this initial hurdle:

Here is the basic approach:
1. Describe how a space society differs from others using economics-adjacent concepts. E.g., “Space econ is more X-like”.
2. For each X, describe in general how X-like economies differ from others, using both historical patterns and basic econ theory.
3. Merge the implications of X-analysis from the different X into a single composite picture of space.

His first example about X is that of lower density. Or, in plainer English, space is just going to be really far away from everything else. I mean, really far away. What does that mean for an economy, when it is just ridiculously far away from everything else?

Let’s think through this a bit. Can, say, thinking about Neom be similar to thinking about this problem? Or Naypyidaw? Or are we talking about a completely different problem, because of the vast difference in terms of distance? And if you say it is a completely different problem, why do you say so?

Are we talking about travel costs being significantly different? What about the cost of communication (both within that base, and back to Earth)? Which resources become more valuable because this base is s far away, and which resources are valuables “just” because they are scarce on that base? Will, as Robin Hanson points out, lower density mean lower product variety, and what will that imply for this economy? How should one think about Dixit-Stiglitz in this context?

Read the whole thing, of course, but Robin Hanson points out a variety of ways in which space economics is going to be different. I’ll highlight just a few below:

  1. It’s going to be very far way, as we just discussed
  2. It’s going to be much harsher (read science fiction!)
  3. It’s going to be wildly different in terms of resource economics
  4. What about population growth?

As I said, I struggle to think about this just because my mental framework thinks about economics in a very Earthian (yes, this is now a word) context. And that precisely why I enjoyed reading this blogpost so much, because it gives me a very pleasant headache about stuff I thought I knew.

And I hope you’ll spend some time with this very pleasant headache too! 🙂

Update: Shubhneet Arora sends along this recent Krugman column/newsletter, very relevant to this blogpost. Thanks Shubhneet!

On The Economics of Line Cutting

Robin Hanson is a person whose books, blog posts and tweets are all worth reading. You may not agree with him, some of his questions may raise your hackles, and some of his conclusions may make you want to tear your hair out, but those (to me) are arguments in his favor.

In a recent blogpost, Robin Hanson thinks about the economics of line cutting. This is a topic of some controversy at our household, for I and my wife have very different approaches to requests from strangers to cut in, while we are waiting in line.

My wife adopts a very belligerent stance, and is not at all open to the idea of allowing anybody to cut the line in front of her. It’s just too bad, she informs them, that you’re pressed for time, but my time is equally valuable. There is a line for a reason, she goes on to say, and surely it cannot be the case that our time (all those who are waiting in line) is less valuable. So please, she firmly suggests, get in line and wait for your turn.

I, on the other hand, am all about grimacing and waving the intruder ahead. I might shake my head and mutter under my breath about the unfairness of it all, but I’m willing to let people get ahead of me, especially so if they seem to be particularly harried.

Robin Hanson has some ‘advice’ for me:

While we like to claim that we are being nice, I suggest that we are avoiding confrontation. When someone makes an apparently aggressive move at our expense, we can either oppose them and risk a confrontation, or give in and avoid confrontation. Giving in is much easier for us when we have the excuse of how doing so is in fact us being nice.
We will often let people walk all over us as long as we can pretend we are thereby being nice. Even those tasked with enforcing rules against line cutting prefer to avoid confrontation. We all somehow seem to embrace the norm that those willing to risk confrontation should get their way, even if at others’ expense. We accept the dominance of the willing to try to dominate.

It is very hard to be objective about these things, but I do think it is likely that I am letting a person cut ahead of me because I willing to pay with my time to avoid confrontation. Don’t get me wrong, I would love it if I am willing to let people get ahead because I just am such a wonderful guy, but it is true to that I will go to great lengths to avoid confrontation.

But enough pop psychology about me – the reason I bring this blog post up (and my willingness to experience inconvenience to avoid confrontation) is to highlight an important lesson: costs and benefits apply to everything in life, not just monetary concepts.

Your choices (all of them, across all dimensions) come with costs and with benefits. Not all of them need have pecuniary consequences (that’s just fancy pants English for ‘related to money’). In fact, most of them will not have direct pecuniary consequences.

But once you realize that money itself is the means to an end, and not an end in itself, you begin to realize that you need to start thinking about costs and benefits in a much broader way than you have thus far – and that economics is about much more than ‘just’ money.

And so, yes, one can (and should!) think about the economics of line cutting.

I hope you never ask to cut ahead of me in a line, but if you see me grimacing, know that I would much rather that you didn’t, but I value my peace and quiet more than I do the two minutes that I will save. Or, at any rate, that’s my current equilibrium.

Who knows what the future will bring, eh?

End of the week reading list: 6th Nov, 2020

The NYT comes up with a lovely selection of Agatha Cristhie novels. Light Diwali vacation reading if you are new to her works, perhaps?
(Also, every time I am reminded of this book below, I feel this urge to apologize to that one friend I inadvertently revealed the ending to – so once again, I’m really sorry!)

That would be “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” the story of a wealthy man slain in his study less than a day after the woman he hoped to marry commits suicide. Although — as Hercule Poirot discovers — the dead man’s assorted friends, relatives and servants have reasons to wish him ill, “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” will still leave you reeling. When you find out who the murderer is and begin leafing through the pages, looking for missed clues, you’ll realize just how completely Christie snookered you.

On the race to redesign sugar:

As public opinion turns against sugar, food companies have outdone one another in pledges to cut the quantities of it that appear in their products. Pepsi has promised that by 2025 at least two-thirds of its drinks will contain a hundred calories or fewer from added sweeteners. A consortium of candy companies, including Mars Wrigley, Ferrero, and Russell Stover, recently declared that by 2022 half of their single-serving products will contain at most two hundred calories per pack. Nestlé has resolved to use five per cent less added sugar by the end of this year—though, as of January, it still had more than twenty thousand tons of the stuff left to eliminate.

A short (and delightful) history of mashed potatoes:

During the Seven Years War of the mid-1700s, a French army pharmacist named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was captured by Prussian soldiers. As a prisoner of war, he was forced to live on rations of potatoes. In mid-18th century France, this would practically qualify as cruel and unusual punishment: potatoes were thought of as feed for livestock, and they were believed to cause leprosy in humans. The fear was so widespread that the French passed a law against them in 1748.

The excerpt below was an excerpt in the post I am linking to (if you see what I mean), but well worth your time, the entire blog post:

70% of us think that the average household income of the top 1% is more than ₹2.5L. In fact, a majority of us guess it is more than ₹5L. Similarly, a majority of the respondents assume that the average income of the top 10% of households is more than a ₹1L… We think of the top 1% as super-rich people. A majority of the respondents estimate that all of the top 1% have 4-wheelers. And 70+% feel that at least 90% of the top 1%-ers have 4-wheelers.

Robin Hanson wonders about taking rest:

While we seem to “need” breaks from work, many of our break activities often look a lot like “work”, in being productive and taking energy, concentration, and self-control. So what exactly is “restful” about such “rest”?