Macro is *Hard*, Edition #293483343643

I began teaching a course on introductory macro this past Saturday at a college here in Pune. I often tell my students that my job in a macro course is to leave them more confused at the end than they were at the start. That always evokes laugther by way of response, but as anyone who has learnt (and especially taught!) macro will tell you, I’m quite serious.

Macroeconomics is hard, it is confusing and as the person responsible for teaching it, you’re always on your toes, because you’re never sure if you’ve understood it yourself!

And I really do mean that, it is not a rhetorical statement. My own PhD is in macroeconomics (business cycles, more specifically), but I’ll happily admit to still not being sure about what exactly causes business cycles, what (if anything) to do about them and when to stop doing whatever it is that we’ve chosen to do about them. And I suspect that most macroeconomists will tell you the same thing.

This humility stems from a very good reason: macro is hard.

It is hard for lots of reasons, and not to get too meta, but quite a few debates within the field are also about which of these reasons are most relevant, and whether the relevance changes over time – and if so, due to which reasons!

But if I were to try and write a simple post for people who have no formal trianing in macro about why macro is so hard, here would be my reasons:

  1. Macro is really about trying to figure out everything that goes on in an economy, and if you try to think about all the things that go on in an economy, you very quickly realize that figuring them out is even more challenging.
  2. Time and uncertainty!
    • Macroeconomic decisions take time. It takes time to decide to start a new factory. It takes time to figure out the financing. Land acquisitions, regulatory approvals, construction delays will all add weeks to the planned schedule, if not months, and sometimes years.
    • These expensive decisions are made at the start, but there is no guarantee that macroeconomic conditions will be the same at the finish of the project as they were at the start. You want a relatable example? How sure are you that macroeconomic conditions will be the same when you graduate from college – as they were when you enrolled in it?
  3. The way macroeconomic variables interact with each other isn’t known for sure. We think we know how inflation and unemployment are related to each other, but we can’t really say for sure. We think we know how exchange rates impact the domestic economy, but we can’t really say for sure.We’re still figuring out how monetary policy and fiscal policy should interact in theoretical models, let alone in reality. The impact of monetary policy in America today on India’s economy tomorrow? Don’t get me started. I can go on, and folks with greater expertise than me will prbably not stop for years.
  4. Life has a way of throwing up surprises that macroeconomic models never thought about. You could (and probably should) blame macroeconomists for not getting enough finance into their models prior to 2008, but who, pray, could have foreseen 2020 and 2021? How do you come up with models and policies on the fly in such a scenario? And then, just for fun, throw in a jammed Suez canal. Life, I tell you.
    We call these things exogenous shocks in macroeconomics, but the name hardly matters. Reality will always be more complex and more unexpected than any model you can come up with, and that’s just a fact.
  5. Counterfactuals are impossible to test. How do we know that Ben Bernanke did the “right” thing in 2008? We don’t! What if he had done x instead of y? There’s no way to test this, since we can’t turn the clock back to 2008, and ask Mr. Bernanke to, well, do x instead of y. This is both a problem and when it comes to critiquing models, a great convenience.
  6. Attitudes towards risk, and the propensity to copy what others are doing change according to your outlook towards the macroeconomic environment. You can call this animal spirits, but what you’re really saying is that you don’t quite know how to think about it, even less model it cohesively.
  7. Building a model – any model – requires simplification. When you build a model, it will by definition be an approximation. Unfortunately (and I wish this weren’t so), this very real limitation isn’t always front and centre within the field while developing models.
  8. What are you optimizing for when you build a model? Is it fidelity to reality or is it a beautiful model that may or may not have anything to do with reality? Again, I wish this weren’t so, but the answer isn’t always clear cut.
  9. Any field that uses the pool player analogy is a field that is, by definition, unsure about how the world works.
  10. No matter how much data we have access to, there will always be data points that we cannot capture, and we don’t quite know how these data points, and their unavailability, will impact our understanding of the economy.
  11. Social structures, psychological make-up, cultural parameters will all have an impact upon the decision making capabilities of individuals, but quite how this works (and that too across space and time) isn’t well known. For example, how would your grandfather have reacted to the prospect of not being employed upon graduation? What about your dad? What about you? What does this say about the nature of India’s changing economy, and what does it say about cultural norms and expectations? Is your answer likely to be different depending upon how much your family earns, where in the country you are located and your family size? Can we model this? (Hint: no.)

So sure, I’ll teach them about the variables, the models and the case studies.

But I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret, so long as you promise not to tell anybody: I’m just not sure if I really and truly understand what I’m teaching in macro.

Ping!

I hadn’t scheduled a post for today, but I was fairly relaxed about it, since I knew both the topic that I wanted to write about and what the entire post would look like. Shouldn’t take me too long, I thought to myself as I went through my to-do list yesterday evening, and I kept some time aside today morning to do just that.

But just as I was about to settle down and thump said post out, my daughter came and asked me if we could “play the geography game”. What is the geography game, you ask? Oh, a very simple thing: we have created chits of paper on which we have written down the names of India’s states and union territories. We pull these chits out, one at a time, from a small pouch, and we have to name the capital of whichever state or union territory we’ve picked. A very simple, but also a very fun way to spend a part of the last chunk of her Diwali holidays.

But as with all young kids, remembering all of them is a little tricky. And even after four or five rounds of the game over the last two days or so, she was having trouble remembering all of them successfully. And so I taught her about ping!


Remembering random things used to be a weird little hobby of mine when I was in school. It helped me win all the quiz contests when I was in school (except for the last one, in my 10th standard, a fact which still upsets me – but let’s not go there), and it helped me mug up dreary old facts while “studying” in school.

I would tell myself little stories about these factoids to help me better remember them. These stories were completely nonsensical, almost utterly random associations, but they seemed to help. And the more I did it, the better I got at memorizing things. Much later, I learnt about neurons, synapses and plasticity (see here for a reasonably simple explanation), and the how and why of my little trick made much more sense. And I now think of the art of memorizing stuff as “ping!” – as neurons and synapses going, well, “ping!” in my head when I think of a particular topic.

To give you just one of literally millions of possible examples, here’s what the word “spice” brings up in my head. I “get” pings about “Spice Kitchen”, one of my favorite restaurants in Pune. I get pings about different kinds of spices, about my trips to Kerala, about Mark Wiens (a YouTuber who loves eating spicy food), about the Carolina Reaper – it goes on and on.

But as it turns out, you can train your brain to associate certain pings with certain things, and help you remember things better. Again, an example from my own experience. The word “ASEAN” I’ve learnt to associate with BIMP-ST-CMLV (I pronounce this as BIMP-ESS-TEE-CEE-EM-ELL-VEE). And that stands for Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that you remember the ASEAN countries this way (or indeed, even remember them at all). I’m simply explaining what works for me inside my head. And the more you play this game, the better you get at it. There’s much, much more that’s going on here, and far more than I can hope to condense into a single blogpost, but you might want to learn about more about, say, spaced repetition, eidetic memories and above all, memory of loci – just to get you started. And feel free to go down any rabbit hole that seems particularly interesting – ’tis Friday, after all. If you’re looking for recommendations, memory of loci would be my pick to get you started.


Which is what I call “ping!” I suppose – and isn’t it a much better way to remember this than “memory of loci”? And so we went ahead and “ping!ed” the list of India’s states and Union Territories. Himachal Pradesh, for my daughter, is a cold state, which she remembers now because I explained to her what the word “him” means in Sanskrit, and that reminds her of a trip she’d taken to Simla. Ping!

Tripura she now associates with agratala sancharam (she’s learning bharatanatyam), and that helps her remember the capital, of course. She was wearing pink pyjamas when we were playing this game, and that’s one way to help her remember the capital of Rajasthan! Again, to be clear, the specifics don’t matter, nor does the list of things to be memorized. Getting the idea behind “ping!” – that’s the important bit.


“Why did the pings in panji’s head go wrong?”

My maternal grandmother, and therefore my daughters great-grandmother (panji in Marathi) passed away earlier this year. She was suffering from dementia, besides other complications, and towards the end, she had forgotten almost all of our names. She would often confuse me with my maternal uncle, for example.

I was so happy that my daughter had learnt the concept, enjoyed applying it – and understood it well enough to be able to ask the question that she did – and at the same time, so overcome with emotion at the question and its timing, that I couldn’t fully respond. Kids, I tell you.


We’ll be ping!ing a part of today afternoon with our good friend Sal Khan re: this topic, and if you don’t feel like battling your work, feel free to “join” us instead!

Two Magic Questions

I’ve linked to this magnificent paper by Robert Frank quite a few times by now, and will begin today’s blogpost with a quote from it as well:

Again, the important point is not whether this is the best possible short list of principles but rather that instructors will teach their introductory students more effectively if they begin with a well-articulated short list of some sort and then doggedly hammer away at it, illustrating and applying each principle in context after context.

https://www.siue.edu/~wrichar/economic%20naturalist%20writing%20assignment.pdf

His list of principles is worthy of discussion, because it is different from mine. Of course, as he himself says, a different list is just fine (I would argue it’s a good thing, because there is then more to learn), and when I say worthy of discussion, I mean that as a “Yes, and” discussion rather than a “No, but” discussion. (Have I linked to this tweet before? Yes. And I will do so again, as will I link to Robert Frank’s paper again, because one should doggedly hammer away at points that need to be reiterated, giving context after context!)


But the reason I begin with this excerpt is because I want to add to my own list of principles two different questions which I believe help one become a better economist. I’ll speak about the first of these questions today, and add the second one in tomorrow.

Here’s the first question:

What are you optimizing for?

Here is a list of questions that I usually get at the start of every academic year:

  1. Which stream should I take, or if from a parent, which stream should my child take?
  2. Should I accept admission in xyz college, or should I go to abc college instead?
  3. Which universities should I apply to in which country once I graduate out of this course?
  4. Which textbook should I read to understand subject xyz?

And my answer to all of these questions is the same. I respond with a question of my own: what are you optimizing for?

With regard to the first question in the list, here are questions you might want to think about. Are you optimizing for a course that maximizes the likelihood that your (or your child’s) passion will be nurtured? Or are you optimizing for future income streams, regardless of passion? Are you optimizing for the ability to graduate without breaking into a sweat? Or are you optimizing for the best possible brand of university/college to graduate from? Or something else?

With regard to the fourth, here’s another list of questions. Are you looking for a book that will help you learn the most about this subject? Or are you looking for a book that will help you score well? Or are you looking for a book that will help you score reasonably well without working too hard? The fact that there are meaningful answers to each of these questions is an indictment of the way we teach and conduct examinations. But the fact that entirely acceptable (and different) answers exist for each category is the point.


And of course, one can come up with a similarly long list for virtually every single question that you can come up with, or will encounter. The reason you can always do so is precisely because of the fact that choices matter.

As a politician in power, are you optimizing for long run growth, or are you optimizing for votes in the next election? As a politician in the opposition, are you optimizing for toppling the current government, or are you optimizing for what’s best for your constituency/country? As a judge, are you optimizing for the best application of accepted and laid-down principles of justice, or are you optimizing for currying favors? As a teacher, am I optimizing for pretending to finish a syllabus by putting in the least amount of effort, or am I optimizing for making sure that my students leave the class wanting to learn more? As students, are you studying a particular subject in order to learn as much about it as possible or are you optimizing to score the highest amount of marks for the least amount of effort? As an employee in an organization, are you looking to do the best possible job in your role, or are you looking to meet the minimum amount of effort required to keep your job?

Always remember, the question “What should I do?”, whether asked to yourself or to somebody else, always deserves to be met with a question in response. The answer to this question will go a very, very long way in terms of helping you answer the original one.

Here is the question once again:

What are you optimizing for?

Are Teachers Evil?

Not, I assure you, clickbait.

This past weekend, I was lucky to attend an Unconference. An unconference, I learnt, is a conference with none of the rules of a conference. There are no panel discussions, there is no fixed agenda – in fact, the only rule is that there is no rule.

Attendees are asked to jot down their preferred topics for discussion on post-it notes, and put them up on a wall for for everyone to look at. These can be grouped together loosely, and folks who want to learn more through discussion and dialogue then assemble in an area to talk about these questions. You are free to leave at any point of time, no questions asked, and you are free to join any other session at any point of time, no questions asked.

Slight correction: there is a rule. At the end of the allotted time, you get up and move on. You always start on time, and you always end on time. But that apart, everything else is fair game.

If you think it all sounds a bit chaotic, you’d be right – it is. But then again, on the other hand, if you happen to think that conferences suffer from having too little chaos and therefore serendipity, you might want to try this format out. I assure you that it certainly worked for me.

Anyways, the point is that one of these little post-it notes, for one of these sessions, had this provocative question: “Are teachers evil?”. I hope to spend the rest of my life teaching people, beginning with economics, and as you might imagine, I made sure to attend this particular session.

The person who asked the question had school teachers in mind, but one of the joys of an unconference session is that participants are free to interpret the question however they like, and to take the discussion in any direction they like.

And I interpreted this question to mean any person anywhere who is teaching anybody, including themselves. This could be a parent teaching a child, this could be a teacher in a nursery school, or this could be a professor teaching Bayesian statistics class to PhD students. If you’re teaching, are you evil – this was my framing.

This blogpost isn’t about my reporting what went on in that one hour, fascinating though the discussion certainly was. This blogpost is about asking you to think about the question yourselves, and about my particular answer to this question.

First, take some time and ask yourself if the people who have taught you have been evil, and if you, in your role as a teacher, have been evil. Feel free to define for yourself what evil means in this context, and feel free to analyze for yourself the answer to this question.

Second, my answer, after a lot thinking about this question, is as follows.


Any teacher who kills curiosity about the subject being taught is evil.

If the teacher manages to kill curiosity altogether, the teacher is truly evil. On the flip side, if the teacher manages to make the student more curious about the subject being taught, the teacher is good. And if the teacher manages to make the student more curious about the world in general, the teacher is a legend.

But to me, teachers aren’t necessarily evil in and of themselves. As I see it, our job is to light the spark of curiosity, to kindle it, to feed it, and to nurture it. And to leave the student with an insatiable thirst to always want to learn more.

Failure to do this makes for a bad teacher, and the act of killing curiosity instead of nurturing it makes the teacher, yes, evil.

“Don’t kill curiosity” is a very low bar for those of us in the teaching fraternity. Making sure we never do so would be an excellent goal every single time we step into a classroom.

Help students learn better!

Joy to the World

Today, I begin teaching my favoritest (yup, it’s a word) course in the whole wide world: Principles of Economics.

This is a course offered in the first semester of the undergraduate program of the Gokhale Institute, and when we designed this course, we had a weird idea in mind: not a single equation in the whole course, and as few diagrams as possible.

The course is intended as an introduction to the core ideas and principles of economics. The undergrad degree has introductory micro in the second semester, and introductory macro in the semester after that – but the first semester is about just the principles, and the application of these principles.

Or, as I prefer to think of it, it is about falling in love with economics.


I came into economics purely by chance. I am an engineering dropout (Farhan in 3 Idiots? That’s me), and economics was seen as being “the most respectable” thing to study in a Bachelor of Arts degree. But the more I study the subject, and especially its principles, the more I fall in love with it. Economics, when taught well, and learnt well, is a subject that everybody should get to study, reflect on, and apply in their own lives.

That last sentence is an assertion, the defense of which is the whole course I am about to teach, but it is also my life’s mission. As many students as possible should have the opportunity to learn economics, insofar as it is taught well.

What does taught well mean? That’s a complicated question, and we’ll get to it in greater detail eventually, but here are three things that I would think are table stakes when it comes to teaching economics well:

  1. No textbook: Economics is far too broad and important a subject to be confined to a textbook. And I honestly think it is a dangerous idea to leave students with the impression that studying a textbook, and solving the end-of-chapter problems means you “get” economics. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Use many different textbooks, recommend parts of other books, encourage the students to think about economics when they’re watching movies, listening to songs, talking with their family or friends – but do not leave students with the idea that the study and the application of economics can be compartmentalized into a textbook and a series of examinations in a single semester.
    When the time comes to specialize in economics – when you want to draw a third budget line that is tangential to the first indifference curve but parallel to the second budget line – then sure, bring in the textbooks. But don’t leave students with the impression that this is all there is to economics.
    You might think that I’ve got the title of this section wrong – surely I mean to say not just one textbook? But no, I do mean no textbook! Given a choice, I’d much rather not have a single textbook. Videos, sure? Podcasts, bring ’em on. Novels, snippets from a variety of texts, movies, op-eds, blogs – yes. But for a subject as rich and precious as this, I am in favor of not confining teaching to just one recommended textbook.
  2. The point of economics is to be able to apply it: Learning about life being a non-zero sum game isn’t mugging up the definition so that one can regurgitate it in an examination. It is to apply it to all walks of life (it is one of the reasons I write this blog, for example). Learning about sunk costs should help you walk out of a bad movie. Learning about positive externalities should help you realize that starting your YouTube channel is an idea worth considering. Learning about opportunity costs should help you realize that spending more time on creating videos is a better use of your time than polishing a resume that is heavy on style and lacking in content. And so on. Dierdre McCloskey has an essay that I strongly disagree with, and my passion for teaching is renewed each time I read it.
  3. Passion: One should drive the point home in every single class in a subject such as this – don’t think of economics as a subject to be studied and then forgotten. It is a way to view the world, it is a way to enrich your ability to live your life to its fullest, and it is a way to help make the world a better place. The formal study of theoretical economics is about diagrams, and equations and derivations, sure – but the study of principles of economics is about unlocking secrets to a more productive life for yourself, and for society at large. Whoever is teaching this subject should agree wholeheartedly with this paragraph, to the point where “poora pagal hai” in this regard is both true and a compliment of sorts.

Economics is the study of how to get the most out of life is my favorite definition of economics, and today, I get the chance to teach a new bunch of students how and why this is true.

Bring it on!

Explain Stuff To People

I played a kiviq.us game in one of the classes I taught the other day, which happens pretty much every semester. By the way, if you haven’t used the website yet, please do give it a whirl. And the more the merrier – the last class, there were more than a hundred participants, and I can’t begin to tell you how much fun it was.

My assignment was based on the game too: the students had to go back home and play the game with friends and/or family, and then write up what they learned by helping other people play the game.

And the reason I bring this up is that I think learning happens best when you help other people learn. It’s one of the most famous quotes ever, and I’m certainly not claiming originality, but I am definitely re-emphasizing its importance and relevance: you learn best when you teach.

So if you really want to get a handle on a topic or a concept, get somebody to listen/read/see your explanation of a particular topic.

And speaking of which, learn a bit about Jack Corbett:

Mr. Corbett is an assistant producer of the NPR show “Planet Money,” who creates chaotic, studiously unpolished videos about economics for TikTok. Using pixelated graphics and low-fi editing, he produces skit-like primers on such arcane economic topics as Korean jeonse loans, how the NFT bubble can be explained by the greater fool theory, and time theft for low-wage workers.
“I try not to learn how to do things right,” said Mr. Corbett, who records his videos on a refurbished iPhone X. “For a while I used green screens as my drapes.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/18/style/jack-corbett-planet-money-npr.html

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: so long as you have an internet enabled smartphone (no matter how basic), you can help others learn, and I would argue that you should. For your own sake as much as that of others.

It’s almost like life is a non-zero sum game or something.

Will Classroom Teaching Change This Semester Onwards?

The new semester is underway in some colleges and universities, and others will begin soon enough. Across the country, a new bunch of students will be attending their first semesters in undergrad or postgrad courses.

This is both old news and news at the same time. There’s is nothing new in this if you take the long view, but given that this is the first semester post the end (?) of the pandemic, it is very new and very different.

Why different? Because we’ll be teaching students who have spent two years learning at/from home, and the way they have learnt is very different from the way they will learn in this semester.

  • Physical attendance will be required. Not by me, to be clear, but colleges and universities will require it (of course).
  • Usage of internet enabled devices might be frowned upon. Again, not by me, to be clear, but there will be a fair few number of colleges, universities and professors who will require complete attention, and that will mean no phones, tablets and laptops allowed.
    Let me be clear: I personally don’t mind usage of these devices in classes, but don’t hold very strong views on the subject, and am well aware of the fact that there are a large number of professors who hold very strong anti-device views. How this will play out is something I am very interested in seeing this semester.
  • Discussions, debates, arguments will be centre-stage once again in a classroom, and this time with many more people involved, whether they like it or not. Have we lost the skill? Will there be new norms given the last two years? Will it be more difficult to get discussions going, or will it be easier than ever before?
  • Every single professor I have spoken to has bemoaned the lack of eye-contact and visual cues while teaching. How will we adapt to having these advantages with us once again?
  • How screwed up are attention spans post pandemic? Not just because of ‘taking’ classes from home, but because of the pandemic itself – and how will these affect both teaching and learning?
  • Have students learnt to think of material available online as definitely being a substitute for an in-class experience, as opposed to a complement? And if so, are they likely to take less kindly to some of the teaching they will experience offline? And if so, how will colleges and universities respond? As my favorite blogger says, solve for the equilibrium.
  • Do pen and paper exams make sense anymore? If yes, why? If not, how are we thinking about substituting for them? Are these discussions taking place in higher-ed institutions across the country?
  • How should our pedagogy change? More videos shown in class? More interactive content? More discussions?
  • Will all classes be recorded and shared with students? Should they? If not, why not?
  • What percentage of subjects/courses offered in a semester will be offered ‘remotely’?
    • This is not just about habit formation. The one lesson that all course coordinators learnt during the pandemic (including yours truly) was that we need no longer be restricted by geography when it comes to hiring really good profs. But now that all classes are offline, should we just give up on profs we know are good, simply because they are not located in the same city/town as your campus? If the truth is to lie somewhere in the middle, how do we decide?
  • How will students solve what I’ve taken to calling the 2x problem? Imagine listening to the prof speak at 1x – how quaint (and quite possibly frustrating) it might seem to post-pandemic cohorts of students!

I don’t know the answers to even one of these questions. But in the semester that is coming up, I hope to spend a lot of time talking to folks who are in the higher-ed business to understand how classroom teaching will evolve from here on in. It promises to be a fascinating five months!

Here is an old blog post in which I predict that classroom teaching will decline from here on in, and wither away in the long run. And here is one in which I try to force myself to take the opposite position.

Thoughts, opinions and feedback is always welcome, but in the case of this blog post, especially so. If you are teaching a course in this semester and wish to chat, please drop me a line at ashish at econforeverybody dot com.

Play Like an Athlete?

Tyler Cowen has an excellent blogpost which should be read by everybody, titled “Learn like an athlete, knowledge workers should train“:

“Recently, one of my favorite questions to bug people with has been “What is it you do to train that is comparable to a pianist practicing scales?” If you don’t know the answer to that one, maybe you are doing something wrong or not doing enough. Or maybe you are (optimally?) not very ambitious?

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2019/07/learn-like-an-athlete-knowledge-workers-should-train.html

He followed up on that post a few days later with some examples of how he trains on a daily basis. That post is difficult to excerpt from, and so I won’t, but I urge you to read the entire thing. As an aside, I think the most underrated word in his post is “partial“. So very tantalizing, no?


I teach economics for a living, so I am very much a knowledge worker. What do I do to train like an athlete?

  1. As with Tyler, I teach, and the returns from engaging with students have been, are and very likely will continue to be stratospheric. Educational institutes seem to go out of their way to make this the least important activity for knowledge workers, more’s the pity. In my opinion, teaching is the single most important thing that a knowledge worker can do. And that applies to students as well! Teach. Write blogs, create videos, record podcasts, argue with your batchmates, argue with your professors – all of these are forms of teaching, and you can never do too much teaching.
  2. I try and write everyday, here on EFE. Over the past two years or so, there have been extended periods of time where I haven’t felt like writing, and I haven’t beaten myself up over it. If you don’t feel like it, you shouldn’t do it. (On a somewhat tangential note, read this. I have found it to be useful advice.)

But, I am sorry to report, I do not read anywhere near as much as I should, and this sorry trend has only exacerbated during the pandemic. Podcast listening is very much a thing I like to do when I drive, so that has also taken a hit during the pandemic. And I would like to figure out how to create videos as a way to teach at scale, but I just find writing to be easier, faster and something I’m better at right now. So if at all I train like an athlete, it is at a very mediocre level, at best.


But what am I training for?

To be a better athlete knowledge worker, sure, but to what end? Athletes train like athletes in order to win matches or competitions. Knowledge workers should train like athletes to win too, but the knowledge worker sport is a very different one, because knowledge workers play non-zero sum games.

Athletes win by defeating other athletes. That’s the nature of sport. Although athletes, when they’re not actually engaged in competition with each other, seem to be very willing to share tips and tricks, and the best ones go out of their way to mentor their fellow athletes. RIP, Shane Warne!

Knowledge workers win by helping others (not just knowledge workers!) win. Well, they should, at any rate.

Hold on to that thought for a second…


This sentence stood out for me in a recent Sidharth Monga piece:

So here we had a strange instance of the side ahead in the game playing lower percentages and the side needing to make all the play sticking with percentages.

https://www.espncricinfo.com/story/ipl-2022-rr-vs-kkr-how-kolkata-knight-riders-fumbled-against-the-genius-of-yuzvendra-chahal-1311429

And here’s what I’ve been playing around with – if us knowledge workers are training like athletes, it is for a game called life. As I explained above, I train like a mediocre athlete at best. How then should I play the percentages in a non-zero sum game?

Here are my current answers:

  1. If the winning strategy is to help myself by helping others as much as possible, I should, at the margin, read more, write more and teach more. Anything that distracts me from this should be avoided or discarded. That’s the (counter-intuitive) low-risk percentage play, assuming I’m correct about the winning strategy.
  2. But there is (always) a non-zero possibility that this may not be the winning strategy, so I should try and help myself a little bit for my own sake. And this in fact gives me the freedom to double down on pt. 1 regardless!
  3. I really should be training harder, dammit. This is self-evident, but also a little nuanced. I should be training harder in any case, because it is A Good Thing, but also to prepare myself for any opportunity that may come up to help others. Teaching economics to non-economists, teaching statistics to lawyers, teaching econometrics to grad students in econ, teaching people how to use technology to make themselves more productive, teaching project management to students so that they can become more productive – all are examples of teaching and all are non-zero sum games. And I should be doing more besides. And more urgently than I am right now.

Train like an athlete, and be as clear as possible about the answer to that irritating question that just won’t go away: what are you optimizing for?

But I suppose trying to answer that eternal question is itself a form of training, so there’s that. No?

Catch ’em Young!

I spent the last week of 2021 teaching young kids economics, and what a time I had.


This academic year (2021-22) has been the best ever at the Gokhale Institute where placements at the Master’s level are concerned. More students have been placed than ever before, and at higher average CTC’s (Cost to the Company) than ever before. If you’re looking for quasi-anecdotal data about how tight this particular segment of the labour market is in India, I’ve got a story to tell you.

But this ought to worry us, as educators. If you believe that the physical, classroom-based education is indispensable when it comes to making people productive in workplaces, then we have a nice little natural experiment coming up. Folks who have graduated this past year, or will graduate this year, will join workplaces without having seen a physical classroom for the better part of the last two years.

If there is no noticeable dent in their productivity, ability to come up to speed, or in the pay they receive over time (relative to folks older by a couple of years or so) then, well, we have problems, no? The Emperor’s New Clothes saga in higher education is upon us, and interesting times lie ahead.

One of the implications of this evolution, I think, will be making explicit something that everybody in higher education has known for years, but have been loathe to admit in public. An MBA degree, or a Master’s degree in econ/stats is a stepping stone to either a job or to further studies. For the most part – not exclusively so – sure, and sure there are students and educators who don’t subscribe to the college-as-a-conveyor-belt philosophy. But they are a fast dwindling breed. The vast majority of higher education isn’t about learning.

And classes, examinations and results have therefore become a sham that we must all pretend to take part in. In private, students will happily tell you how aware they are that this is a sham, as will professors. But one is not supposed to say these things in public – or at least, one wasn’t supposed to say this in public until the pandemic hit.


One of the first things I taught these young kids was the concept of incentive compatibility. And if you think about it, the whole course was an example of this concept, because there were (praise be the lord) no examinations. No marks to be scored, no grades to be obtained, and therefore no comparisons to be made. They were there to learn, which worked out just fine, because I was there to teach.

And I taught ’em! Across the space of five exhausting but exhilarating days, I took them through the principles of economics, introduced to them the headache that is macroeconomics, told them about externalities and other causes of potential market failure, introduced to them the wonder that is the prisoner’s dilemma, and so much more. It was a whistle-stop tour through the kingdom of economic theory, and I had an absolute blast.

The students, if anything, seemed to enjoy the experience even more than I did. Our classes would begin at nine in the morning and get over by four in the afternoon, but the questions would continue beyond, and spill over onto dinner time. And as an econ-nerd who loves introducing new topics to people, I can’t tell you how it gladdened my heart so to be talking about the iron law of diminishing returns at eight in the evening, after a full day’s worth of classes.


Did the students “get” everything, one might quite reasonably ask. And I’ll be honest and say probably not. It was a lot to pack in to just five days, and not all will have been retained. And of what has been retained, not all will be fully understood.

But they left class every day wanting to learn more about the topics that they had learnt. They remained curious and inquisitive, they were willing to push back on topics and concepts they didn’t understand or instinctively disagreed with.

And the feedback session at the end of the fifth day was my favorite bit, for the consensus seemed to be that economics was such a fascinating subject precisely because there were no fixed, definite answers to many big picture problems. For better or for worse, this is exactly what makes the study of economics appealing to me, and that is why this assessment of the subject gladdened my heart so.


I have often wondered what a classroom bereft of both the carrot of marks and the stick of attendance might look like. I have suspected that the only incentive left, then, is the curiosity to learn more about the subject at hand. And my hunch, for a long time, has been that this will make teaching, and learning, a much more pleasant experience.

And while one five-day session is perhaps too little data on the basis of which to make sweeping generalizations, I will say this much: my thesis about learning isn’t quite as hypo as it was before those five days.


There are problems to be solved, of course. Scale was and remains a challenge, the logistics aren’t easy, this isn’t a cost effective way to teach, and the there is no guarantee that the learning will persist over time. And I’m sure you, the reader, can come up with a hundred other things that could be better.

But hey, I have learnt that is possible to teach economics to students between the ages of 13-16. Not just possible, but thoroughly enjoyable.

And I look forward to doing more of it, with many more kids, in the years to come!

About Teaching Python to Students of Economics

This is a bit of a rushed post, my apologies. I hope to come back to this post and do a better job, but for the moment a placeholder post and a request:

Read the whole thread (including the responses). We (and by we I mean not just all of us at the Gokhale Institute, but higher education in economics in India) should be building out more courses of this nature.

If anybody is already doing this, please do get in touch. I would love to learn more about how to try and start something like this for my university.