Putting the Con in Convenience

Do nudges work?

Yes:

Governments are increasingly adopting behavioral science techniques for changing individual behavior in pursuit of policy objectives. The types of “nudge” interventions that governments are now adopting alter people’s decisions without coercion or significant changes to economic incentives. We calculated ratios of impact to cost for nudge interventions and for traditional policy tools, such as tax incentives and other financial inducements, and we found that nudge interventions often compare favorably with traditional interventions. We conclude that nudging is a valuable approach that should be used more often in conjunction with traditional policies, but more calculations are needed to determine the relative effectiveness of nudging.

Benartzi, S., Beshears, J., Milkman, K. L., Sunstein, C. R., Thaler, R. H., Shankar, M., Tucker-Ray, W., Congdon, W. J., & Galing, S. (2017). Should governments invest more in nudging?. Psychological Science, 28(8), 1041-1055.

Which kind of nudges work best?

Perhaps the most frequently mentioned nudge is the setting of defaults, which are pre-set courses of action that take effect if nothing is specified by the decision-maker. This type of nudge, which works with a human tendency for inaction, appears to be particularly successful, as people may stick with a choice for many years (Gill, 2018).

https://www.behavioraleconomics.com/resources/mini-encyclopedia-of-be/nudge/

Is that always and everywhere a good thing? Well…

The logical extreme is the endlessly renewable subscription. Alongside the familiar bills for utilities, internet, mobile phone and mortgage, our household subscriptions include services as varied as an online yoga resource, access to all the Star Wars and Marvel movies, a Patreon campaign, wine, Amazon Prime, Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, apps for mindfulness, language learning and productivity, two cloud storage services, unfettered access to BoardgameArena and a music bot on Discord.
Some of that will be incomprehensible, I’m sure; 15 years ago it would have been not just incomprehensible, but unimaginable. Yet not only are we paying for all this, we’re paying without a clear idea of when or how much the payments are, or even the method of payment we are using.
In a classic article from 2006, “Paying Not To Go To The Gym”, economists Stefano DellaVigna and Ulrike Malmendier compared consumers paying for health club membership in three different ways: with a 10-visit pass, on an annual membership and with an auto-renewing monthly subscription. The monthly consumers had more flexibility — and paid for the privilege — but they did not use it. Instead, they stayed subscribed for longer, paid nearly twice as much per gym visit and typically took more than two months to cancel after their final gym appearance. All these online subscriptions are plugging into something that health-club owners have known all along.

https://timharford.com/2021/07/why-we-lose-track-of-spending-in-a-cashless-society/

Most students I speak to are fascinated with behavioral economics, and rightly so. It’s a great way to learn at the intersection of economics and psychology, and ask how both fields of study might become better.

But it might make sense to ask if behavioral economics as a tool in less-than-perfectly-ethical hands might lead to less-than-perfect outcomes. And that is a worthy field of study too!

As an example:


Nobody is saying, least of all me, that behavioral economics is “wrong”, or “dangerous”. But I think it makes sense to realize that it is a tool, and can be misused, just like any other tool. If anything, given the very real biases and heuristics that all of us are susceptible to and use (respectively), it is perhaps more likely to be misused.

Always consider both sides of an argument, especially if you instinctively like one side more! 🙂

The Long, Slow, But Inevitable Death of the Classroom

If you read enough about Robert Solow, this quote coming up is but a matter of time:

You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics

http://www.standupeconomist.com/pdf/misc/solow-computer-productivity.pdf

Much the same could be said about internet based learning technologies if you tried to measure it in colleges and universities before March 2020. We had lip service being paid to MOOC’s and all that, but if we’re being honest, that’s all it was: lip service.

Things have changed around a bit since then, I think.

We’ll get to that later on this post, but let’s go back to the seeing computers everywhere but in the productivity statistics bit for the moment. Paul David, an American economist, wrote a wonderful essay called “The Dynamo and the Computer: An Historical Perspective on the Modern Productivity Paradox“, back in 1990.

I think of this essay as an attempt to respond to the question Robert Solow had posed – why isn’t the data reflecting the ubiquitousness of the computer in the modern workplace? Read the essay: it’s a very short, very easy read.

Paul David draws an analogy between the move away from steam as a source of power, back at the end of the 19th century.

In 1900, contemporary observers well might have remarked that the electric dynamos were to be seen “everywhere but in the productivity statistics!”

David, P. A. (1990). The dynamo and the computer: an historical perspective on the modern productivity paradox. The American Economic Review80(2), 355-361.

Adjusting to a new technology, it turns out, takes time.

Steam-powered manufacturing had linked an entire production line to a single huge steam engine. As a result, factories were stacked on many floors around the central engine, with drive belts all running at the same speed. The flow of work around the factory was governed by the need to put certain machines close to the steam engine, rather than the logic of moving the product from one machine to the next. When electric dynamos were first introduced, the steam engine would be ripped out and the dynamo would replace it. Productivity barely improved.
Eventually, businesses figured out that factories could be completely redesigned on a single floor. Production lines were arranged to enable the smooth flow of materials around the factory. Most importantly, each worker could have his or her own little electric motor, starting it or stopping it at will. The improvements weren’t just architectural but social: Once the technology allowed workers to make more decisions, they needed more training and different contracts to encourage them to take responsibility.

https://slate.com/culture/2007/06/what-the-history-of-the-electric-dynamo-teaches-about-the-future-of-the-computer.html

Again, please read the whole thing, and also read this other article by Tim Harford from the BBC, “Why didn’t electricity immediately change manufacturing?” The article, by the way, is an offshoot of a wonderful podcast called “50 Things That Made The Modern Economy“. Please listen to it!

But here’s the part that stood out for me from that piece I excerpted from above:

“Eventually, businesses figured out that factories could be completely redesigned on a single floor. Production lines were arranged to enable the smooth flow of materials around the factory. Most importantly, each worker could have his or her own little electric motor, starting it or stopping it at will.”

https://slate.com/culture/2007/06/what-the-history-of-the-electric-dynamo-teaches-about-the-future-of-the-computer.html

Colleges and universities are today designed around the basic organizational unit of a classroom, with each classroom being “powered” by a professor.

Of the many, many things that the pandemic has done to the world, what it has done to learning is this:

each worker learner could have his or her own little electric motor personal classroom, starting it or stopping it at will.

In fact, I had a student tell me recently that she prefers to listen to classroom recordings later, at 2x, because she prefers listening at a faster pace. So it’s not just starting or stopping at will, it is also slowing down or speeding up at will.

Today, because of the pandemic, we are at an extreme end of the spectrum which describes how learning is delivered. Everybody sits at home, and listens to a lecture being delivered (at least in Indian universities, mostly synchronously).

When the pandemic ends, whenever that may be, do we swing back to the other end of the spectrum? Does everybody sit in a classroom once again, and listens to a lecture being delivered in person (and therefore synchronously)?

Or does society begin to ask if we could retain some parts of virtual classrooms? Should the semester than be, say, 60% asynchronous, with the remainder being doubt solving sessions in classroom? Or some other ratio that may work itself out over time? Should the basic organizational unit of the educational institute still be a classroom? Does an educational institute still require the same number of in person professors, still delivering the same number of lectures?

In other words, in the post-pandemic world…

How long before online learning starts to show up in the learning statistics?

Additional, related reading, for those interested:

  1. Timothy Taylor on why “some of the shift to telecommuting will stick
  2. An essay from the late, great Herbert Simon that I hadn’t read before called “The Steam Engine and the Computer
  3. The role of computer technology in restructuring schools” by Alan Collins, written in 1990(!)

Nilay Patel interviewed Marques Brownlee, and I took notes. Lots of notes.

I’ve been watching MKBHD videos for a while now, but a favorite activity for my daughter and I this past summer has been to watch them together.

As anybody who has watched them will attest to, they’re impeccably produced, and always manage to strike that perfect balance between being fun and informative. And trust me, getting that balance right is hard. But my daughter, who notices these things much more than I do, also points out his (Marques Brownlee‘s) diction, the way he sets up his backgrounds (or set, or whatever you call it) – and also how much better his voice seems to be than in other videos.

And since she’s mentioned it, it’s hard to ignore. It’s clear that a lot of work goes into producing these videos – and to put out over a hundred of them in one year is seriously impressive – which his channel did last year. What’s even more impressive is the fact that he plans to launch more channels this year, let alone videos.

I got to know about this in a very well done podcast, in which Nilay Patel spoke with Marques about what I wrote about in the preceding paragraph, and a whole host of things besides. Reading the transcript as an economist was interesting, for a lot of things resonated with concepts we teach (and don’t, but should) in class. They weren’t referring to the concepts, of course, for both are (probably) blessedly unaware of boring ol’ econ texts – they were just solving, or thinking, about the challenges they face in the course of their work.

But if you’re somewhere between the age of 18 to 24, and wondering where the hell (and how) to apply things we teach you in your classes – well what better way to learn than this? Ec101 applied to MKBHD videos – whatay way to learn, no?

Notes and brief explanations follow:

  • “You’ve got to embrace uncertainty.”

    A point that both of them agreed upon, and the context was noise in the background. As a statistician, when I think noise, I’m thinking randomness, and that makes this quote even better. You can have the most refined system in the world for doing stuff, but you have to make leeway for unanticipated stuff. Things can go wrong, pandemics can spread, neighbours can make lots of noise. Anticipate it: embrace it!

    The larger point, in simpler words: make a plan, of course, but budget for chaos. It’s always there.
  • “I couldn’t believe I was finding something that I didn’t see in those other videos. So I was like, the obvious answer is to add to that collection of information, so when someone else is choosing what to buy, they can make a better choice than I did.”

    Scratch your own itch is advice that you often hear in entrepreneur world, and Marques is speaking about exactly that over here. Except of course, he isn’t just speaking about it, he is quite literally doing it. In fact, he did it 11 years ago, and has just kept at it ever since. That’s a pretty good business model, if you ask me.

    Teach like you wish you had been taught is what I want to do in life, by the way, although I cannot claim to have come anywhere close to figuring a business model out.
  • “So there’s a lot more going on, but I think the teamwork of it all is something that can be pretty underrated.”

    Marques says this in the context of how he plans to scale up his work this year. Here’s the thing – learning how to do something (assuming you want to learn it in the first place) is a lot of fun. Teaching others how to do it is also a whole lot of fun.

    Building a team of such people, and getting them to do what you want to get done – and that too, just so – that is oh-my-god-hard. “Pretty underrated”? That’s pretty understated!
  • “We have a big cast of characters at The Verge. MKBHD, that’s just you. You are a pretty unscalable property. That group of people you’re bringing in and hiring, is that to help you spend more time in front of the camera or is that an attempt to scale you in a different way?”

    Marques’ answer is pretty instructive, but if you’re looking to start a business, and looking to scale it, one challenge you will face is getting folks to do what you want them to do, plus anticipating the fact that in businesses such as this one, Marques himself is the biggest draw. Imagine The Seen and the Unseen without Amit Varma, or Mark Wiens’ videos without Mark Wiens. You have two choices: plan on not scaling, or fight a very hard battle. It’s easy to draw a diagram that teaches you the theory of scaling – doing it in the real world is bloody hard.
  • “You were just intently focused on completing a motion graphics course that you had been taking. And now it’s several years later and you’re not that deep in the weeds. You’ve just hired a motion graphics person and you’re talking about scaling your business and using your facilities in a different way.”

    That’s part of a question that Nilay asked Marques, but if you’re not thinking pin factory, your econ prof and you need to talk. One important part of scaling is what Adam Smith referred to as the division of labor. You can’t – nobody can – do every single thing in a business. Some parts of it need to be outsourced to lawyers and PR firms, as they speak about in the interview later, some parts to motion graphics persons – whatever.

    But you have to let certain tasks go. Which tasks? To whom? How to recruit the most perfect person possible? How to get that person to stay? How to get that person to work with the other folks on the team? Pretty underrated indeed!

    Oh and by the way, this part we don’t teach you in college. We should, if you ask me, but we don’t.
  • “We’ve basically shot all of our videos with my directors on Zoom and I’m just like, “man, this is not even close.” It’s very fun, and then that novelty fades and you just miss having everybody there.”

    This might not be true (hopefully!) after 2021, but if you’re looking to intern this summer, or start work this year, this is a real problem. Americans have this thing they call “watercooler conversations”. If you’re Indian, we’re talking about chai/sutta breaks. Doesn’t matter if you’re a smoker or not, that’s not the point. Conversations in a more relaxed environment after you’ve been in the heat of battle together is where informal debriefings happen, and that is going to suffer this year. There are businesses trying to virtualize this – but color me skeptical. In person is always better, and that’s the worst part of graduating in this of all years.
  • “One question from our video team that I thought was really interesting: as you’ve been on the path of growing bigger and bigger, you haven’t had a boss. How do you grow and improve when the audience is overwhelmingly telling you that you’re great? Where do you find the incentive or the self-criticism to improve? You’ve obviously wildly improved over time, but where does that really come from?”

    Marques’ answer to this question is worth reading in its entirety, but the larger point is that you need people who have the ability to give you frank feedback. That’s hugely underrated. A spouse, a friend, a significant other, a business partner, a junior – whoever. But you need it!

    This reminds me of a reply that Seth Godin gave to a question Tim Ferris asked him in a podcast some years ago:

    “But the other kind is so rare, so scarce, so precious I only get little dribs of it now and then. Which is someone who gets you, someone who can see right through to your soul who, with generosity and care, can look you in the eye, hand you back something and say: I think this would be better if you did it again. I had a business partner, Steve, who was like that in 1979 and ’80, ’80 and ’81. And finding that again in a consistent way is really precious and really hard.”

    (It goes without saying: listen/read the whole interview. Just wonderful.)
  • “We’ve never really set view count goals, but we did have a goal to make 100 videos in the calendar year and we did end up doing that, which is great. A lot of that stuff that we’re aiming for is more, I guess qualitative is the word, but it’s hard to define.”

    What are you optimizing for? This is related to yesterday’s post, and it ought to be a question you ask yourself everyday. I don’t ask myself this question everyday, but I wish I did. It really and truly helps, because if what you are doing isn’t helping what you’re optimizing for, then you shouldn’t be doing it.

    Marques isn’t optimizing for views. He’s not looking to maximize hits, views or any of those metrics. He’s setting a target for quantity, as he says in the quote above, but he also is (implicitly in the quote, but trust me explicitly in his work) optimizing for quality. As I said towards the end of yesterday’s post, get the process right. The rest takes care of itself. (See also: Goodhart’s law)

    Also read this excerpt from Tyler Cowen’s interview of Jimmy Wales:

    “When we think about things at Wikipedia — for example, we could probably increase engagement if we use some of the very basic machine learning techniques to start showing people random promotional links to other things than Wikipedia and then have the machine learn over time how to show you links that are more interesting so that you end up staying on the site longer.

    Now, it might turn out that that’s completely normal and thoughtful, in fact, if you go to a well-known economist, that it turns out that the way to keep you on the site longer is to show you other concepts of economics and economic theory. But it might turn out, and probably would turn out, the best thing to do is, when you go to look up Tyler Cowen, to show you on the sidebar links to Kim Kardashian, Donald Trump, whatever the hot topic of the day is and so on, which is not really what you want from an encyclopedia.

    When we think about that, our incentive structure at Wikipedia is not to optimize time on-site. It’s to say, look, every now and then, normally at the end of the year, we say, “Hey, would you donate some money?” Nobody has to donate. The only reason people do donate — and this is what donors tell us — is they think, “This is meaningful. This is important to my life. This should live. This should exist.”

    Bottom-line: If you are not clear about what you’re optimizing for, you will struggle. Get that clear, for yourself, and be ruthless about sticking to it. (It’s easy for me to say this, but it is very difficult for me to do it. Just so we’re clear!)
  • “I live inside of Google Calendar and Google Tasks. I would be a lost human without those things. I kind of think about this a lot — how much time I spend doing the thing versus managing how we make the thing. And it turns out that the management part has become a lot more of my job, but almost necessarily, to make it a better thing.”

    Managing time is hard. It is really, really, really hard. I have tried I don’t know how many different things, apps, methods and what not, but it is hard. If you are going to make a plan (for spending your day, for studying for your exam, for starting a business, whatever) budget twice the amount of time you think you will take to do something, because you will waste time. That, I am sad to say, is my lived reality.

    Nilay’s next question is about exactly this, by the way.
  • “I think I tweeted a couple of weeks ago how many emails I get that are just like, “Hey, this is us. We’ve got this idea. When can we hop on a call?” But I don’t really want to do that. If you can’t get your idea down in a couple sentences in an email, it’s probably not a good enough idea.”

    Something that I have started to do over the last two years or so: whenever I have to give an assignment, it’s usually along these lines.

    “Write in fifteen sentences (or lesser) your understanding of [whatever it is that they’re supposed to write about]. No conjunctions, no colons, no semi-colons.”

    It is fascinating to me how what seems to be good news to the students turns out to be a problem, because Pascal.
  • “We say no to 99 percent of the things that we get offered to do. But that last 1 percent of things, we think very deeply about, and work with a lot of people to try to make the right decisions and pull it off well.”

    Derek Sivers has an interesting book about this.
  • “If it’s a bad product, it’s not worth doing it at all, even if we would’ve made a ton of money. If it’s a bad integration or if it’s a bad company to work with, I have to say no, because it just doesn’t fit. So that fit is often more important than the math of the per-minute or per-project basis.”

    The preceding questions (to this quote) are about what metrics Marques uses, and you should read about it if you are in this business, but the larger point is what Marques is saying here – and this was referred to earlier in this post as well. Metrics are all well and good, but do the work – and work means quality work. The rest follows.
  • “I know celebrity culture is different in everyone’s heads, but I look up to Michael Jordan the athlete and nothing else about him.”

    My personal opinion, but that is exactly how it should be. But that is a separate post in its own right.
  • “The way I see YouTube is, it’s kind of like driving for Uber. If you stop driving for Uber for a week, you won’t make any money that week. And I think adding more people to this team makes it feel like putting that Uber on autopilot so I’m not doing quite as much of the lifting, but it still has to drive.”

    Read The Four Hour Work Week.

Up until the last bullet point above, this post was 2,455 words in length. That, I suppose, is about enough for a blogpost. But there’s more, much more, in this interview. So please, read/listen to it in its entirety.

But hey, I’m clearly on a roll, so I cannot resist one final piece of advice. Take notes, and write down your thoughts about what you’ve consumed. Even if nobody else is ever going to read it.

It really and truly helps.

Notes on “India’s Footwear Industry: A Reality Check”

Gulzar Natarajan has an excellent, excellent blogpost up on this blog, Urbanomics, titled “India’s Footwear Industry: A Reality Check“. In what follows, I make notes for myself about the post in terms of what it reminds me of, what I did not understand, and additional links or resources I learnt about while reading the post.

  • “The footwear industry makes 2 billion pairs, of which 286 million pairs were exported last year. It employs 2-4 million people, the vast majority as informal and contract labour and/or hired through manpower agencies and at very low salaries in the range of Rs 6000-10000.”
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    Reading more about this helped me land up on a website called worldfootwear.com, and I learnt of the existence of the 2019 World Footwear Yearbook. In 2018, the world manufactured 24.2 billion pairs of footwear, and the industry grows at about 3% a year in normal circumstances – give or take a few points.
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    90% of all shoes manufactured in the world come from Asia. That makes sense, as Asia is responsible for 54% of the world’s demand for footwear on an annual basis.
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    China alone was responsible in the year 2018 for about 70% of the world’s exports.
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    All of these snippets come from this page.
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  • “As a summary, the current state of the Indian footwear industry is characterised by small scale, very low productivity, low automation, stagnant growth, and pervasive informality.”
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    One of the reasons I liked reading this blogpost so much is because while I get to learn a lot about the footwear industry in India, I also get to reflect on how so much of what is true for the footwear industry is also true of other industries in India. The inability to break out of the small scale (about which much more below), the low levels of automation and the pervasive informality are to be seen in almost all industries in India. There is, perhaps, a sociological point to be made about whether the causality runs from the inability to scale to informality or the other way around (or indeed, both!), but we’ll save that for another day.
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  • “The highest value market segment is the mainstream global branded manufacturing in non-leather footwear. But this is a segment that has proved elusive even to the Chinese manufacturers, especially in the global market. It may well be outside the reach of Indian manufacturers, unless some particular brand breaks out due to a combination of exceptional entrepreneurship and even more exceptional good fortune.”
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    As you will learn later on in this blogpost, Gulzar Natarajn seems to be as big a fan of “How Asia Works” as I am, and perhaps a bigger one. One of my favorite questions to ask in class as a consequence of reading that book is this one “Name one globally recognized brand from ASEAN nations”. This applies to India, and to a lesser extent to China as well – that’s basically the point that is being made here. Being a manufacturing and export powerhouse is not the same as building globally recognized brands.
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    This brings to mind both the “manufacturing smile” as well as Peter Thiel’s distinction between technology and globalization. It also raises important questions about what paths India should choose between for the next two decades when it comes to manufacturing policy, but again, more on that later.
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  • “The next best alternatives may be to increase their share of the Indian branded manufacturing segment and become large scale contract manufacturers for global brands. This is the playbook of the Chinese footwear industry.”
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    Have you read Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight? Don’t know who Phil Knight is? Well, have you heard of Nike? Read especially the bits about his travels in Japan, in search of contract manufacturers.
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  • Gulzar Natarajan’s first recommendation when it comes to the footwear industry in India is to be a contract manufacturing hub. Easier said than done! (To be clear, that is not a criticism of the point he makes – it is a reinforcing of his message, and also a reminder to readers that India is not quite ready to this just yet, for a variety of reasons).
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    One of these reasons is actually mentioned in a more recent post by the same author, regarding Vietnam’s recent agreement with Europe about tariffs on Vietnam’s exports.
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    What about India and the EU, you ask?
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    “Negotiations for a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the EU and India were launched in 2007 and suspended in 2013 due to a gap in the level of ambition between the EU and India.”
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  • The last bullet point was about India making for the world. Gulzar Natarajan goes on to point that we must also think about India making footwear for India.
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    “Any strategy to increase local branded manufacturing to capture this market has to focus on Make for India (and not Make in India for the world). This does not mean skimping on quality, but competing with the imported manufacturers by gradually improving productivity. This can be done only by efficiency gains to cut costs – improving labour productivity, local component manufacturing, greater automation (not full automation, but enough to enhance labour productivity), and economies of scale.”
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    He speaks about each of these four points: improving labor productivity, local component manufacturing, greater automation and economies of scale in his blogpost, click here to read those specific parts of the post.
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  • Gulzar Natarajan speaks about manufacturers having no incentive to train workers:
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    “In order to train the workers, the manufacturers have to incur the cost of trainings as well as bear their salaries. They have no incentive to bear this cost, even if a couple of months trainings can suffice.”
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    Well, maybe so. But this does remind me of an excellent excerpt from one of my favorite books to recommend to students about macroeconomics – Tim Harford’s “The Undercover Economist Strikes Back
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    The section on Ford and superior wages is especially worth reading. Perhaps I am missing an obvious point (which is all too possible), but I can’t help but wonder why Ford’s strategy cannot work in India – whether on footwear or elsewhere.
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  • “While capital investment subsidies are in general not a very desirable thing, some form of fiscal incentives may be necessary to encourage the smaller and medium sized manufacturers to increase their level of automation. Though targeting and tailoring these subsidies will be challenging, the government could consider a subsidy that is linked to some performance, either exports or on higher productivity growth.”
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    For those of you who have read the book, the reference is unmistakable. And for those of you who haven’t, I’ll say it again: How Asia Works is mandatory reading.
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  • “The Government of India already has specialised institutions on footwear design and leather research. There is a need to have them play a much more proactive role in supporting with supply of trained and quality designers. There may also be a need for an arrangement to access good quality designers at a reasonable cost. An incentive compatible subsidy mechanism may be required here too. This should be complemented with colour and fashion forecasting support.”
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    I actually find myself in disagreement here with Gulzar Natarajan. Reading this post made me aware of the Best Footwear Design and Development Institute (yes, it really exists), but isn’t this an example of government overreach? Facilitating a college like this is one thing, actually having government run it is quite another, no?
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    But the solution is in the quote above: incentive compatible subsidy mechanism. Another recommendation in this regard: please read In The Service of the Republic, by Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah. My notes on this book can be found here. Providing subsidies that are designed to keep incentives (preferably for both parties) in mind is a surprisingly powerful idea!
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  • “For sure, the industry will not collapse, but will meander along business as usual. There may even be the occasional mutant success. But there cannot be a sectoral exit out of the current low productivity and stagnation trap.”
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    It is oddly depressing to have Gulzar Natarajan be pessimistic about the growth prospects for this sector, particularly because it is so hard to disagree with him on this account.
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  • He is against tax breaks, particularly because of the inevitable equilibrium in terms of the lobbying that will take place.
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  • “The conventional wisdom in this regard blames poor quality of infrastructure, restrictive labour laws, difficulty in assembling large land parcels, high cost of capital, and pervasive red-tape. These are all, in general, factors of concern.”
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    My favorite book to recommend to students in this regard is Bhagwati and Panagariya’s book “Tryst with Destiny“. And of course, in terms of policy prescriptions, Gulzar Natarjan’s own book “Can India Grow?
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  • Gulzar Natarajan has an extended section on the “innate charactersitics of entrepreneurs“. It is too long to excerpt, but it did remind me of an excellent paper on why productivity in India is so very low. Worth reading, especially if you are a student of micro, IO or India.
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  • “The impact of reforms like GST, while certainly beneficial in the long-run, may have ended up squeezing the vast majority of the small manufacturers. For a start, for these small manufacturers, the compliance costs in terms of hiring accountants and IT requirements are a non-trivial share of their profits. Then there is the structure of the GST tariffs – 18% for the components and 5% for the final product. This means that the manufacturers capital gets locked up as receivables for a long time. For small manufacturers, these costs are prohibitive.”
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    This point is a little weird. Let me explain what I mean when I say “weird”. I think almost every economist is aware of this issue, and has spoken about it repeatedly. But the level of awareness otherwise is very, very low. Again, the GST is a great idea with poor implementation. The unique nature of India’s economy (a blend of formal and informal along the supply chain for many, many things) makes the implementation worse.
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  • And perhaps the coda to this excellent blog post, and for me the most important part:
    “It is important for the Government to play an important role if the footwear industry can move significantly forward. The market by itself is unlikely to have the incentives or the capacity to manage that.”
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    This is a classically Studwellian recommendation. The problem is that the “no but markets will work if you let them” brigade will never accept this line of reasoning. Additionally, there are far too many people in India (especially within government) who will interpret this to mean that government needs to actively participate in the actual ecosystem by getting into manufacturing and allied activities.
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    And hardly anybody will get what I think is the actual Studwellian message. Government needs to carefully design incentive compatible subsidy mechanisms and make it clear to producers that it (the government) carries a very, very big stick – and that it is not afraid to use it. And well, if push comes to shove, actually use it. Please, read How Asia Works!

Ec101: Choices matter!

We’ve, in our Thursday posts this year, learnt about incentives and costs. But, and this is a really, really big “but” – they become operational only when we live in a world where we’re able to choose.

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabbarok – two people who have probably done more for educating people in economics than anybody else over the last thirty years or so – have written two of the best textbooks on economics available anywhere – one on micro and the other on macro.

In the book on microeconomics, they summarize ten different “big ideas” in economics: incentives, the invisible hand is the best kind of magic*, trade-offs matter, thinking on the margin matters, trade matters, wealth matters, institutions matter, business cycles are unavoidable, printing more money will lead to inflation and central baking is hard.

*I’ve paraphrased practically all of the big ideas, but this in particular is my phrasing, not theirs.

Two other asides before we proceed: in retrospect, it is interesting (at least to me) that at least one of their PhD’s (Tyler Cowen’s) and quite a few of their books are based literally on nothing more complicated than an exposition of these big ideas. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Also, they say that the biggest idea of them all is that economics is fun. I’d paraphrase that too: learning about the world is fun, and economics is a great tool to use towards that end.

Now, that allows for a neat segue to the topic du jour. At the very start of the book, even before the table of contents, they provide their definition of economics, one that I agree with wholeheartedly: economics is the study of how to get the most out of life.

Here’s the two word version: choices matter!

Unless we live in a society that is free to choose, at an individual level or otherwise, none of the other big ideas even come into play. So, to me, economics is first and foremost about being free to choose – and then about the benefits and costs of the choices that you make.

Which, I’d argue, means that learning about choices is plenty important. Ergo, this post.

  1. First things first. What is choice?
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    I chose (see what happened there?) this Quora post not because it is the “best”, but simply because it is so typical. Here’s what I think choice is: it is an admission of the fact that you can’t have everything. A particularly relevant example for me: what to eat from a buffet at a five star restaurant? With every passing year, “everything!” becomes an increasingly unrealistic answer. So choose those dishes that are likely to taste the best (maximizing happiness), or those dishes that are likely to cause the least harm (minimizing unhappiness) along some dimensions such as spiciness, oiliness or what have you.
    Or hey, do both at the same time! Choose the dish that is likely to taste the best and the dish that is likely to do the least harm. That’s half your micro paper right there – the rest is just math and diagrams. (I am kidding, of course, but only a little bit.)
    Choice is an admission of the fact that you can’t have everything, but that’s a good thing! It forces you to go with the best. Which paintings should you look at when you’re at the Louvre? “Every single one!” is unrealistic. Force yourself to choose, therefore, the very best of the lot. Constraints help you understand your own tastes better: aesthetics is, among other things, a matter of acknowledging the existence of constraints.
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  2. So having too many choices is a bad thing? It would seem so:
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    “It all began with jam. In 2000, psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper published a remarkable study. On one day, shoppers at an upscale food market saw a display table with 24 varieties of gourmet jam. Those who sampled the spreads received a coupon for $1 off any jam. On another day, shoppers saw a similar table, except that only six varieties of the jam were on display. The large display attracted more interest than the small one. But when the time came to purchase, people who saw the large display were one-tenth as likely to buy as people who saw the small display.”
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  3. But hang on. Of what use is an economics theory that doesn’t have a on-the-other hand angle? Tim Harford, as is so often the case, to the rescue.
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    “But a curious thing happened almost immediately. They began by trying to replicate some classic experiments – such as the jam study, and a similar one with luxury chocolates. They couldn’t find any sign of the “choice is bad” effect. Neither the original Lepper-Iyengar experiments nor the new study appears to be at fault: the results are just different and we don’t know why.”
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  4. And on a related note, have you heard of Herbert Simon and satisficing? This excerpt is from a Wikipedia article on Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice, but it is actually about Herbert Simon.
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    “A maximizer is like a perfectionist, someone who needs to be assured that their every purchase or decision was the best that could be made. The way a maximizer knows for certain is to consider all the alternatives they can imagine. This creates a psychologically daunting task, which can become even more daunting as the number of options increases. The alternative to maximizing is to be a satisficer. A satisficer has criteria and standards, but a satisficer is not worried about the possibility that there might be something better. Ultimately, Schwartz agrees with Simon’s conclusion, that satisficing is, in fact, the maximizing strategy.”
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  5. And the final word goes to Tyler Cowen. Or is it Herbert Simon all over again? Choices, choices.
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    “What if you asked people the following: do you wish to choose your own means of limiting your (subsequent) choices, or do you wish to let someone else, perhaps the government, do the work? I suspect the answers would overwhelmingly favor the former option, namely voluntary choice at the meta-level. And if you reexamine the experiments mentioned above, they are all about ways in which people voluntarily limit their own choices. Maybe you don’t wish to run your own cancer treatments, but you wish to choose the doctor who will.”

 

Ec101: Understanding Opportunity Costs

I mean, come on. Who doesn’t understand opportunity costs?

The cost of the next best alternative, of the opportunity foregone. We could have told you this in our sleep.

So answer me this (and please don’t cheat):

“Imagine that you have a free ticket (which you cannot resell) to see Radiohead performing. But, by staggering coincidence, you could also go to see Lady Gaga – there are tickets on sale for £40. You’d be willing to pay £50 to see Lady Gaga on any given night, and her concert is the best alternative to seeing Radiohead. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either gig. What is the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead? (a) £0, (b), £10, (c) £40, or (d) £50.”

  1. That is from Tim Harford, and is unfortunately behind an FT paywall. But here’s the original paper.
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    “We were surprised by the diversity of opinion regarding the value to which the
    term “opportunity cost” applies. As Table 2 indicates, the most popular answer
    was $50, with 27.6% of respondents choosing this answer. The second most
    popular answer was $40, with 25.6% of respondents choosing this answer. The
    third most popular answer was $0, with 25.1% of respondents choosing this
    answer. The correct answer, $10, was the least popular, with only 21.6% of
    respondents choosing this answer. In essence, the answers given to us by well trained economists appear to be randomly distributed across possible answers.” (Emphasis added)
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    So what did you guess?
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  2. People got plenty upset about the whole thing – check the comments, especially,
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  3. “I don’t have any quarrel with Alex’s economics; as far as I can see this point is semantic. (I’ll also admit that my gross perspective on opportunity cost is somewhat anachronistic; it is one reason why mainstream economists work directly with consumer surplus.) What disturbs me is how few economists gave $50 or $40 as the right answer; the actual answers were close to randomly distributed. Most Web-based sources appear confused on the net vs. gross issue, but at least they hover across the $40 and $50 options.”
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    Economists don’t always agree, but it mostly comes to down to splitting hairs? If only it were so
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  4. “This paper analyzes the relationship between opportunity costs of waiting and bribery in rationing by waiting situations. Assuming that a uniform waiting time clears the market for any given bribe and the bureaucrat chooses a bribe to maximize profit, the market equilibrium is characterized in terms of individual valuations of the good and opportunity costs of waiting. If individual valuations take discrete values and opportunity costs of waiting are uniformly distributed, then in an equilibrium individuals with low costs of waiting choose to wait while those with high opportunity costs pay the bribe”
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    While traveling on India’s highways, have you ever seen trucks waiting by the highway for no apparent reason?
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  5. For interested students, a big fat list of examples, drawn from multiple walks of life.

Etc: Links for 3rd Jan, 2020

  1. Tim Harford sings praises of gaming:
    “But for most gamers the point of games is that they are enjoyable in a deeper way than most mere entertainments. They create moments of enchantment to rival the finest music or theatre. A good game has you solving puzzles, throwing yourself into improvised acting, and then helpless with tears of laughter. The friendships I’ve forged over the gaming table have been the ones that have lasted.”
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  2. On living in a commune in San Francisco. Beer isn’t welcome anymore, apparently.
    “I made my first mistake early on. It came at one of the dinner parties, which tended to happen spontaneously: one person would sit down quietly to eat a stir fry, before others joined them with takeout or leftovers. I brought a case of beer, which seemed to offend the zest for self-improvement that defined the commune. Sleep, and getting enough of it, was the topic du jour. Entire dinners were spent discussing the finer points of sleep tracking, which monitoring gadgets worked best (the Oura Ring was popular); how best to optimise a bedtime schedule; what to eat; what not to drink. I felt like a Neanderthal, supping beer and interjecting to add that surely it was important to enjoy yourself now and again. This sat oddly with a group that was on a different path towards self-actualisation. Alcohol disrupts sleep, it turns out.”
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  3. A fascinating article on… feathers.
    “Feather stuffing, once the height of luxury, has become ubiquitous. Over the past quarter-century, our global demand for warmth – even on a short shopping trip – has led to a tripling of the global trade in feathers by volume. Never mind being light as a feather, the raw plumage that drifts across borders each year is equal to the weight of nearly 90,000 cars. And 80% of those feathers come from one country: China.The trade in feathers is not a simple case of supply meeting demand. The down in our coats is, in fact, a by-product of the ducks and geese that end up on dinner tables. In terms of price per weight, down feathers – the soft, fuzzy ones on the bird’s breast – are the most valuable part of a duck, worth $25-50 per kg, roughly ten times as much as the meat. But a typical bird yields some 2.5kg of meat compared with just 15 grams of down, so a duck’s value lies mostly in its flesh. The soft feathers account for just 3% of its value, so abattoirs see those fluffy hairs not as a treasured commodity but detritus.”
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  4. Curbed chooses bike sharing as the biggest thing to have happened in the previous decade.
    “Studies have shown that bike share can help boost some transit ridership and may even be safer than riding personal bikes. The average cyclist death rate is 21 deaths per 100 million trips, but through 2014, after seven years of bike share in U.S. cities and 23 million rides, not a single person had been killed riding a bike-share bike. By the time U.S. bike share rides hit 100 million, which happened sometime in early 2017, only one death had been reported.”
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  5. On simplifying quadratic equations.

Etc: Links for 18th October, 2019

  1. “If I win, I’ll be 18,000 chips to 2,000 chips ahead. If Levitt wins, game over.”
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    Tim Harford plays poker with Steve Levitt. This was a very enjoyable read!
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  2. “And yet there is something about TikTok’s presence in mainstream culture — as a testing ground for “real” stars, as an Emmys joke about what the kids are into — that underestimates the power of the thing itself. It feels as if there are endless TikTok universes unfolding all at once. And so last week, over 48 hours, five critics of The New York Times with different specialties and varying familiarity with the app took a look at what it has to offer.”
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    The NYT profiles tiktok – we are clearly in peak tiktok territory now.
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  3. “During one such inspection in 1731, a British merchant captain named Robert Jenkins protested the intrusion, and in the ensuing scuffle the Spanish captain’s blade somehow separated Captain Jenkins from his left ear. This civilian injury was far from newsworthy back in Britain—after all, smuggling was a rough business. Eight years later, however, when Great Britain sought a pretext for war, it became politically expedient for British politicians to suffer outrage over this unauthorized amputation. Legend has it that Captain Robert Jenkins himself held aloft the very ear in question at a Parliamentary hearing, as evidence for the grave insult to the crown—though there is no historical proof that this exhibition actually occurred. Ear regardless, the outrage was successfully fabricated, and the resulting years of hostilities would come to be known as “The War of Jenkins’ Ear.””
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    11,000 words, but all of them fascinating. This is about a ill fated expedition through the Drake passage. Via The Browser.
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  4. “But the purpose of chronic pain, which scientists define as pain that lasts for more than three months after its initial cause, is more mysterious. The pain’s origin might be muscular-skeletal – the result of a fall, perhaps – or neuropathic, caused by damage to the nervous system. Or it might be a result of a long-term condition, such as fibromyalgia. Whichever way, it is a pain that has gone on beyond its expected life span and does not respond to medication. Often it is a discomfort that has become invisible and shifted shape, growing harder to understand the greater the distance from its original cause. A physiotherapist suggested to me that chronic pain was like a musician being given a piece of sheet music to play. The musician learns the music and when the music is taken away, she continues to play it. The body has learned the pain by heart.”
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    On the tragedy of, and a potential solution to, chronic pain.
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  5. The Madras Courier on a short history of the telephone.

Etc: Links for 12th July, 2019

  1. “Often failure is simply failure, and a setback is exactly what it seems. But sometimes the obstacle that has been placed in our path might provoke us to look around, and perhaps to discover that a better route was there all along.”
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    Tim Harford on the Doris Day effect
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  2. “If I have to be curt, they’re famous for being famous. Another way of understanding how a family (+ dogs+friends+assistants) has risen to unprecedented levels of fame and fortune is by the Principle of Cumulative Advantage. This principle is also known as the Matthew Effect, and refers to the phenomenon of those who already have an advantage acquiring more of it. This concept is applicable to both financial and social capital.”
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    …and since the previous article mentioned it, Reshu Natani in Think Pragati on the Matthew Effect.
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  3. “The last time I saw Bourdain was a few months ago, at a party in New York, for one of the books released by his imprint at the publishing house Ecco—of his many projects, his late-career role as a media rainmaker was one he assumed with an almost boyish delight. At the bar, where I’d just picked up my drink, he came up and clapped me on the shoulder. “Remember when you asked me if I was a feminist, and I was afraid to say yes?” he said, in that growling, companionable voice. “Write this down: I’m a fuckin’ feminist.”
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    A lovely essay on the late Anthony Bourdain. Just in case you haven’t, do read this – the article that started it all.
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  4. “5-MeO-DMT is produced in large amounts by Bufo alvarius, a rare species of toad commonly known as the Colorado river toad or the Sonoran desert toad. When preyed upon, the toad secretes a venom that repels predators by causing them to, in scientific terms, trip balls. Psychonauts discovered that you can milk the toads’ venom, dry it out, and smoke it. The substance’s close relative, DMT, is an active ingredient in the traditional shamanic brew known as ayahuasca, but what they say about smoking the toad is that it’s like riding a rocket to the same place of total ego death that ayahuasca takes you to by riverboat.”
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    That, the excerpt above, is not what this article is about. It is about Mike Tyson. He, as the title says, smokes the toad.
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  5. “There are many ways to achieve success and fulfillment that do not involve attending an elite college. Instead of encouraging people to pursue options well-matched to their abilities, however, we tell young people that their self-worth hinges entirely on the brand name on their college diploma. This creates a perverse incentive to do whatever it takes to get into their dream school, to amass tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, and to select a major based not on the professional opportunities it will open to them but on the ease of the program’s academic requirements. Small wonder we now have a generation drowning in debt and struggling to meet the traditional benchmarks of adulthood.”
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    A long, but very reasoned rant about education in America, and about how it isn’t quite as good as it is made out to be. Also, that rare article that distinguishes between education (teaching) and research.

Etc: Links for 5th July, 2019

  1. “…in the series, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a member of the Academy of Sciences, lives in nearly the same kind of squalor as a fireman in the Ukrainian town of Pripyat. In fact, Legasov would have lived in an entirely different kind of squalor than the fireman did.”
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    This is one of many, of course, but that line above was particularly illuminating. A review of the excellent series, Chernobyl.
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  2. “The productivity equation is a non-linear one, in other words. This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent and why I very rarely accept speaking engagements. If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly. What replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time, and that will, with luck, be read by many people, there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons, and a few speeches given at various conferences.”
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    Neal Stephenson (whose books are excellent, and uniformly so) on productivity.
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  3. “Thanos, observing that there were too many people, decided to kill half of them. But this is curiously short-sighted for a man regarded by many as a policy prophet. Any exponential population growth process will soon replace the lost people: that is why exponential growth is such a headache in the first place. For example, if an economy’s resource footprint grows exponentially at a rate of 7 per cent, it doubles in just ten years — meaning that in less time than has elapsed since the first Iron Man movie, we could be back where we started.The only lasting solution is an economy that uses resources at a sustainable rate. Malthus’s qualms notwithstanding, contraception has been a very good start. The world population growth rate is steadily approaching a very sustainable-sounding zero.”
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    Tim Harford analyzes Thanos like only an economist can.
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  4. “Imagine you’re cooking a roast dinner for your family of four. You opt for beef with all the trimmings, safe in the knowledge that it’s a firm family favourite. But just as you’re about to serve up, your daughter announces she’s vegetarian, your partner texts to say they’re running late, and your son tells you he’s invited “a few” friends over for dinner too. Then, your dog runs off with the joint of beef while you’re desperately trying to work out how you are going to meet the needs of all these (quite frankly) very demanding and unruly individuals.”
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    The BBC on the problem of dynamic resource allocation. The excerpt, by the way, has nothing to do with the rest of the article.
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  5. “Because at the end of their pilgrimage, the weary are rewarded with two things: a footbath and a bowl of steaming noodles. The footbath is just a footbath, but the noodles are extraordinary. Su filindeu is—quasi-official designation here—the rarest pasta on the planet. The dish is made specifically for this occasion; its very existence revolves around this trek. So specialized and obscure and mind-bendingly intricate is it that only a few souls can make it. And only those who reach Lula will ever try it.”
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    The rarest pasta on earth. Why wouldn’t you want to read!