The Economist on What To Read To Understand How Economists Think

Here’s the article, and I hope you’re able to access it.

Just in case it is behind a paywall for you, here is a quick summary:

  1. The Economist says that thinking like an economist is primarily about two things:
    1. There is no such thing as a free lunch, which is another way of saying you can never avoid opportunity costs
    2. When possible, try to put numbers on things
  2. The article then lists out five books that help you think along these lines:
    1. Capitalism and Freedom, by Milton Friedman
    2. The Worldly Philosophers, by Robert Heilbroner
    3. Africa: Why Economists Get it Wrong, by Morten Jerven
    4. Capitalism Alone, by Branko Milanovic
    5. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

I’m about to share my own list, but before I do that, a couple of points.

I’ve read the first, second and fifth book, and they’re all great books to read. I look forward to reading the other two, and the description of the fourth in particular sounds particularly exciting to my ears:

This is the book to read if you want to understand why capitalism—and economists’ way of thinking—has triumphed the world over. By the beginning of the 1990s, it was clear that the capitalist system had defeated the communist one. Today, however, many people yearn to move to a new system, such as “millennial socialism”. A left-leaning scholar, Mr Milanovic sympathises with these feelings. But ultimately he finds many radical prescriptions unconvincing. A country which tried to de-marketise on the scale envisaged by socialists would, he says, be unstable and dissatisfied in other ways. Shifting towards a much shorter working week, for instance, would leave it poorer than its neighbours. For how long would people put up with that? Capitalism is far from perfect, his book shows, yet it is hard to shake the notion that it is the only system that broadly works.

In a way, this reminds me of Churchill’s quote about democracy being the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried. And it rings true – there’s many things that we all wish could be “better” when it comes to capitalism, but one of my favorite econ questions is very apposite here: relative to what? That is, if you say capitalism is not good/not perfect, you need to answer the question “relative to what”?

Second, please don’t interpret this blogpost as a critique of the list put out by the Economist. This blogpost is very much in the spirit of “Yes, and” rather than “No, but”. But that being said, my own opinion of the main features of thinking like an economist are slightly different. I couldn’t agree more with the first feature (opportunity costs), but I do disagree with the second one. I would argue that it is entirely possible to get the most out of life without having to put a number on it. In fact, as Russ Roberts recently pointed out in a podcast, it simply isn’t possible or desirable to put numbers on some things. I haven’t read the book yet, but the podcast was instructive in many different ways. Here’s one apposite quote (Russ is answering a question by Tim about how to decide whom to marry):

Alain de Botton has a wonderful YouTube video I recommend on that; I think the title is “You’re going to marry the wrong person.” Fantastic short video. Don’t show it to my wife because she thinks she married the right person, I don’t want her to see it and depress her. But seriously, there’s no best. And part of the theme of my book is that most of life is a matrix. And by that, I don’t mean the movie, the red or blue pill. What I mean is that it’s a set of complicated attributes that are pluses and minuses for all kinds of things.
So the person you’re with, that you’re seeing now, whoever’s listening out there, there are certain levels of attractiveness, there’s a certain level of kindness, there’s a certain level of intelligence, or a certain level — many, many, many attributes. And then there’s chemistry and sexual attraction. We’ve got all those things working. And so, which is the best one? Oh, well I need a formula to add up all those measurements so I can get a single number, and then I’ll just pick the one that gets the best score. And I’d argue that’s the wrong way to think about life. It’s the wrong way to think about how to pick your friends. It’s the wrong way to think about how to find the best job. It’s the wrong way to think about most things.

As I mentioned, I haven’t read the book yet – sometimes I think I should get a T-Shirt with this line printed on it. But I very much belong to the school of thought that would argue that not everything in life need be quantified.

So if I disagree with “if possible, put numbers on everything”, what according to me are the main features of thinking like an economist? If I had to pick just two, here they are (and I’m going to cheat, so there):

  1. Opportunity costs are everywhere
  2. Incentives matter
  3. Life is a non-zero sum game

Getting incentives right, and worrying about what happens if incentives go wrong ought to be part and parcel of your toolkit an an economist. And if you asked me to recommend a book about this topic, my pick would be Discover Your Inner Economist, by Tyler Cowen.

Bonus: check out the podcast between Russ Roberts and Tyler Cowen on this book.

Bonus Bonanza: reflect on the very first comment at the top of the page!

More Bonus Bonanza: Learn about callbacks.

And re: life being a non-zero sum game, I would recommend In The Company of Strangers, by Paul Seabright. If you do end up reading the book, you might end up coming away with the “complaint” that it is about much more than just life being a non-zero sum game, but in my world, that’s a feature, not a bug. But for the moment, here’s a relevant excerpt from the book:

Once bands were willing to make tentative peaceful contact with other bands, they could exchange with them, thereby enormously expanding the kinds of foods, tools, and resources to which they had access. We have evidence of exchange between hunter-gatherers from many thousands of years before the foundation of agriculture, although their lifestyle must have made such contacts sporadic and limited by comparison with the opportunities available to sedentary farmers in later millennia. Some of the oldest known symbolic artifacts, carved beads dating back over forty thousand years, may have played a role in facilitating such exchanges.7 In more recent times, the Yir Yoront aboriginals of Northern Australia had stone axes even though they lived many hundreds of kilometers from the nearest stone quarries (they exchanged stingray-tipped spears for them with neighboring tribes) and even steel ones, well before their first contact with European traders at the end of the nineteenth century. Trade allowed access not only to their neighbors’ skills but to those of their neighbors’ neighbors, and so on.

Seabright, Paul. The Company of Strangers (pp. 46-47). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

And a final recommendation: please also do read The Undercover Economist and The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, both by Tim Harford.

Technology, Inflation and Day to Day Lives

You can hardly read a news source these days without reading one article or the other about inflation. There’s plain vanilla inflation, there’s shrinkflation, and there’s skimpflation. There is, one might argue, an inflationary spiral in coining terms related to inflation!

But as students of economics, I found a recent blogpost written by Virginia Postrel quite fascinating. She speaks about inflation being a formative experience as a young person growing up in the 70’s, and for this blog post, she asked some folks who were around then to speak of their memories regarding the inflation episodes of the 1970’s.

And what made this such an enjoyable read is the fact that day to day activities and behaviors changed due to inflation. It’s one thing to speak about how prices went up, and households cut back on their expenditures. But it is quite another to speak about how the lives of ordinary people changed as a consequence of inflation:

In the late 1970s, Tom Noonan, then around 20 years old, worked in a Winn-Dixie supermarket in Louisville, Kentucky. His job was to change price tags a couple of times a week. He’d go through the store with a box cutter and a pricing gun, slicing off the old price stickers and applying the new, higher ones. It’s one of the 1970s memories that came pouring out of my Facebook friends when I asked about their experiences.
Not every store was so meticulous. Many just slapped the new prices on top of the old ones. “I half remember peeling off price labels to get a lower price (maybe on a book?), not even realizing that what I was doing was wrong or illegitimate,” confesses Mike Schiffer, a law school IT manager born in 1968, in the Facebook thread. “I don’t think I really understood how prices were set or changed at that point.”

Which activities, tasks and chores have changed in our lives today because of the recent bout of inflation? How does inflation manifest itself in terms of how we lead our day-to-day lives? With barcode scanners, Tom Noonan’s job no longer need exist in most (but not all!) cases, and that is a good example of how you might want to think about the intersection of inflation, technology and day to day lives.

And if you’ll allow me a brief but entertaining digression: this would also be a good time to talk about, well, barcodes:

How vast mega-stores emerged with the help of a design originally drawn in the sand in 1948 by Joseph Woodland as he sat on a Florida beach, observing the furrows left behind, an idea came to him which would – eventually – become the barcode. This now ubiquitous stamp, found on virtually every product, was designed to make it easier for retailers to automate the process of recording sales. But, as Tim Harford explains, its impact would prove to be far greater than that. The barcode changed the balance of power between large and small retailers.

Not just this episode – please listen to the entire series, and purchase the book if you can. This series remains a great way to understand how our day to day lives in the modern economy are impacted in surprising ways by inventions we take for granted. Such as the barcode, for one – but on an entirely related note, also check out the episode on shipping containers:

How a simple steel box changed the face of global trade. Shipping goods around the world was – for many centuries – expensive, risky and time-consuming. But 60 years ago the trucking entrepreneur Malcolm McLean changed all that by selling the idea of container shipping to the US military. Against huge odds he managed to turn “containerisation” from a seemingly impractical idea into a massive industry – one that slashed the cost of transporting goods internationally and provoked a boom in global trade. Tim Harford tells the remarkable story of the shipping container.

Both, of course, have a lot to do with inflation today – and both are not objects that would come up in an introductory course on economics, more’s the pity.

But a useful question to think about as a student of economics today is this: which of our day to day activities today are impacted by inflation in surprising and unexpected ways? Or put another way, what would be a good Tom Noonan example from today?

Thinking about this question is a good way to think about economics, but even better, economics in conjunction with technology and better-est of all, it helps you become a keener observer of life around you. An economic naturalist, if you will.

Hearts As Well As Minds

Tim Harford comes up with a blogpost about a topic that is very close to my heart:

Writing a few years ago in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Schwartz argued that one of the goals of a university education, especially a liberal arts education, is to teach students how to think. The trouble is, said Schwartz, “nobody really knows what that means”.
Schwartz proposes his own ideas. He is less interested in cognitive skills than in intellectual virtues.
“All the traits I will discuss have a fundamental moral dimension,” he says, before setting out the case for nine virtues: love of truth; honesty about one’s own failings; fair-mindedness; humility and a willingness to seek help; perseverance; courage; good listening; perspective-taking and empathy; and, finally, wisdom — the word Schwartz uses to describe not taking any of these other virtues to excess.

And from the original essay, this excerpt:

Knowing how to think demands a set of cognitive skills — quantitative ability, conceptual flexibility, analytical acumen, expressive clarity. But beyond those skills, learning how to think requires the development of a set of intellectual virtues that make good students, good professionals, and good citizens. I use the word “virtues,” as opposed to “skills,” deliberately. As Aristotle knew, all of the traits I will discuss have a fundamental moral dimension. I won’t provide an exhaustive list of intellectual virtues, but I will provide a list, just to get the conversation started.

There is so much to unpack in both essays that I’m not even going to bother trying to condense this down to one blogpost, and consider yourselves warned, there will be many posts in this series. Because if you are as passionate about teaching as I am (the only thing I may be more passionate about is food), this topic is always front and center in your mind.

I’d distill the implicit topic in both these posts/essays down to this question:

Should education make you a good person, or do you have to be a good person in order to be educated?

It seems like a simple question, but when you begin to think about it, you can end up spending hours on it.

Learning how to think, Barry Schwartz says, “requires the development of a set of intellectual virtues.” Which begs the question: what is virtue?

Here are two of Google’s answers (I’ve selected the two here that I think to be the most appropriate, but you can see all other answers by clicking here):

behaviour showing high moral standards | a good or useful quality of a thing (emphasis added)

Which, if you know your Pirsig, ought to remind you of a passage or two:

The one thing that doesn’t fit what he says and what Plato said about the Sophists is their profession of teaching virtue. All accounts indicate this was absolutely central to their teaching, but how are you going to teach virtue if you teach the relativity of all ethical ideas? Virtue, if it implies anything at all, implies an ethical absolute. A person whose idea of what is proper varies from day to day can be admired for his broadmindedness, but not for his virtue.

Pirsig, Robert M.. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (p. 338). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.


Kitto had more to say about this aretê of the ancient Greeks. “When we meet aretê in Plato,” he said, “we translate it ‘virtue’ and consequently miss all the flavour of it. ‘Virtue,’ at least in modern English, is almost entirely a moral word; aretê, on the other hand, is used indifferently in all the categories, and simply means excellence.” Thus the hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom who knows that he must endure without too much complaining what the gods send; and he can both build and sail a boat, drive a furrow as straight as anyone, beat a young braggart at throwing the discus, challenge the Pheacian youth at boxing, wrestling or running; flay, skin, cut up and cook an ox, and be moved to tears by a song. He is in fact an excellent all-rounder; he has surpassing aretê.
Aretê implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization. It implies a contempt for efficiency—or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself.

Pirsig, Robert M.. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (p. 341). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.

Or put another way, if Robert Pirsig were to edit Barry Schwartz’ essay, he would probably have edited his sentence about virtue to “requires the development of excellence”.

That is, education is very much about developing excellence (or virtue, if you insist), and in a sense, that is all it is about. Words matter, so I’d argue that you might want to think about what the word education means to you, and rather than link to Google’s results, allow me to post a screenshot instead:

Note how the first definition comes with synonyms galore: teaching, schooling, tuition, tutoring and so on. But the second definition? Just an example of the usage of the term. When, during random questions, students ask me why I enjoy teaching so much, I say that the highlight of my teaching experience are the “Aha!” moments – when you, as a teacher, can actually see a lightbulb switch on above a students face. Not, I should hasten to add, literally so, but I’m sure you know what I mean. Education is very much, to me, an enlightening experience.

And that, to me, is not the imparting of skillsets. That is a part, without a doubt, of education, but it is only a part. I do not mean to denigrate the imparting of knowledge, or skillsets. This is not about saying that giving systematic instructions about, say, the put-call parity theorem is trivial, unimportant or irrelevant. This is about saying that education is about so much more than that: it is about helping students be good.

So my own answer to my own question would be that education is very much about making a student a good person.

Ah, but then what does being good mean? As it turns out, Robert Pirsig wrote an entire book about this question, called Lila, and ended the book by saying that good is a noun. Which is a whole different story, and will take much more than a blogpost. So what we’ll do instead is focus, in future blogposts, on this topic, on the list of nine virtues that Schwartz speaks about in his essay, and tackle them one at a time.

We’ll begin with a nice easy (sarcasm alert) component of virtue: love of truth.

Icing Without The Cake

My daughter much prefers eating the icing to eating the cake itself, and who can blame her? But, Tim Harford points out in a typically excellent column, that approach doesn’t take you very far in the field of applied behavioral economics.

Would we really have excellent universal pensions, a fit and healthy population, and a low-carbon economy, if only we hadn’t been distracted by Nudge? Of course not. But behavioural science is all too good at producing perfect icing for the policy cake; practitioners must never forget the cake itself.

The point of the column, and the academic paper it speaks about, is very simple: nudges are a complement to economic policies, they aren’t a substitute. And while behavioral economics, and nudges, are truly important, and relatively cheaper, they aren’t magic wands that will substitute for the time tested policies that economic theory will present.

And that is hard to disagree with!

The paper that Tim Harford refers to in his article is called “The i-frame and the s-frame: How focusing on the individual-level solutions has led behavioral public policy astray“. I’ll cover this paper and some of the points raised in it in greater detail tomorrow, but in today’s blog post, I want to cover an older paper written by them.

The paper in question is called “Putting nudges in perspective” and has also been written by George Loewenstein and Nick Chater. The paper (it’s a very accessible, short paper, please do read it) isn’t a mea culpa, nor does it excoriate behavioral economics and the power of nudges. But it does caution us, the readers, of the limits of behavioral economics and worries if the field has become a little too overrated.

First, some definitions and background. What is a nudge? Here is Thaler and Sunstein’s original definition:

Any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge,
the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid.

Thaler, R. H. and C. R. Sunstein (2008), Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and
Happiness, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Please read the book to get multiple examples of what nudges are, how they have been developed and used. It is an excellent book to read, full of great ideas. And again, Loewenstein and Chater don’t mean to suggest that there is anything wrong about the idea or the way it has been deployed. As I said, they worry about excessive dependence on the idea of nudges.

In fact, they have a useful framework in the paper, which is worth looking at in greater detail:

What is the type of problem you’re looking to solve? That’s given along the rows of this table. And what solutions might work for these problems? Those are given along the columns. And the point of the paper is that we’ve been focusing far too much on “I” and not been thinking about whether it really is the best solution, as compared to alternatives “A” through “H”.

To use just one example: smoking. Why is smoking a problem? Broadly speaking, for two reasons. First, smoking harms the smoker, and while one might expect the smoker to be aware of this, they might well end up misestimating the risks, or they might end up preferring the immediate pleasure and ignore the long term consequences, or think that they might be able to shake the habit anytime they wish. But also, and this is the second reason, second-hand smoking is an externality that can/should be addressed.

Now, if you think about it in terms of the table above, the authors say that this means that the problem belongs to row 3 (an internality) but also to row 1 (an externality). And to the extent that you agree that tobacco companies are likely to create marketing campaigns designed to exploit the behavioral biases of their potential and current consumers, you might think that it will fall in row 2 as well.

What of the solution? Well, in a problem such as this one, the optimal response might be one in which we marry a traditional economic policy response (taxes on cigarettes) with a behavioral response (graphic advertising on tobacco packets). Just one, of either sort, may not be enough, and in fact, there is a case to be made for more than one policy response from each of the two sets. In other words, the optimal policy response most likely lies in column B-E-H, rather than A-D-G or C-F-I.

But beware:

The question of how different interventions aggregate is interesting and important. On the one hand, as perhaps illustrated by the case of smoking, it is possible that different interventions aimed at the same problem can have a super-additive effect. This could occur if, for example, a multifaceted response is more likely to result in a change in norms, or if there is some kind of threshold of apathy or complacency that needs to be exceeded for people to change their behaviour. On the other hand, multiple interventions, especially if aimed at different target behaviours, could potentially divide individuals’ attention and lead to fatigue, resentment and possibly even a consequent backlash from intervention-weary individuals.

Bottomline: behavioral economics does have a role to play in policy-making, but it isn’t a question of either using traditional economic ideas or using behavioral economics ideas. As the authors note, behavioral problems may have as an optimal solution traditional economic solutions, and vice versa.

Or, you might say – and old timers will have been waiting for this – the truth lies somewhere in the middle!

In tomorrow’s blogpost, we’ll take a look at Loewenstein and Chater’s latest paper on the topic.

Office Layouts and Maximizing Soul

Sometime last year, I published an essay I called Maximizing Soul. I hope you read it in its entirety, but here’s a point from that essay that will be useful for us today:

And optimization necessarily implies maximizing something, or minimizing something. Getting the most out of life can be thought of in two ways. It could mean living life to the fullest (however you might define this for your own sake). It could also mean getting the most out of life by minimizing time, effort and cost spent on any activity.

In the 1960s, the designer Robert Propst worked with the Herman Miller company to produce “The Action Office”, a stylish system of open-plan office furniture that allowed workers to sit, stand, move around and configure the space as they wished.
Propst then watched in horror as his ideas were corrupted into cheap modular dividers, and then to cubicle farms or, as Propst described them, “barren, rathole places”. Managers had squeezed the style and the space out of the action office, but above all they had squeezed the ability of workers to make choices about the place where they spent much of their waking lives.

As always, please read the whole thing, since it is about much more than just office cubicles, but that was the part that stood out for me. Maybe because I have spent some years in these cubicles, and trust me, “squeezed the style and the space out of the action office” is exactly right.

“What are you optimizing for?” is an underrated question, and we don’t ask this question of ourselves and others often enough. In the context of workplace design (and many other things, in my opinion), if your answer is that you’re optimizing for efficiency and cost, proceed very carefully. You might end up doing your job far too well, and with entirely unexpected results.

Another thing that stood out for me in that column by Tim Harford:

In 2010, the psychologists Alex Haslam and Craig Knight set up an experiment in which participants were asked to perform simple administrative tasks in a variety of office spaces. They tested four different office layouts. One was stripped down: bare desk, swivel chair, pencil, paper, nothing else. The second layout was softened with pot plants and almost abstract floral images. Workers enjoyed this layout more than the minimalist one and got more and better work done there.
The third and fourth layouts were superficially similar, yet produced dramatically different outcomes. In each, workers were invited to use the same plants and pictures to decorate the space before they started work, if they wished. But in one of them, the experimenter came in after the subject had finished decorating, and then rearranged it all. The physical difference was trivial, but the impact on productivity and job satisfaction was dramatic. When workers were empowered to shape their own space, they did more and better work and felt far more content. When workers were deliberately disempowered, their work suffered and, of course, they hated it. “I wanted to hit you,” one participant later admitted.
It wasn’t the environment itself that was stressful or distracting — it was the lack of control.

Agency matters. If you’re working with people, trust them enough to give them agency. Sure, they’ll stumble every now and then. But when working with a team, give them leeway, and let them run with their part of the project, and that in almost all regards. It works wonders!

But won’t there be problems, I hear you ask. Well sure, but the question to ask is this: which error would you rather avoid? The error of stymieing work by putting place too many processes, or the error of mistakes being made out of sheer enthusiasm? Statistics matters!

Tim Harford on The Ease of Doing Business Report

But before anything else, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the title of the article – if you haven’t seen the movie, please do. One of my favorite Judie Dench movies.

You may have heard of the problems associated with the Ease of Doing Business report. (The reason I have linked to the Wikipedia page rather than the original page is because it wasn’t opening for me. Your mileage may vary.)

Even a spreadsheet can become a victim of its own success. Just ask the World Bank’s Doing Business report. While many worthy publications from the World Bank are never downloaded, Doing Business has been a smash hit for years. No longer. Amid an ugly scandal about data manipulation that has left the head of the IMF, Kristalina Georgieva, fighting for her career, Doing Business has been cancelled.
The power struggle at the top of the fund involves: a three-way tussle for influence between the US, Europe and China; rivalry between Georgieva, former chief executive at the World Bank, and the current, Trump-nominated bank president David Malpass; and domestic US politics. (Democrats have long disliked the Doing Business report’s low-regulation tone.)
The accusation is that in 2017 the World Bank’s leadership, including Georgieva, pressured the Doing Business team to improve China’s ranking in order to keep the Chinese government happy. The case for the defence is that Georgieva’s team were merely double-checking a sensitive number, that China’s ranking barely moved (from 85th to 78th), and anyway China is now ranked far better (25th) than when Georgieva was at the bank. The fight is as fascinating as it is unedifying.

By the way, if you want to learn how to write columns well, you could do a lot worse than reading these three paragraphs.

A short, interesting sentence to begin the column, followed by an easy to read first paragraph that explains what the problem is. The next two paragraphs provide context, give additional details, and bring the reader up to speed, so that Tim Harford can get to the points that he wants to make regarding the whole issue. And contrast that with what I have managed to do so far: four paragraphs, one lengthy excerpt, and two tangential points, one of which is meta. Ah well.

But all of that aside, take some time out to read Tim Harford’s column before reading what follows.

  1. What was the report optimizing for?

    Originally, it seems to have been an attempt to help interested entities understand how easy (or not) it was to do business in a particular country. This helps entrepreneurs (domestic and international) understand some of the potential impediments to starting a business. The report lays out the processes involved in starting a business, and speaks about the length of time required to complete those process. That is surely a good thing, correct?
  2. Is a report not the same as a ranking?

    What matters more to you as a student when it comes to examinations? Are examinations a way for you to reflect upon how much you’ve learnt and what remains to be learnt, or are examinations a way to understand where you are in the pecking order? The problem with the Ease of Doing Business report wasn’t the report itself, it was the rankings that were generated on the basis of the reports.
    As Tim Harford says in his column: “But Klein has one regret: the original decision to publish an overall ranking of which countries were the best and the worst in the world for doing business. Such aggregate rankings make little sense, but they are ubiquitous because they are clickbait. The Doing Business aggregate ranking was no exception. Without it, the report would never have received so much attention. But without the ranking, it is doubtful anyone would have cared enough to try to manipulate the data.”
    And of course the inevitable followed: the rankings became more important than the report itself.
  3. A rare point of disagreement. Here is the quote from his column: “This newspaper recently celebrated the demise of the Doing Business indicators, complaining that countries were “expressly changing policies to score better”. That is a strange objection. Unless the indicators are valueless, when countries try to score better that is a feature, not a bug.”

    When Tim Harford says “this newspaper”, he is referring to the Financial Times, where he happens to be a columnist. I’m unable to access the original FT article from where this point was excerpted, but I happen to agree with excerpt above, and therefore disagree with Tim Harford. That being said, I certainly do wish that the original FT article had been worded better in the case of the sentence that we’re able to read.
    Think about that phrase up above: ““expressly changing policies to score better”.
    I think what they wanted to say was this: countries should ideally have been trying to figure out how to change policies so that in reality, on the ground, it became easier to do business. This should then have been reflected in the rankings. That would have been Utopian. Instead, policymakers and politicians in some cases tried to change the policies so that the ranking improved, without there being much change on the ground. That word, “expressly”, is doing a lot of lifting in that phrase – because all of what I have written is what I think they were trying to get at.
    Put another way, the indicators are not valueless, unless they’ve become the target. And that, really, is all that the FT was trying to say: the indicators did, in fact, become the target. Countries were more focused on the outcome (the ranking) rather than the process (has it actually become easier to do business?), and that is never a good idea.
  4. Consider this quote: “The Doing Business aggregate ranking was no exception. Without it, the report would never have received so much attention. But without the ranking, it is doubtful anyone would have cared enough to try to manipulate the data.”

    It is a question we should all be asking ourselves repeatedly: what are you optimizing for?
    In this case, was the World Bank optimizing for drawing attention to the report? We live in a world in which signaling matters, Goodhart’s Law is real and status is the name of the game. So if the World Bank was optimizing for publicity, it should have acknowledged that all of what eventually happened was a very real risk.
    But if the World Bank was optimizing for preparing a good report that stood up to scrutiny, then it should have acknowledged that the opportunity cost of such a strategy is that hardly anybody would ever read it. But such, alas, is life.

Putting the Con in Convenience

Do nudges work?


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).

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.

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

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.

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.”

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.”
    Reading more about this helped me land up on a website called, 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.
    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.
    China alone was responsible in the year 2018 for about 70% of the world’s exports.
    All of these snippets come from this page.
  • “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.”
    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.
  • “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.”
    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.
    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.
  • “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.”
    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.
  • 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).
    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.
    What about India and the EU, you ask?
    “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.”
  • 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.
    “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.”
    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.
  • Gulzar Natarajan speaks about manufacturers having no incentive to train workers:
    “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.”
    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
    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.
  • “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.”
    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.
  • “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.”
    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?
    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!
  • “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.”
    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.
  • He is against tax breaks, particularly because of the inevitable equilibrium in terms of the lobbying that will take place.
  • “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.”
    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?
  • 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.
  • “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.”
    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.
  • 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.”
    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.
    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!