Understanding Horizons, Understanding Time

The more I think about time, the more confused I get. The more I read about time, the more I cannot help but think about time.

In today’s post, I hope to be able to inspire you to get as confused about time as I am.

Before we get to the five links, here are some questions for you.

Should I have a gulab jamun after lunch today? If you are anything at all like me, your answer is likely to be a resounding “aye!”

Do you know who might want to say no? 70 year old Ashish (assuming I live to be that age) might not be such a big fan of I having that gulab jamun today.

Should 38 year old Ashish (for that is how old I am right now) listen to the entreaties of a 70 year old Ashish who doesn’t exist?

Well, if 38 year old Ashish wants 70 year old Ashish to have a chance of existing, I think it makes sense to ditch that damn dessert.

But, uh, good luck trying to convince 38 year old Ashish at 1.45 pm of the importance of thinking about the hypothetical existence of 70 year old Ashish.

That’s the problem of time discounting.

How important is the future, compared to the present?

Think of it in terms of gulab jamuns or interest rates offered to you by the bank, it’s the same thing. A weeekend trip to Goa (38 year old Ashish says yes!), or a fixed deposit in the bank (70 year old Ashish says yes!)?

Now: that was the easy bit. Let’s amp things up a little.

Do you wish your parents had saved a little bit more when they were younger? Hell, imagine if your grandparents hadn’t had that gulab jamun when they were young, and put the money in a fixed deposit instead. Go as far back in time as you wish, and imagine how important a rupee saved a couple of centuries ago would have been today – for you.

But, um, by that measure, shouldn’t you be saving every single rupee you can today for your child’s tomorrow? The argument holds whether you have children or not, by the way. If you wish your great-great-great-grandfather had been more financially responsible at age 27, when he was unmarried and without kids, then that goes for you today as well!

And all that being said, let’s get cracking with today’s set of links!

  1. “Time discounting research investigates differences in the relative valuation placed on rewards (usually money or goods) at different points in time by comparing its valuation at an earlier date with one for a later date”…
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    says the very simple introduction to time (temporal) discounting on behavioraleconomics.com. While you’re on that page, also look up hyperbolic discounting.
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  2. “Someone with a high time preference is focused substantially on their well-being in the present and the immediate future relative to the average person, while someone with low time preference places more emphasis than average on their well-being in the further future.Time preferences are captured mathematically in the discount function. The higher the time preference, the higher the discount placed on returns receivable or costs payable in the future.”
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    That is from Wikipedia, and as homework, ask yourself if you should live life with a zero discount rate attached to most things.*
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  3. “What has become known as the “Ramsey formula” says that the rate at which one should discount an increase in consumption that occurs in the future depends on three key factors, elaborated upon below: our pure rate of time preference, our expectations about future growth rates, and our judgment about whether and how fast the marginal utility of consumption declines as we grow wealthier”
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    So here’s a way to understand the point above: I was in Europe on work recently. Should I have splurged on a three star Michelin meal in Paris? Or banked the money I might have spent over there and gone for three such meals when I was 70 instead? Will such a meal at age 70 hold the same importance for me as it does now?**
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  4. “When brain science was young, it was thought that the frontal lobe had no particular function. There were famous cases such as that of Phineas Gage, a railway worker who, in an explosion, had a long iron rod driven through the front of his brain. The rod was removed and Gage, miraculously, survived, seemingly with his intelligence, language and memory intact. Before long he was back at work.However, observation of others with frontal lobe damage soon revealed the cost – problems with planning, and also, strangely, a reduction in feelings of anxiety. What was the link between the two? Both planning and anxiety are related to thinking about the future. Frontal lobe damage leaves people living in a permanent present, and as a result they will not be bothering to make plans, so can’t be anxious about them.”
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    That is from a review of one of the finest books I have read, Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert. Read the book, please. I promise you that it is worth your (excuse the pun) time.
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  5. “But there’s an alternative path. Generations overlap, and so by doing more to empower younger people today, we give somewhat more weight to the interests of future people compared to the interests of present people. This could be significant. Currently, the median voter is 47.5 years old in the USA; the average age of senators in the USA is 61.8 years. With an aging population, these numbers are very likely to get higher over time: in developed countries, the median age is project to increase by 3 to 7 years by 2050 (and by as much as 15 years in South Korea). We live in something close to a gerontocracy, and if voters and politicians are acting in their self-interest, we should expect that politics as a whole has a shorter time horizon than if younger people were more empowered.”
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    Via Marginal Revolution, this lovely, thought-provoking essay by William Macaskill. As both the MR blog post and Macaskill are careful to point out, this necessarily implies that younger people should be more informed, for such a system to have even a shot at succeeding.

 

But hey, that’s as good an argument as any for the existence of this blog!

 

*Yes, you should, far as I can tell. But god, it’s hard!

**If you were wondering, the answer is no. I didn’t go for that meal. I wish I had though!

 

 

A Short Explanation About Yesterday’s Video

Economists, and students of economics, are fond of using the quote “In the long run, we’re all dead”, attributed to John Maynard Keynes.

Except, the quote wasn’t used (at all) by Keynes in the spirit in which it is often quoted by folks today – the exact opposite, in fact.

But when we do talk about the long run, we economists (or students of economics) would do well to understand that there are many definitions of the long run. And in the longest run of all, yes, we are all well and truly dead.

And that’s one of the reasons behind choosing that video yesterday. Also, a tip that I myself learned only recently: tapping on the right of the screen on your phone in the YouTube app fast forwards the video by ten seconds, and pressing “L” on the keyboard has the same effect on your computer.

Thanks to the reader who pinged asking about it!

Links for 31st May, 2019

  1. “For economists, the idea of “spending” time isn’t a metaphor. You can spend any resource, not just money. Among all the inequalities in our world, it remains true that every person is allocated precisely the same 24 hours in each day. In “Escaping the Rat Race: Why We Are Always Running Out of Time,” the Knowledge@Wharton website interviews Daniel Hamermesh, focusing on themes from his just-published book Spending Time: The Most Valuable Resource.”
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    Almost a cliche, but oh-so-true. The one non-renewable resource is time. A nice read, the entire set of excerpts within this link.
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  2. ““Bad writing makes slow reading,” McCloskey writes. Your reader has to stop and puzzle over what on earth you mean. She quotes Quintilian: “One ought to take care to write not merely so that the reader can understand, but so that he canot possibly misunderstand.” This is harder than it sounds. As the author of several books, I’ve learned that many readers take out of a book whatever thoughts they took into it. Still, what else is worth aiming for if you want to communicate your ideas?”
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    As the first comment below the fold says, she herself doesn’t follow her own advice all the time (and yes, that is putting it mildly), but the book that Diane Coyle reviews in this article is always worth your time. Multiple re-readings, in fact. Also, I am pretty good at writing bad prose myself, which is why I like reading this book so much.
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  3. “Popper acknowledged that one can never know if a prediction fails because the underlying theory is false or because one of the auxiliary assumptions required to make the prediction is false, or even because of an error in measurement. But that acknowledgment, Popper insisted, does not refute falsificationism, because falsificationism is not a scientific theory about how scientists do science; it is a normative theory about how scientists ought to do science. The normative implication of falsificationism is that scientists should not try to shield their theories by making just-so adjustments in their theories through ad hoc auxiliary assumptions, e.g., ceteris paribus assumptions, to shield their theories from empirical disproof. Rather they should accept the falsification of their theories when confronted by observations that conflict with the implications of their theories and then formulate new and better theories to replace the old ones.”
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    I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that the author of this essay should read the book reviewed above first – but if you aren’t familiar with falsification, you might want to begin by reading this essay.
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  4. “Upheaval, by Jared Diamond. I’m a big fan of everything Jared has written, and his latest is no exception. The book explores how societies react during moments of crisis. He uses a series of fascinating case studies to show how nations managed existential challenges like civil war, foreign threats, and general malaise. It sounds a bit depressing, but I finished the book even more optimistic about our ability to solve problems than I started.”
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    Bill Gates has this annual tradition of  recommending five books for the summer – and I haven’t read a single one of the five he has recommended this year. All of them seem interesting – Diamond’s book perhaps more so than others.
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  5. “Books don’t work for the same reason that lectures don’t work: neither medium has any explicit theory of how people actually learn things, and as a result, both mediums accidentally (and mostly invisibly) evolved around a theory that’s plainly false.”
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    To say that I am fascinated by this topic is an understatement – and I have a very real, very powerful personal incentive to read this especially attentively. That being said, I can’t imagine anybody not wanting to learn about how we learn, and why we learn so poorly.

Links for 8th May, 2019

  1. “The god question is not easy to answer conclusively because god’s existence is a matter of faith, not science. There is no mathematical proof. God is a construct of belief. The great Austrian-American mathematician Kurt Gödel once attempted to prove the existence of god. His ontological proof of god, by definition, is more axiomatic and derived from semantic logic than from real mathematics. It was not long before it was discredited and the axioms questioned. Undeterred, a group of mathematicians from around the world is using open-source documentation to formalise Gödel’s proof to a level where it can be proven by computer programs. We will wait.”
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    Sachin Kalbag, a guy worth following on Twitter, writes about a near death experience he had some years ago, and asks questions about god, faith, belief and logic.
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  2. “You guys are so angry and militant, you’re going to cause havoc,” he recalls being told, delivering his anecdote with a comic’s timing. “You are not getting any arms. You are not ready to fight. You are raaaaw,” he says, disintegrating into laughter. Instead of war, the 21-year-old studied economics, ending up at the University of East Anglia in England. “When all this fighting is over,” he was told, “there will be a country to run.”
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    A short interview with Tito Mboweni – my only criticism is that it is too short, but then again, that’s the style of the Lunch with FT series. By the way, you might want to try Googling the series. Some extremely interesting interviews.
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  3. “The first two factory acts, one in 1881 and the other in 1891, neglected to shorten working hours. When the 1890 Factory Commission gathered workers’ voices, both male and female workers overwhelmingly demanded a shorter working day. Doorpathee told the commission: ‘It will be better if the hours are shortened.’ The 1891 Factory Act declared Sunday a holiday, limited the work day to 11 hours for female workers and seven hours for child workers (aged between nine and 14). But it left out adult males from the ambit of a shorter work day, and men continued to work between 13 to 16 hours per day.”
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    A truly lovely read about Bombay workers, their living conditions, and about the night schools that started in Bombay at that point of time.
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  4. “In short, strange as it may seem, industrialisation of India is the soundest remedy for the agricultural problems of India. The cumulative effects of industrialisation, namely a lessening pressure (of surplus labour) and an increasing amount of capital and capital goods will forcibly create the economic necessity of enlarging the holding. Not only this, but industrialisation, by destroying the premium on land, will give rise to few occasions for its sub-division and fragmentation. Industrialisation is a natural and powerful remedy…”
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    1918. Dr. Ambedkar wrote the essay from which this excerpt is taken in the year 1918. 101 years later, we still retain policies that keep people tethered to agriculture. Also worth reading is the rest of the article – and indeed, therefore the writings of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.
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  5. “Sloman and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also whether they could identify Ukraine on a map. The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention. (Respondents were so unsure of Ukraine’s location that the median guess was wrong by eighteen hundred miles, roughly the distance from Kiev to Madrid.)”
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    Never be too confident of anything, least of all about whatever it is that you think you know, is my key takeaway from this article – but implementing this is easier said than done!

The long run, and the short run

We’ve been speaking about growth in our series this month, and we’ve learnt that measuring growth is both important and tricky. But remember, by definition, growth by itself is meaningless unless you ask about time. That is, it isn’t much to say that something grew. How long did it take for it to grow is an equally important question!

The fancy-pants way of saying this is is to say that growth is a flow concept. What that really means is, we measure something per unit of time. If we measure something at a point of time, we call it a stock concept. Stocks and flows – keep those concepts in mind, because they keep recurring in economics.

All right, so growth is a flow concept, and we need to think about growth in terms of time. Fair enough: how long is appropriate? A month? A year? A decade? Even longer, or even shorter?

As it turns out, there is no right answer to this question. Think about a baby being taken to her pediatrician. The parents will naturally be anxious to find out if their child is growing normally, which means they want to know more about the long term growth prospects for their baby. Will she, five, ten, fifteen years down the line, be as tall as her peers, or not? What about her weight? These, and other questions, are long term questions – we’re talking years, not decades.

But hey, the parent’s might have bought in the baby because she’s running a temperature. In this case, the parents want to find out if their child will have a temperature tomorrow or not. These kind of questions are short-term questions.

Similarly, economists think about what India’s economy will look like next month, but also worry about whether we will be developed by 2030. We can’t be developed if we don’t grow in any month between now and 2030, so the monthly prognosis is important. But the long term prognosis also allows us to make corrections whose impact will be felt only in the long run.

For example, reducing interest rates today will impact financial markets tomorrow directly. But deciding to build a network of highways across the country is a multi-year project whose impact will take time to materialize, and will then be felt for many years at a stretch.

And so when we think about growth, we’re thinking about both the long term, and the short term, India growth story. It helps, however, to be very clear about the whether the precise economic problem we’re dealing with needs long term thinking, or short term thinking, or both.

Interest rate changes by the RBI? Short run policy. The Union Budget, announced every year? Short run policy. Plans by the Niti Aayog to electrify every village by 2020? Long term policy.

Such it goes.