Notes from Tyler Cowen’s Conversation with Marc Andreessen

Background info on Marc Andreessen is here. This is his page on the a16z website. Here are two other podcasts on which he has appeared as a guest that I enjoyed listening to: EconTalk, and The Tim Ferriss Show.

  1. He’s a fan of Knight Rider! I know this is something only folks of my age will get and appreciate, but Knight Rider was special when I was growing up.
  2. “Basically, it was an endurance competition to see who could outlast who, me or them.” That’s Marc talking about his school, but a semi-cynical take is that this could be about most higher education in general.
  3. The discussion on having kids (and at what age) is a great way to both understand and explain opportunity costs
  4. The two questions about Florence and the Neolithic era might seem funny and light-hearted, and on the face of it, they are. But to me, the answers are revealing: no matter what era, and no matter where in the world, he (Marc) would have wanted to make the world around him better. Better is a tricky word, and you may not agree with his (or my) definition of the word better, but that part of this answer doesn’t change. Does yours?
  5. “Economics pre — what was it — the 1950s, 1960s, it wasn’t all these formulas. It wasn’t all these formulas. It wasn’t a branch of physics, like it seems like it is today. It was descriptive. It was verbal. If you read Keynes, it’s like this, and even the people that preceded him.”
    This is true, and I do think we’ve gone too far over to the other side.
    “The form of humanities that resonates me is like that. It’s history, economics, philosophy, politics merged.”
  6. “What I’m figuring out over time is the psychology-sociology elements are as important or more important than the business finance elements or the technology elements.”
    Read more! That is as much a request to you as it is me admonishing myself.
  7. “In fact, he was the first customer of Edison’s light bulb system for the house. Edison came and installed the first indoor lighting in the world in J.P. Morgan’s library. Then it caught on fire and burnt the library down, and then J.P. Morgan, to his enormous credit, rebuilt the library and hired Edison to do it all over again.”
  8. Marc is a fan of Google Reader, and I cannot begin to tell you how much I miss it. Like Marc, I also use Feedly (and pay for the Pro version), but nothing comes close to Google Reader. And the most underrated part, to me, was the in-built social aspect of Google Reader. It was Facebook, but for nerds, and it was fantastic.
  9. The part of the conversation where Tyler asks about how exactly Web 3.0 will be useful for producers of content is interesting, because the answers (to me) still don’t make sense. I still don’t “get it”. That’s not me expressing scepticism, it is me expressing befuddlement. And a very similar exchange takes place in Russ Roberts’ conversation with Marc, and there too, I didn’t “get it”.
  10. The office is a solution to a problem that no longer exists is a wonderful way to think about, well, working from home, and it ties in nicely with my conviction that classrooms are (slowly but surely) on their way out.
  11. “My mental model of what Peter does is, I use the metaphor, the Bat-Signal. Peter puts out the Bat-Signal, and then he basically sees who shows up. He’s basically been doing this since college. That’s very interesting.”
    That’s Peter Thiel, of course, and the idea of attracting the best talent, rather than having to sort it, is a wonderful idea.
  12. “He basically says it was the foundational science and advanced technology basically developed in the computer world for 50 years by DARPA and its succeeding technological agencies, and then by big industrial research labs like IBM Research and others, that created the preconditions for computer-based start-ups. There was a 50-year backstory to that by the time Silicon Valley really got going. He said, also, the reason biotech’s half successful is because there was 25 years of biotech — NIH and all these very aggressive biotech biological science–investing programs.”
    Is Mazzucato underrated, or am I misunderstanding his point?

Top Gun Maverick and Straussian Takes

I am in the habit of asking my students to ask me five random questions at the end of each class. They don’t get a choice in the matter: they have to ask me five random questions, and the only rule is that the questions cannot be about whatever I spoke about in class on that day. That apart, anything is fine.

One question that usually comes up in the course of a semester is about my favorite movie, and in response, I usually end up walking the students through my model for judging a movie to be truly awesome.

To be truly awesome, I tell ’em, a movie must do three things:

  1. It must inform. I must know more about a part of the world at some point of time than I did before.
  2. It must provoke thought. I should be able to think differently about a topic than I did before I saw the movie.
  3. It must entertain. I shouldn’t feel bored/restless while watching the movie.

Each of these, to some extent are subjective, and the last two points especially so. But that’s fine. I wouldn’t want to decide for everybody what their model for judging a movie should be, I’m merely explaining my own, and even if you were to adopt this model (or a variant of it), we might still end up judging the same movie differently. In fact, that would be better! Room for more disagreements and discussions, and what else is there in life, no?

So, Top Gun: Maverick. So-so, good or great? (spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you might want to skip the rest of the post)

I watched the movie sometime last week and thoroughly enjoyed watching it. It didn’t really inform me of anything (and given that my knowledge of military hardware is non-existent, I wouldn’t have been able to pick up on much in the first place), and it didn’t really provoke much thought either. Some, but not a lot.

Did it entertain? Gawd yes, it did. Good popcorn fare, or to use a very Indian phrase, phull paisa vasool.

And that, I thought, was that. Until Marginal Revolution linked to a Ross Douthat tweet, that linked, in turn, to a The Bulwark review of the movie. And that provoked some thought. Again, spoilers ahead, so if you’re still reading, this is the last chance to, well, jettison.

It’s almost like Mav, rather than miraculously surviving an ejection at 7,000 or so miles per hour, perished in that test flight and before he could head on up to fighter-pilot heaven he had to work through his own personal purgatory. All I’m saying is that when Hangman saves Mav’s bacon in the final dogfight while uttering the line “This is your savior speaking” in the tone of voice that can only be labeled “pilot”—memorably described by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff as a lineal descendant of “the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager”—I don’t think the invocation of the almighty is entirely metaphorical.
And this is what, really, gives Top Gun: Maverick its power. Despite being almost aggressively generic in terms of plotting it is also deeply personal, a window into the regrets of one of pop cinema’s legendarily beloved characters. Maverick is at peace now. He has been to the danger zone and back. He can rest.

Huh. I’ll happily admit to not having thought about it quite that way.

Which brings me to the second part of the title of today’s blogpost: Straussian interpretations.

Like many fans of Marginal Revolution, I’ve been reading the phrase for many years, and wondered what it meant. Here is a link to an essay that does (if you ask me) a good job of explaining exactly what Straussian reading is, and here is an extract twice removed:

Imagine you have received a letter in the mail from your beloved, from whom you have been separated for many long months. (An old-fashioned tale, where there are still beloveds—and letters.) You fear that her feelings toward you may have suffered some alteration. As you hold her letter in your unsteady hands, you are instantly in the place that makes one a good reader. You are responsive to her every word. You are exquisitely alive to every shade and nuance of what she has said—and not said.
“Dearest John.” You know that she always uses “dearest” in letters to you, so the word here means nothing in particular; but her “with love” ending is the weakest of the three variations that she typically uses. The letter is quite cheerful, describing in detail all the things she has been doing. One of them reminds her of something the two of you once did together. “That was a lot of fun,” she exclaims. “Fun”—a resolutely friendly word, not a romantic one. You find yourself weighing every word in a relative scale: it represents not only itself but the negation of every other word that might have been used in its place. Somewhere buried in the middle of the letter, thrown in with an offhandedness that seems too studied, she briefly answers the question you asked her: yes, as it turns out, she has run into Bill Smith—your main rival for her affection. Then it’s back to chatty and cheerful descriptions until the end.
It is clear to you what the letter means. She is letting you down easy, preparing an eventual break. The message is partly in what she has said—the Bill Smith remark, and that lukewarm ending—but primarily in what she has not said. The letter is full of her activities, but not a word of her feelings. There is no moment of intimacy. It is engaging and cheerful but cold. And her cheerfulness is the coldest thing: how could she be so happy if she were missing you? Which points to the most crucial fact: she has said not one word about missing you. That silence fairly screams in your ear.

It’s not just what is written on the page (or shown in a movie, or sung in a song, or even painted on to a canvas), but is about so much more than that. While reading a book, or listening to a song, or watching a movie or viewing a painting, you might want to ask yourself some questions:

  • What are some of the non-obvious messages that the creator wants to you recieve, if only you’re paying attention?
  • What is it about the time and place in which this creation was created that might have prevented the creator from being more open about whatever they wanted to covney?
  • Might your appreciation of the work of art become better if you are able to peel away one layer at a time?

This is by no means a complete list, and once you realize that Straussian readings are possible, you can go back and consume much of what you have already read/seen/listened again (and again). Interpretations become so much richer, nuanced and uncertain (but in a good way).

That’s what a Straussian reading is, and once you’ve seen Top Gun: Maverick again, you might want to think about whether this Straussian interpretation is correct.

Me? I’m very much tempted to agree with it.

How To Look for Inflation

Here are links to the official sources:

The RBI’s DBIE website.

The latest CPI report on the MOSPI website.

The WPI PDF report from the EA Industry website.

If you want a secondary source with better graphs, Trading Economics is a good option.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. What I want to talk about is how you might think about inflation.

Greg Ip, the chief economics commentator for the Wall Street Journal, speaks about how he came to deeply understand the topic of inflation when his mother told him that his pocket money would be linked to the consumer price index in Canada, which is where he grew up.

It’s one thing to ask students in a class to visit a website that provides information about inflation, and it is quite another to have a young person’s pocket money be linked to it. Guess who is more likely to follow the website keenly, and guess who is likely to ask questions along the lines of “But why should the prices of zarda, kimam and surti impact my pocket money, huh?”

(Item code and these together carry a weightage of 0.04869% in our CPI. Link here, and while you are at it, look up, and, and ask yourself some very interesting questions. There’s lots more to ponder about in that PDF, these are just to get you started!)

But there’s other things to ponder about where inflation is concerned too:

If it really wanted to get ahead of the inflation challenge, India’s central bank should have paid more attention to Surf Excel.
The price of the laundry detergent went up by 20% in January. While that’s hardly news when most everyday things are becoming dearer everywhere, the interesting part was the retail price before the change: Rs 10 (13 US cents) for a bar.
Such tiny bars of detergent are targeted at less affluent consumers who are often unable to spend a rupee more without having to cut back on something else. To prevent these customers from downgrading to cheaper products, Unilever Plc’s India franchise relies on “magic price points” — such as Rs 5 or Rs 10 — that help buyers stay within their tight budgets.

Read the rest of the article, and if you are unfamiliar with pricing, especially in an Indian context, this will help you learn about the nuances of inflation. You may or may not agree with the article’s conclusions about spotting inflation in India, and that’s fine, as far as we’re concerned. But what we should be learning is an important lesson:

Inflation is about more than just changing prices.

And finally, give a listen to this podcast – and if you can’t be bothered to listen to the whole thing, the really interesting bit starts at around the 24th minute or so, where Tyler Cowen and James Altucher help you understand how you might build your own inflation index. We got a puppy home recently, and I can attest to some of the points made in that section!

Read the news and make sure you keep an eye on inflation, sure. But learn – especially when it comes to a topic like inflation – that textbooks and newspaper articles are only a start. These topics are way more complicated than that.

Have we become uniquely stupid?

For those of you who have read the essay, the title of today’s blogpost is a dead giveaway: I am referring to Jonathan Haidt’s essay in the Atlantic, titled “Why The Past 10 Years Of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid“. The subtitle is equally depressing: It’s Not Just a Phase.

It’s been clear for quite a while now that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history. But Babel is not a story about tribalism; it’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. It’s a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.
Babel is a metaphor for what some forms of social media have done to nearly all of the groups and institutions most important to the country’s future—and to us as a people. How did this happen? And what does it portend for American life?

The essay is a lengthy read, but a rewarding one. Jonathan Haidt takes us through the evolution of the internet, with the emphasis on the social aspect really beginning to take off post 2010 or so, and gives us a book to read that goes on my to-read list: Nonzero: History, Evolution and Human Cooperation.

The next section is where the story really picks up, for we are introduced to the “villains” of the piece: the Like, Share and Retweet buttons. It’s not the buttons themselves that are to blame, of course, much like the atom not being at fault for the atom bomb. It’s what we have done with the Like, Share and Retweet buttons that is the problem:

By 2013, social media had become a new game, with dynamics unlike those in 2008. If you were skillful or lucky, you might create a post that would “go viral” and make you “internet famous” for a few days. If you blundered, you could find yourself buried in hateful comments. Your posts rode to fame or ignominy based on the clicks of thousands of strangers, and you in turn contributed thousands of clicks to the game.

Goodhart’s Law is massively underrated. Rather than optimizing for the quality of the content of one’s creation, we optimize for it’s virality. The virality ought to be a function of the quality, but we’ve skipped the intermediate step, with consequences that have become manifest and deep-rooted. Or as Jonathan Haidt puts it, “these platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves”.

He then goes on to quote from Madison’s Federalist No. 10 on the innate human proclivity towards “faction”.
I have watched “The Last Dance” on Netflix more times than I should have, but this reminds me of Michael Wilbon talking about how everybody in Chicago hated the Pistons (around the 28 minute mark in episode 4, if you’re interested). He repeatedly involves the phrase “this was personal”, and that’s one way to understand what factionalism means. Tribalism in sports, but elsewhere too, is the kind of factionalism you want to think about in this context, and you might also benefit from reading the transcript of Ezra Klein’s conversation with Tyler Cowen:

Factionalism (or tribalism. I’m not sure if the two mean exactly the same thing in an academic sense, but I am using them interchangeably here) hasn’t necessarily gone down, but we seem to have found new things to be “tribal” about.

As I understand it, Haidt is making the point that our tribalism when it comes to politics is now more deep-rooted than ever, but is also more trivial than ever before. Which politician is wearing what kind of clothes for which occasion excites more debate online than substantive issues that warrant more debate. Or as I prefer to put it, our agreement with stated positions and policies is these days a function of who said it, rather than what has been said. Such tribal loyalty when it comes to close friends is one thing, although even that has its limits, but fealty of such an extreme nature when it comes to political discourse ought to worry most of us.

And as an aside, the last question that Tyler Cowen asks in that extract above is a question to which I don’t have a great answer. I agree with the point in his question, but like him, wonder about the underlying cause.

An extract twice removed now:

The digital revolution has shattered that mirror, and now the public inhabits those broken pieces of glass. So the public isn’t one thing; it’s highly fragmented, and it’s basically mutually hostile. It’s mostly people yelling at each other and living in bubbles of one sort or another.

Amit Varma made a very similar point in a recent podcast with Shruti Kapila recently, in which he pointed out that social media has, in effect, decentralized the news (I’m quoting from memory here, so please forgive me if I’ve got the exact wording wrong). Amit Varma says that this is on balance a good thing, but with some negative consequences. Jonathan Haidt disagrees:

Mark Zuckerberg may not have wished for any of that. But by rewiring everything in a headlong rush for growth—with a naïve conception of human psychology, little understanding of the intricacy of institutions, and no concern for external costs imposed on society—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a few other large platforms unwittingly dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together.

Where do I fall on this Haidt-Verma spectrum? Closer towards the Haidt end, I’d say, but I do have to remind myself that I have written this and you are reading it, so maybe decentralization isn’t all that bad? But that’s as far as I’m willing to go – on balance, I find myself closer to Haidt’s position, at least for the moment.

But the enhanced virality of social media thereafter made it more hazardous to be seen fraternizing with the enemy or even failing to attack the enemy with sufficient vigor. On the right, the term RINO (Republican in Name Only) was superseded in 2015 by the more contemptuous term cuckservative, popularized on Twitter by Trump supporters. On the left, social media launched callout culture in the years after 2012, with transformative effects on university life and later on politics and culture throughout the English-speaking world.

Haidt is writing this from an American perspective, for an American audience. But we in India have our own share of names for The Other, don’t we? It’s not just the fact that we have relatively trivial tribalism in areas as important as political discourse, but the fact that the discourse itself is not just trivial, but downright nasty. And the nastier it gets, the higher the support from your own side!

I’ll skip talking about a couple of sections from Haidt’s essay, not because they’re not important, but because they aren’t directly relevant to us here in India. But the subtitle of his essay gets an entire section, where he speaks about how things are likely to get much worse in the years (months) to come:

in a 2018 interview, Steve Bannon, the former adviser to Donald Trump, said that the way to deal with the media is “to flood the zone with shit.” He was describing the “firehose of falsehood” tactic pioneered by Russian disinformation programs to keep Americans confused, disoriented, and angry. But back then, in 2018, there was an upper limit to the amount of shit available, because all of it had to be created by a person (other than some low-quality stuff produced by bots).
Now, however, artificial intelligence is close to enabling the limitless spread of highly believable disinformation. The AI program GPT-3 is already so good that you can give it a topic and a tone and it will spit out as many essays as you like, typically with perfect grammar and a surprising level of coherence. In a year or two, when the program is upgraded to GPT-4, it will become far more capable. In a 2020 essay titled “The Supply of Disinformation Will Soon Be Infinite,” Renée DiResta, the research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, explained that spreading falsehoods—whether through text, images, or deep-fake videos—will quickly become inconceivably easy. (She co-wrote the essay with GPT-3.)

Speaking of the amount of shit that had to be created by a person, read this article written by Samanth Subramanian in February 2017.

So what might be done? Jonathan Haidt has a three-pronged solution:

What changes are needed? Redesigning democracy for the digital age is far beyond my abilities, but I can suggest three categories of reforms––three goals that must be achieved if democracy is to remain viable in the post-Babel era. We must harden democratic institutions so that they can withstand chronic anger and mistrust, reform social media so that it becomes less socially corrosive, and better prepare the next generation for democratic citizenship in this new age.

He outlines the steps involved in each of these, and if you haven’t already, I would encourage you to go read the entire essay, and these outlines in particular. I find myself to be in broad agreement with both the suggestions as well as how they might be implemented, but also worry about whether we have the political and social will to actually do so.

Finally, a coda of sorts:

The most pervasive obstacle to good thinking is confirmation bias, which refers to the human tendency to search only for evidence that confirms our preferred beliefs. Even before the advent of social media, search engines were supercharging confirmation bias, making it far easier for people to find evidence for absurd beliefs and conspiracy theories, such as that the Earth is flat and that the U.S. government staged the 9/11 attacks. But social media made things much worse.

And I would feel very bad if you, the reader, were to read either my post or Haidt’s essay in order to confirm your already existing fears about the ill-effects of social media. And so I urge you to read this column by Tyler Cowen next:

Calling something “extremist” is not an effective critique. It’s a sign that the speaker or writer either doesn’t want to take the trouble to make a real argument, or is hoping to win the debate through rhetoric or Twitter pressure rather than logic. It’s also a bad sign when critics stress how social media have fed and encouraged “extremism.”

What the U.S. needs is more consideration of more extreme ideas. If you see someone inveighing against “extremism” or “extremist ideas,” beware: That is itself an extreme position. True moderation lies in calm and reasoned debate.

My take on this essay? I think Tyler is saying that we shouldn’t be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Social media has done two things: made it easier to spread “extreme” ideas, and made it much more likely that we will react with extreme prejudice and nastiness to these ideas.

The first of these is A Very Good Thing and the second of these is a Very Bad Thing. But we would do well to hold on to the first, rather than abandon both.

How? Ah, now if only we had some extreme ideas about that.

Happy Birthday to Kevin Kelly

70th birthday that too!

Who is Kevin Kelly, you ask? Lots of ways to begin, but my favorite learning from Kevin Kelly (so far) has been the idea of 1000 true fans:

To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.
A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the “best-of” DVD version of your free youtube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month. If you have roughly a thousand of true fans like this (also known as super fans), you can make a living — if you are content to make a living but not a fortune.

I cannot for the life of me remember where I read about 1000 true fans first, but it most likely was via Tim Ferriss. (As an aside, Kevin Kelly has advice about this as well!) The extract above is an assertion, and if your reaction is along the lines of “but why is this assertion true?” – and I hope that is the case! – you will want to read the rest of the essay. It’s got spin-offs too, this essay, which only drives up my opinion of the original.

But Kevin Kelly is a person who you should spend time learning more about. Start with his Wikipedia page, listen to his multiple episodes with Russ Roberts over on EconTalk, visit the Cool Tools section on his website, subscribe to his related newsletter, listen to his podcasts with Tim Ferriss, and as a bonus, listen to Tyler Cowen’s podcast with Stewart Brand. And read his books, of course.

Long story short, he is a person worth knowing about, and trust me when I say we’ve only scratched the surface, if that. But today, I wanted to point you to his birthday gift to all of us, a lovely set of 103 observations that he has called “103 Bits of Advice I Wish I Had Known“. It goes without saying that all 103 are worth a ponder, but I’ll list here ten that especially resonated with me right now:

  1. About 99% of the time, the right time is right now.
  2. Anything you say before the word “but” does not count.
  3. When you forgive others, they may not notice, but you will heal. Forgiveness is not something we do for others; it is a gift to ourselves.
  4. When you lead, your real job is to create more leaders, not more followers.
  5. It is the duty of a student to get everything out of a teacher, and the duty of a teacher to get everything out of a student.
  6. Productivity is often a distraction. Don’t aim for better ways to get through your tasks as quickly as possible, rather aim for better tasks that you never want to stop doing.
  7. The consistency of your endeavors (exercise, companionship, work) is more important than the quantity. Nothing beats small things done every day, which is way more important than what you do occasionally.
  8. Half the skill of being educated is learning what you can ignore.
  9. When you have some success, the feeling of being an imposter can be real. Who am I fooling? But when you create things that only you — with your unique talents and experience — can do, then you are absolutely not an imposter. You are the ordained. It is your duty to work on things that only you can do.
  10. Your best job will be one that you were unqualified for because it stretches you. In fact only apply to jobs you are unqualified for.
  11. It’s possible that a not-so smart person, who can communicate well, can do much better than a super smart person who can’t communicate well. That is good news because it is much easier to improve your communication skills than your intelligence.
  12. For the best results with your children, spend only half the money you think you should, but double the time with them.
  13. Don’t bother fighting the old; just build the new.
  14. You are as big as the things that make you angry.
  15. Efficiency is highly overrated; Goofing off is highly underrated. Regularly scheduled sabbaths, sabbaticals, vacations, breaks, aimless walks and time off are essential for top performance of any kind. The best work ethic requires a good rest ethic.

The observant among you might have noticed that I ended up picking fifteen rather than ten, but why short change myself and my readers? I didn’t bother culling out five – and to be clear, this is not to imply that the other eighty-eight are somehow inferior. These fifteen resonated the most with me, and I sincerely hope that your list is completely different from mine.

Note to self: of the ones I have selected here, the fifth one is the one where I really need to pull up my socks.

And speaking of hope, it would be nice if this list sparked conversations and your own lists!

Past mentions of Kevin Kelly on this blog are here.

Play Like an Athlete?

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what am I training for?

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

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

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

Hold on to that thought for a second…

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

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

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

Here are my current answers:

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

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

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

On Noahlism

About the title of today’s blogpost: I couldn’t resist, I’m sorry. The post is about something Noah Smith calls the “The Two Paper Rule”, about which much more below – but the title is courtesy Paul Krugman. About which, also, more below.

Noah wrote this post a while ago, in May 2017. His original post is about a Very Simple Idea that hopefully solves a Very Real Problem. Here’s the Very Real Problem:

I don’t know why academic literatures are so often referred to as “vast” (the phrase goes back well over a century), but it seems like no matter what topic you talk about, someone is always popping up to inform you that there is a “vast literature” on the topic already. This often serves to shut down debate, because it amounts to a demand that before you talk about something, you need to go read voluminous amounts of what others have already written about it. Since vast literatures take many, many hours to read, this represents a significant demand of time and effort. If the vast literature comprises 40 papers, each of which takes an hour to read, that’s one week of full-time work equivalent that people are demanding as a cost of entry just to participate in a debate! So the question is: Is it worth it?

Anybody who has suffered through a PhD knows the problem all too well. These days, anybody who has been asked to do a literature review for any paper knows the problem all too well. There is just too much to read.

And folks who want to make sure that uppity folks don’t get, well, too uppity always have a fail-safe defense at the ready: “Have you read all the relevant literature?”. There’s so much stuff that is being published about everything imaginable, that you’re never going to be able to get through even a fraction of it. Why, there’s even a law about it! And there’s a law about the law, which only goes to prove the point further, I suppose.

And here’s Noah’s Very Simple Idea to solve this Very Real Problem:

My solution to this problem is what I call the Two Paper Rule. If you want me to read the vast literature, cite me two papers that are exemplars and paragons of that literature. Foundational papers, key recent innovations – whatever you like (but no review papers or summaries). Just two. I will read them.
If these two papers are full of mistakes and bad reasoning, I will feel free to skip the rest of the vast literature. Because if that’s the best you can do, I’ve seen enough.
If these two papers contain little or no original work, and merely link to other papers, I will also feel free to skip the rest of the vast literature. Because you could have just referred me to the papers cited, instead of making me go through an extra layer, I will assume your vast literature is likely to be a mud moat.
And if you can’t cite two papers that serve as paragons or exemplars of the vast literature, it means that the knowledge contained in that vast literature must be very diffuse and sparse. Which means it has a high likelihood of being a mud moat.

I love this idea, and for the following reasons. One, I have an immediate repartee whenever I’m attacked with the “But have you read the literature?” question. And it’s not just a repartee, but a genuine request that serves two purposes. The person asking the question had better be able to come up with at least two papers on the spot. There is otherwise not much point in they having asked the question! Second, assuming the person does come up with two papers I haven’t read, there’s more to read and more to learn.

But second, as a student, what a wonderful way to start building up a repository of papers about a series of subjects! Always ask your profs, no matter the subject, about the two papers worth reading about today’s topic, and keep a running list. (Hint: this is a great way to spend a summer!)

Third, and I’m personally very curious about the results in this case, what about asking young profs and old profs this very question about the same subject? If the answers differ, this is a field worth examining rather more deeply, for it obviously has evolved fairly rapidly. I did my PhD in business cycles, and trust me, the answers would never have been the same – by age, adherence to a particular school of macroeconomics thought, or even by nationality.

Paul Krugman loved the idea (Noah links to Krugman’s blog towards the end of Noah’s blog post, but the link seems to be down. The excerpt below is from Google’s cache):

What about trade? Autor/Dorn/Hanson on the China shock may not be the last word, but surely a revelatory approach. In a strange way, I’d put Subramanian and Kessler in the same category: realizing that this globalization is different from anything that came before is a big deal.
I guess that in a way I’m pushing back against Noah’s nihilism (noahlism?) even while endorsing his method. I think there has been a lot of good economics done, even if there are also vast literatures not worth your time.

Click here to access the link, too long to post in its entirety

… and you now know, of course, where the title of today’s post comes from! What I think Krugman is getting at when he refers to his pushing back against Noah’s idea is that perhaps just two papers is too restrictive. And if that be the case, Tyler Cowen agrees:

The difference between total value and marginal value may be relevant. You might conclude a field literature has low total value, but the marginal value of learning more about that area still could be quite high. That is in part because muddy fields and results don’t spread so readily, and so dipping into the muck can yield some revelations. That is another reason why I would not offer the “two paper standard” as practical advice.

I have quoted only one of Tyler’s points (he’s got nine others), but in general, I don’t think we should be taking the two part of the two paper rule as being sacrosanct. In some cases you may need to read five, in some rarer cases ten. So long as the number is reasonable (and the standard will change), we can still live with the spirit of the two paper rule.

But if you are a student in college, the two paper rule is a good way to build up a repository of about fifty odd papers that you Really Should Have Read. Twenty five courses (roughly speaking), two papers each.

Well, get started! 🙂

Understanding Taiwan

A student recently got in touch asking about what he should read when it comes to understanding the current dynamics of Sino-Taiwanese relations.

This blog post is, in a sense, an answer to his question, but also a bookmark-worthy resource for me. And hopefully for you as well!

  • I’d recommend one beings by trying to understand Taiwan: it’s history, it’s society, it’s culture. And a good primer to begin with would be this blogpost by Tanner Greer.
    “The fact is that younger generations of Taiwanese, including the grandchildren of the waishengren have no memory of pre-communist China, have only distant relatives there, and have spent their entire lives living in freedom. This is an environment where the use of Taiwanese Hokkien is encouraged and Taiwanese nationalism has flourished. Thus very few people under 45 consider themselves Chinese.”
  • For additional reading, I heavily recommend this post by Noah Smith:
    “Taiwan has one of the most progressive societies, if not the most progressive, in Asia. It was the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage, and sports a vibrant gay culture. Taiwan ranks as one of the most gender-equal societies in the world, equivalent to Norway and higher than France on the commonly used GII scale. The President, Tsai Ing-Wen, is a woman, and women make up 42% of the legislature. The country has actively pushed for gender equality in business, and the gender pay gap, at 14% in 2018, is smaller than in the U.S.”
  • Taiwan is big on democracy (and if you read Greer’s post linked to above, you will begin to understand why), and Taiwan is a good way to start to learn more about digital democracy. A useful way to begin would be to learn more about Audrey Tang. Listen to these two podcasts as well in this regard: the first one is with Azeem Azhar, and the second with Tyler Cowen.
  • Now, a post written in 2022 has to be about Sino-Taiwanese relations, right? The Wikipedia article about Cross-Strait relations is a good place to begin, and you may want to read this Wikipedia article too. (And while you’re at it, this one too!)
  • And it also has to be about semi-conductors, and that one company in particular. Read this briefing from The Economist as well, along with this essay by Pranay Kotasthane. One thing I have realized is that I haven’t read books about the emergence of the semi-conductor industry in general, and about TSMC in particular. If you have any recommendations, please send them my way. Thank you.
  • And after all that, perhaps one can then delve deeper into the issue that my student really wanted to get at: present-day geopolitics and strategy. Edward Luttwak on Twitter is an excellent source of information, and this essay by him is good reading. Tyler Cowen’s essay in Bloomberg is also good reading in this regard. And in a slightly older essay, Greer thinks through the implications of America not doing so well in a all-but-inevitable conflict with China over Taiwan.
  • If you are an Indian reading this blogpost, and are curious about how to think about this conflict from an Indian viewpoint, here are articles you might want to start out with. Here’s Nitin Pai on the issue, here is Shyam Saran, and here is an interview with Pranay over on Scroll on related issues.
  • What else? Well, follow Constantino Xavier on Twitter, and also Hamsini Hariharan, Ananth Krishnan (who also has a Substack on Indo-Chinese relations) and Manoj Kewalramani (ditto). Also Vijay Gokhale! Here is Takshashila Institute’s page on Taiwan, try this search link on for size too.
  • Finally, try using game theory to think through the implications? Use this as a starting point, but have fun (well, as much fun as is possible given the topic!) coming up with outrageous theories, and thinking through the consequences in game theoretic terms.
    There must be a million other things I could have linked to but didn’t. I look forward to adding more, so don’t hesitate to send in links to help that student of mine. Thank you in advance!

A Postcard Sized Idea

I had cause to re-read the excellent “Discover Your Inner Economist” by Tyler Cowen recently, and came across a passage that resolved a little puzzle in my head. This is the passage:

It should be possible to take a good economics argument and write it out on the back of a moderate-sized postcard. If an argument has too many steps, at least one of those steps is bound to be radically uncertain. Or, if there are too many steps, we won’t know how all those different steps fit together to establish the argument’s conclusion.
When my Ph.D. students come to me with new ideas, I first say in my sternest voice, “Give me the postcard version.” Those who know me well enter my office shouting: “I have the postcard!” Those who say it is necessary to read their entire forty-six page essay to grasp their central claim are told to go back to the drawing board.

Discover Your Inner Economist, by Tyler Cowen

Some of my own students reading this blogpost might find that excerpt familiar. I have used a variant of this advice – I ask students to tell me their idea in one sentence, and one sentence alone. I then ask them to split up that first sentence into four parts, and those four parts into four further parts, and so on. This helps them write out their essays/theses/assignments – or so I hope! I know this structure helped me write my own thesis, and I still use a variant of this when I want to write longer pieces.

The puzzle of course was the fact that I knew the idea wasn’t mine, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember where I had read about it.

I’m not bringing up this excerpt and my experiences simply because I happened to read the book again. The idea is to share with you something that might help you create a video, or an essay or even a twitter thread.

Whatever it is that you are planning on creating, can you describe it in one sentence? Try and avoid punctuations (colons, semi-scolons, commas) and conjunctions. What is that single, simplest possible sentence that describes for me what you plan to do in this project?

Can you then break up that one sentence into four further sentences? These sentences can then become sections in your essay, or chapters in your thesis.

… and on and on.

In my own experience, two things happen. Condensing down towards that first sentence is the hardest part, and it often takes the longest time. But that agonizing experience (and I do not enjoy it one little bit), forces one to excise the weaker parts of your idea, and both reinforce and modify the strongest parts.

And once that is done, the expanding to four sentences is both a lot easier and a lot of fun. And from there on in, it’s all generally downhill (at least the planning phase).

But that first sentence? That’s the really hard bit.

And on a related note

Learning to Ask Better Questions

Apologies about not writing yesterday, but life has been pretty busy in myriad ways.

Today’s post is a bit of a cop-out, in the sense that I’m simply putting up a list of questions that I got to ask Tyler Cowen today. The call lasted for an hour, and it was every bit as fantastic as I’d hoped it would be.

I haven’t edited the list of questions at all, and the reason I’m putting them up here is because:

  1. Most (but not all) of the questions were related to blogposts he has written, and you may want to read them
  2. Help me learn how the questions could have been better, and what else I could have asked
  3. Hopefully, some of you get inspired to ask better questions!

On Philosophy and Economics and Opportunity Costs (16 minutes)

  1. What has been the opportunity cost to the field of philosophy for you having chosen to study and teach, but especially specialize in, economics?
    1. If one agrees with the central thesis of Stubborn Attachments, should more people be asking themselves this question? And if yes, is it better to ask this question early on in life, or later?
  2. If economics is the study of how to get the most out of life, how should individuals think about what most means to them? Is that a useful way to start thinking about philosophy if you’re an undergrad econ student?
  3. In your ideal university, “Teachers would be compensated on the basis of how many students they could attract, in a manner suggested long ago by Adam Smith, who himself lived under such a system in 18th-century Scotland.” My question is related to another recent blog post of yours: how did Adam Smith and his students think about the elasticity of demand? If we were to implement a system like this today (and god knows I would love to), how should we be thinking about the elasticity of demand?
  4. What has Songdo taught you about urbanization, and what has George Mason’s presence in Songdo taught you about the internationalization of American education?
    1. Which is the model that excites you the most in American education today: Minerva, Harvard or Arizona State University? 
    2. What should other countries be learning from whichever model you picked?
  5. Tim Ferriss famously  rejected an MBA and used that money to learn by investing in start-ups after moving to San Franscisco. David Perell is notably against the kind of education that we deliver in universities, and schools today. David and Seth Godin have working models of what alternative methods of delivering learning might look like. Will the future be more a case of universities looking more like these models, to some extent, or these models looking more like universities?
    1. What would you want to add to David’s liberal arts essay? 
      1. Some cross-subsidization of the non-liberal-arts education by the liberal arts students, intra or inter-personal?
    2. You’d mentioned in a blogpost in 2006 that “there is something about having the person right in front of your face that triggers your biological “pay attention” alert mechanisms”, and that you weren’t in favor of online learning. What, specifically, were the social and technological changes that led you to change your mind?
    3. What technological changes are next when it comes to improving education, and what are the thresholds, in your mind, that need to be reached before you’ll change your mind again?
  6. Deirdre McCloskey has a famous essay on how it is all but impossible to get an undergrad student to do economics. Would you agree with that claim?

On Tyler Cowen and His Work/Worldview (16 minutes)

  1. Our field remains unsure of what principles of differentiation rule how “culture” and “economics” will be related in a particular problem. How should this influence how principles of economics ought to be taught to undergraduates – or indeed, anybody learning economics for the first time?
  2. What should be taught less in a first year graduate sequence, or maybe just taught less, period?
    1. I cannot remember where I read this, but I think the story goes something like this: Alex Tabarrok suggested starting a blog, and you responded by saying let’s write a textbook first. What are the strongest arguments that make Twitter, on balance, a positive force for the world? (I had this backward! Turns out Alex Tabbarok suggested writing a textbook, and Tyler Cowen said they should start a blog first)
    2. You had a post in 2007 about how to study economics in one’s spare time. How would you update your answer today? MRU (or its substitutes), but how should a noob think about what to learn more of, less of – and why?
  3. Are vouchers a bad idea for American education, or more generally speaking? How should we in India be thinking about developing a voucher system, or should we abandon the idea altogether?
  4. Calculus, statistics, programming, Shakespeare and the Bible were your picks when it came to the question of what, at the minimum, one should take away from schooling. The audience we’re speaking in front of today is about the same age as Yana was back when you wrote this post, only a little older. We’ll generalize/localize the Bible, but has your choice changed 17 years down the line?
  5. You had a post on teaching with blogs in 2005. It contained this line: “we are programmed to remember interpersonal exchanges better than written or spoken drones.” One,  your own Bowie moment, so congratulations, but also a question: at the undergrad level, what is the ideal mix of drones versus interpersonal exchanges, and how should we be thinking about it?

On Travel, Arts and Culture (16 minutes)

  1. Is a culture that values honorifics less likely to be a culture of excellence? 
    1. How should one square this with the fact that at least some street food in practically every Indian city is excellent (as opposed to the Philippines).
  2. How does one get better at asking stupid questions while traveling, and how does one maintain the quality of stupid questions as one’s travel increases?
  3. Choices choices: I give you two options, you must choose one, and I must guess which one you’ll choose. You must also explain the reasoning behind your choice. As with your game, so also with this one: feel free to pass on any or all.
    1. Pakistan or Bangladesh, the more exciting growth story from South Asia
    2. Re: pretty much any situation, Alex Tabarrok’s intuition or a really good model, and you cannot give the Samuelsonian response!
    3. A food trip to a part of India you’ve not been to yet (Orissa, perhaps?), or a food trip to a part of China you’ve not been to yet.
      1. On a related note, who in your opinion is India’s answer to Fuschia Dunlop?
    4. For any major city in the world, you get to visit it, but must give up one of the following: the food from that city, or museum visits while in that city. (Paris, if I must pick the city.
    5. Overrated vs. underrated or choices/choices, which game is more fun to play?
  4. If you had to recommend places to travel to within India for an Indian undergrad students, which places would you recommend? What mental model would you recommend they adopt to choose the destination, and what to do at the destination?
  5. Your next book is about recruiting better. What advice do you have for students about getting recruited better?

Questions from students/etc (12 minutes)

  1. Would you prefer a version of The Book of Disquiet in which the thoughts were lexically ordered? It would obviously render the Disquiet part almost wrongly placed, but wouldn’t then would he be able to communicate more thoroughly?
  2. How would you define/what would constitute Social Mobility in a stratified society, especially like India?
  3. Can what we know of economics be taught to aliens? Is there a role for human values in economic thinking?