On X-Inefficiency

Yesterday, I wrote this in my summary of Bloom and co-authors’ paper on productivity in India:

Economists tend to not buy into this because they assume that profit maximization implies cost minimization
So in other words, if firms are not minimizing costs by adopting good management practices, it is because “wages are so low that repairing defects is cheap. Hence, their management practices are not bad, but the optimal response to low wages.”

https://econforeverybody.com/2021/02/23/notes-from-does-management-matter-evidence-from-india-by-bloom-et-al/

… which brought to mind of the topic of X-inefficiency, for the second time this year. The first was when Tyler Cowen wrote about it in January. Here’s Wikipedia:

X-inefficiency is the divergence of a firm’s observed behavior in practice, influenced by a lack of competitive pressure, from efficient behavior assumed or implied by economic theory. The concept of X-inefficiency was introduced by Harvey Leibenstein

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X-inefficiency

X-inefficiency, in essence, is the idea that the economic theory idea about efficient firms in efficient markets is perhaps a little overblown. Here’s a quote from the paper itself:

The simple fact is that neither individuals nor firms work as hard, nor do they search for information as effectively, as they could. The importance of motivation and its association with degree of effort and search arises because the relation between inputs and outputs is not a determinate one. There are four reasons why given inputs cannot be transformed into predetermined outputs: (a) contracts for labor are incomplete, (b) not all factors of production are marketed, (c) the production function is not completely specified or known, and (d) interdependence and uncertainty lead competing firms to cooperate tacitly with each other in some respects, and to imitate each other with respect to technique, to some degree.

Leibenstein, Harvey. “Allocative Efficiency vs. ‘X-Efficiency.’” The American Economic Review, vol. 56, no. 3, 1966, pp. 392–415. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1823775

By the way, the entire paper is worth reading, because it contains multiple delightful nuggets. The Hawthorne effect, which I mentioned in yesterday’s blogpost makes an appearance, and it also helps one understand why microeconomic textbooks are a very poor way to learn about the real world. Consider this delightful quote, for example:

One idea that emerges from this study is that firms and economies do not operate on an outer-bound production possibility surface consistent with their resources. Rather they actually work on a production surface that is well within that outer bound.

Leibenstein, Harvey. “Allocative Efficiency vs. ‘X-Efficiency.’” The American Economic Review, vol. 56, no. 3, 1966, pp. 392–415. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1823775

OK, so people and firms are both not as efficient as econ textbooks make them out to be. This is not, to put it politely, headline material in the non-econ world. What might be potential solutions?

In situations where competitive pressure is light, many people will trade the disutility of greater effort, of search, and the control of other peoples’ activities for the utility of feeling less pressure and of better interpersonal relations. But in situations where competitive pressures are high, and hence the costs of such trades are also high, they will exchange less of the disutility
of effort for the utility of freedom from pressure, etc

ibid

In English, this means the following:

  • Government offices are unlikely to be as productive as private sector offices
  • Surround yourself with folks who are go-getter types
  • And this is my take: figure out for yourself a good boss/manager/mentor who will push you, but in a non-zero sum way

This last part is all but impossible, but oh-so-important.

In any case: x-inefficiencies. An underrated topic from micro!

Understand the beast that is finance

We’ve been building a series on finance here, and we’re not even at basecamp level just yet in terms of our ascent on Mount Finance. But I just realized that while I’ve started the series, I have not laid out two ideas that I think are central to thinking about finance. One idea for today, and the other for tomorrow.

Today’s idea is about zero sum games.

I’m big on non-zero sum games. Students at GIPE are probably sick and tired of hearing me uttering the phrase now, but it’s never going to stop. The world is where it is today precisely because of the fact that it is a non-zero sum game, and most of our problems in life and society would go away if only we understood and applied the principle in all walks of life. But that’s a separate post, and I’ll get to it one day.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, a trade in which both parties are left better off than they were before is called a non-zero sum game. Also called a double thank you moment, by the way.

Here’s the thing about finance.

It is not a non-zero sum game.

For me to win, you have to lose. There’s debate about whether this is true for all of finance or only a part of it, but options theory in particular is (at least in my view) definitely a zero sum game.

Options and futures trading is the closest practical example to a zero-sum game scenario because the contracts are agreements between two parties, and, if one person loses, then the other party gains. While this is a very simplified explanation of options and futures, generally, if the price of that commodity or underlying asset rises (usually against market expectations) within a set time frame, an investor can close the futures contract at a profit. Thus, if an investor makes money from that bet, there will be a corresponding loss, and the net result is a transfer of wealth from one investor to another.

https://www.investopedia.com/terms/z/zero-sumgame.asp

Speaking of the “for me to win, you have to lose” line of argument, consider this snippet of an excellent conversation between Tyler Cowen and Clifford Asness:

AUDIENCE MEMBER: How confident can you be that there will continue to be the steady supply of stupider investors on the other side of the trade so that you continue to make money?
ASNESS: That’s a great set of questions.
Backing up, you’re not going to believe me, you’re going to think I’m just copying you. But myself and a colleague, Antti Ilmanen — he’s Finnish, he didn’t just have odd parents — have been planning, we haven’t written it yet, to write a paper with the literal title, “Who is On the Other Side?” Just a little shorter version of what you said, because we do think that is a very disciplining question.

https://conversationswithtyler.com/episodes/cliff-asness/

In fact, if you ask me, this is the core differentiator between economics and finance. The study of economics is (ought to be?) about non-zero sum games. The study of finance is about zero sum games. It’s confrontational, it’s risky, it’s like sports. For there to be a winner, there has to be a loser.

Why I like watching and playing sports even when sports is very much a zero-sum game is also another post by the way. One day.

Still, back to my main point: finance is a zero sum game.

If you want to get into this jungle, do so with eyes wide open. I’m just sayin’.

Macroeconomics and Arguments

The best way to learn is by arguing with somebody.

Classes are boring, reading is passive, and videos are both of these things. But when you meet somebody who is well informed, thoughtful, respectful of your viewpoint but is willing to argue with you, well: Merry Christmas.

I’m well aware that social media leaves one with the impression that none of these things are true these days, but that is just our tendency to search out the bad, rather than the good.

When I teach courses in behavioral finance, for example, I often show a discussion between Richard Thaler and Eugene Fama:

That is not the point of today’s blogpost, but it is still a video worthy of your time, whether you’re interested in the topic or not. These two gentlemen (Nobel Prize winners both of them) hold diametrically opposite views when it comes to the efficiency of markets. But they spend a little over forty minutes here, engaged in perfectly civil conversation with each other, without once ceding an inch to the other’s viewpoint. The point isn’t the fact that we’re left without a clear understanding of who is right and who is wrong. The takeaway is that it is entirely possible to argue without turning the argument into a shouting match.

It is, as nine pm teaches us every night in India, a vanishing art.

Macroeconomics is a subject that lends itself to vigorous debate for a variety of reasons. One, and let us be clear about this, nobody has the slightest idea about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to macroeconomics. Yes, really.

Two, counterfactuals are impossible to come by, and so you can engage in endless games of but-have-you-considered.

Three, every macroeconomic crisis that I have had the opportunity to study as it has unfolded has led to all of what is listed below:

  1. Some old theories have been vindicated
  2. Some old theories have been falsified
  3. All theories have been updated
  4. We still don’t know quite what is going on

What’s worse is that the first two points depend almost entirely upon one’s point of view. And again, no, I am not making this up.

But I am not saying that this makes macroeconomics “bad”. This is precisely what makes it fascinating!

And the example du jour comes from two economists who love arguing with each other: Noah Smith and Tyler Cowen. The topic? President Biden’s proposed stimulus.

Blanchard’s argument that Biden’s bill is too large rests on the idea that this amount of spending will cause the economy to “overheat” — in other words, that inflation will rise. To prevent this, he suggests shrinking the size of the bill and financing more of it with taxes.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/covid-relief-isnt-stimulus-its-social

This is a point made by Larry Summers as well, by the way. For a good summary, see this Vox article.

Noah Smith’s point, and it one worth considering, is that this recession isn’t like the others. We say that every time there is a recession, by the way, but Smith’s point this time around is that the spending shouldn’t really be thought of as a stimulus, it should be thought of as social insurance:

If you get a check during a pandemic, you’re not going to go out and spend it at restaurants and bars, because…well, there’s a pandemic. Instead, you’re more likely to stick it in the bank, pay down debt, or pay the back rent that you owe.
In a normal recession, this is exactly what we don’t want people to do. We want them to take their government checks and go out and spend them, to restart the virtuous cycle of economic activity! But in a pandemic, it’s fine.
It’s fine because what we’re trying to do with COVID relief isn’t actually pump-priming — it’s retroactive social insurance. Some people, through no fault of their own, took a big hit from a risk that only a few people were paying attention to. In order to relieve those people’s suffering, we are giving them money that they can use to pay rent and buy necessities, as well as money to pay down debts so they have a bit more financial security.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/covid-relief-isnt-stimulus-its-social

The rest of the post is worth reading, because it identifies potential flaws in the argument he is making, and provides reasoned counter arguments. So well is this done that you begin to side with him…

…until you read Professor Cowen:

Leave aside the political question of how aggressively to pursue an agenda of a larger, more activist government (and keep in mind that I am more libertarian than many of the participants in this debate). Take a Big Government as a given. History shows that consumption still ought not be the priority.

It’s not as if there aren’t obvious candidates for alternative investment: green energy, broadband and public-health infrastructure for the next pandemic, to name a few. Yes, I am familiar with the argument that spending the extra trillion or so now will make it possible to spend more trillions later, including on such policies. But whatever kind of complicated political story you might tell, the basic laws of economics have not been repealed. Increasing current expenditures does, in fact, involve foregone future opportunities.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2021/02/investment-investment-investment-how-to-think-about-the-biden-stimulus-proposal.html

And his concluding paragraph is an excellent teacher at work, because he goes back to the Principles of Economics:

I say you can divide the commenters here into two groups.  Those who produce complicated arguments about why opportunity cost reasoning does not apply here, and those who stress the relevance of the opportunity cost of allocating another trillion dollars or two.  I believe that once you recognize that distinction, you know what to do with it next.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2021/02/investment-investment-investment-how-to-think-about-the-biden-stimulus-proposal.html

To which a pro-stimulus (or pro social insurance) person might say, “But people first!” Does that argument hold true? If this stimulus results in runaway inflation a couple of years down the line (students of the Indian economy might recall the years 2009-2013, so we’re not talking hypotheticals here), then was the stimulus in fact worth it? How do we balance this argument against the very real need to provide a stimulus today?

I am completely unsure about what the correct answer is – and that is my point in today’s post.

How can one not be fascinated by macroeconomics?

The Positive Externalities of Writing a Blog Post

If I ever meet Zeynep Tufekci, a beverage of her choice is due to her from me.

Last week’s post about her take on metaepistomology bought forth two very pleasant consequences. Whether they were intended or not is a question I myself have been grappling with, but I shall deal with that question (and that story) later on this week.

About those consequences:

  1. A student from the BSc program at the Gokhale Institute wrote in asking if we could have a discussion about metaepistomology – and you’ll permit me a self-congratulatory pat on the back for getting folks interested in a word as daunting as that. This of course means that I will have to spend a fair chunk of my time today reading up about metaepistomology myself, but I know that can only be a good thing.

    (Or do I?)
  2. Another student from the same program asked why a course on philosophy wasn’t a part of the program in a formal sense. To which I had no good answer, beyond saying that the course constraints were such that it could not be fit in.

Which, let’s be upfront and honest, is no answer at all. So, the topic of today’s blogpost: if there were to be a summer school, or a workshop, or a weekend course – whatever – on philosophy at the undergrad level, what all should it contain?

I don’t have a formal training in philosophy, having never taken the subject in my own undergrad days. It wasn’t on offer, I am sad to report, when I was doing my Masters. But I have tried to read a little bit here, and a little bit there, and have jotted down the list below as a starting point. Note that I have tried to ask what should be included in a summer school for students of economics who are studying philosophy for the first time, rather than first time students of philosophy. Also not that I am a complete amateur: please, point out obvious omissions!

That, I’m guessing should be more than enough for a 30 hour introduction, and the reading list is already monstrous.

So when I ask of you, what am I missing, I’m really asking the following: who/what would you include (and why) and who/what would you remove (and why). If there is anybody reading this who could help, please do write in.

Thank you!

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.

Large classes, small groups

You might want to read my previous posts about online education and learning before reading this. See this essay about the state of higher education in India, this about signaling and bundling in higher education, this about unbundling college and this about measuring efficiency in education.

In addition, Aadisht had a great comment about optionality and higher education, which really deserves a post in its own right – but you can click on the link in this paragraph and scroll to the bottom to read it for now.

All that being said, today’s post ties together the thoughts and deeds of three people whose thinking I try to follow very carefully when it comes to online education.

The role of community in education

Let’s begin with this tweet from one of them, David Perell.

Both the thread of which 4. is a part, and the Twitter thread referenced in 4. are worth reading.

But today, I wanted to focus on the community bit.

A quick reminder: my thesis is that college sells you three things. The education itself, the access to peer networks and the credentialing. If there is to be an online model that will work for colleges, it must successfully provide all three (and more) at the same price (or less) as college does today.

When it comes to peer networks, can they ever be as successful online as they have been offline?

That begs the question: have they been successful offline? And that is really two separate questions.

About Peer Groups

  1. Are peer groups worth the effort in the first place?
  2. Is there something special about peer groups you form in college?

With regard to the first, I’m going to take a pass on answering it in depth for at least two reasons. First, I know nowhere near enough sociology to be able to speak about this sensibly for any length of time. And second, isn’t the answer obvious?

About the second question, you might want to read this essay – a part of which is excerpted below:

As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.

https://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/fashion/the-challenge-of-making-friends-as-an-adult.html

The entire essay is worth your time, but the crux of it is those three points above: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and college life.

Anecdote Time

Two of the best years of my life were spent while studying for my Masters degree at the Gokhale Institute in Pune. There was a fair bit of reading/learning involved, but most of those two years were spent in just hanging out with a group of people I am still close friends with.

And of the three things that Gokhale Institute gave me when I purchased a Masters degree from it, it is this group of friends that I value the most. Then comes the degree, and the least important – as it turns out – was the learning itself.

Don’t misunderstand me – learning was and is important! It’s just that for me, sitting in a class and listening to professors talk wasn’t the best way to learn. I have learnt much more by speaking one-on-one with some professors, arguing heatedly and passionately about random topics with friends, and by reading/listening/viewing to stuff on my own time.

But therein lies a dilemma.

How to reconcile online education with forming your college gang?

Random bike rides, conversations at three in the morning sitting on a ledge on the hostel terrace, giggling at a joke while sitting towards the back of a classroom is not just an important part of college. In my personal experience, this pretty much was college.

And not just during the pandemic, but even beyond, the key challenge is to figure out ways and means to achieve something approaching the same experience in this brave new online world of ours.

What might be an answer to this conundrum? That brings me to the second person whose thoughts about online education matter to me, Tyler Cowen

Small Group Theory, via Tyler Cowen

If you are seeking to foment change, take care to bring together people who have a relatively good chance of forming a small group together. Perhaps small groups of this kind are the fundamental units of social change, noting that often the small groups will be found within larger organizations. The returns to “person A meeting person B” arguably are underrated, and perhaps more philanthropy should be aimed toward this end.

Small groups (potentially) have the speed and power to learn from members and to iterate quickly and improve their ideas and base all of those processes upon trust. These groups also have low overhead and low communications overhead. Small groups also insulate their members sufficiently from a possibly stifling mainstream consensus, while the multiplicity of group members simultaneously boosts the chances of drawing in potential ideas and corrections from the broader social milieu.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2018/06/best-analyses-small-innovative-productive-groups.html

If you are going to run an online course, or are going to be a student enrolled in an online course, the most important thing you can do is think long and hard about forming groups.

If you are the person running the course, you need to make the process of forming a group as friction-less as you possibly can. Without these groups, not only are drop-outs more likely, but the groups themselves are perhaps the bigger point!

Here’s Tyler Cowen again, in a separate post:

Remember Lancastrian methods of education from 19th century England? Part of the idea was to keep small group size, and economize on labor, by having the students teach each other, typically with the older students instructing the younger.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2020/05/my-weird-lancastrian-method-for-reopening-higher-education.html

The post I quoted from is about how college might reinvent itself in the era of the pandemic, but the larger point he is making – or at any rate, the point I choose to take away – is about how learning in small groups is better than classrooms.

And on a related note, the third person whose thoughts on online education I choose to take very seriously, Seth Godin:

Great guy. Chip and I went to business school together. He was the third youngest person in the class and I was the second youngest person in the class. He got five of us together and every Tuesday night, we met in the Anthropology Department for four hours. We brainstormed more than 5,000 business ideas over the course of the first year of business school. It was magnificent. It wasn’t official, it wasn’t sanctioned. It was just Chip said let’s do this, and we did. And he picked the Anthropology Department because he knew someone there and could get the conference room.

https://tim.blog/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/138-seth-godin.pdf

That is from an episode from Tim Ferriss’ podcast, in which he interviewed Seth (the whole episode is well worth your time), but the point that I remembered was about small groups.

Anybody who is going to try and do education online is going to have to get small groups going. Without it – in my opinion – it simply will not work.

But how do you form these groups?

I’m still thinking about the how, and the more I think about it, the more it seems as if there is never going to be a perfect answer. Forming groups is hard, and I think we need to make peace with the fact that groups may not always work out.

People won’t get along, people will drop out, quarrels will take place even among groups that develop close bonds – there are many, many things that can go wrong. But it doesn’t matter how long it takes and how many times groups have to be formed and re-formed – it is unlikely that you’ll get an education worth the name without the formation of a group, or community.

And what do these groups do?

… will be the topic of tomorrow’s essay, for I was part of an experiment that tried to answer this question – and I really liked the answer!

Unbundling College

I, along with the rest of the universe, came across this meme the other day:

dopl3r.com - Memes - Annual Streaming Price NETFLIX $108 hulu $72 ...

Today’s post is about explaining what is wrong with this image, but also why thinking about it really, really matters. Let’s begin:

Electricity and Education: More Similar Than You’d Have Thought

This Friday, I’ll be launching a new YouTube series on India’s electricity sector. Stay tuned for further details.

The reason I bring this up right now, is because one of the points we cover in that first episode is about how the electricity sector in India became much better after generation, transmission and distribution were “unbundled”.

And thinking about that point helped me frame a question about the education sector in India. I have written about this before, but I’ll expand upon that thought in much greater detail today: unbundling college.

The Typical College Bundle

What does the typical bundle in college look like? Something like this:

A student writes the entrance exam and gets in, attends classes, makes friends, writes internal examinations, gets an internship, gets placed, writes the semester end examination, gets the degree. And next year a new batch comes in, and we rinse and repeat. That, in a nutshell, is the higher education sector, at least in urban India.

One point worth emphasizing here: when I say peer networks, it is actually much more than that. Well, at any rate, it should be much more than that. Mentors, in particular, are best discovered in college.

Horizontal and Vertical Players

Ben Thompson had a lovely write-up many years ago about understanding Google

You really should read the article in its entirety, but here’s the quick takeaway: some firms, like Apple, are vertically integrated. Everything, right from deciding which kind of screw should be used in the construction of the latest iPhone, to the OS (that is, the software), to the in-store experience – everything is controlled by Apple. Hell, they don’t let you change the number of icons in the dock! It is a vertically integrated firm.

Other firms, such as Netflix, are horizontal. You can watch Netflix on Chromecast, on the Firestick, on your laptop, on your tablet, on your phone – Netflix honestly doesn’t care where you watch it, so long as you pay them their monthly fees. In fact, they will go out of their way to make sure that you can watch Netflix no matter what device you own. Netflix is a horizontal firm.

And that’s one way in which the forward I received the other day is wrong. Every other service on that forward is a horizontal firm. But Harvard? Entirely vertical. They control who gets in and how, they control what they’re taught and how, they control who gets the degree and how. They don’t even need to control the peer network: the Harvard alumni network is one of the reasons getting into Harvard is worth the effort, so naturally the alumni themselves will work to maintain the exclusivity. Entirely vertical!

But, Pandemic!

Now, the reason that forward exists, and the reason that forward became as popular as it has, is because there is more than a grain of truth to it, especially in the year 2020.

Take a look at it again:

dopl3r.com - Memes - Annual Streaming Price NETFLIX $108 hulu $72 ...

Most students in most colleges the world over are asking a very simple question: if we are to sit at home and watch videos, why restrict ourselves to what our college professors have to say?

I’m due to teach Principles of Economics to the incoming undergraduate batch at Gokhale Institute, for example. But why should students listen to me rather than watch videos from MIT’s OCW, or Marginal Revolution University, or Coursera, or edX, or Khan Academy?

Hell, for that matter, why should I bother coming up with a teaching plan when all I have to do is point students towards all of these resources?

And as the forward asks, or at least implies: if that is indeed the case, then why pay tuition fees this year? Not just Harvard students of course – every student is asking this question.

So What’s the Answer?

Well, microeconomics 101: a good place to begin is by asking what you’re paying for when you pay those tuition fees. And as I wrote in a blog post a while ago, you’re paying for much more than classes:

Now, the problem of education: when you buy a degree from college, you’re getting all three things.
College is a bundle: education | credentialing | peer networks

https://econforeverybody.com/2020/03/12/signaling-bundling-and-college/

Harvard is not charging you money to teach you stuff you can learn elsewhere. Those guys – the people who run the place and the professors who teach there – they’re pretty good, y’know. They know you can learn that stuff elsewhere.

You are paying your local college an obscene amount of money for the other two things. Coursera might be able to give you a better econ prof than your local college, but Coursera can’t yet give you a certificate that carries as much weight as does the one from your local college. This is much more true if you sub in Harvard for your local college.

Or put another way, Coursera existed since before the pandemic. Yet enrollments happened in colleges, did they not?

Enrollments happened because people weren’t buying lectures.

They were buying access to the peer networks, and they were buying the certificate.

And Harvard – and most other colleges the world over – are effectively saying that the certificate is still as valuable in 2020 as it was in 2019. Arguably more so, and so no discounts.

OK, But What About Peer Networks? Surely A Discount There?

Um, well, no. And for two reasons.

First reason, this excellent argument from Tyler Cowen:

Perhaps the logical conclusion is that both the “social connections/dating” services of Harvard and the certification services of Harvard are strong complements. If you are certified by Harvard, but live on a desert island, or carry a contagious disease, that certification is worth much less. So it is hard to unbundle the services and sell the certification on its own, without the associated social networks. Nor is it so worthwhile to sell the social connections on their own. Harvard grads are socially connected to their dry cleaning workers as it stands, but that does not do those workers much good.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2020/07/signaling-vs-certification-at-harvard.html

Peer networks develop best when you go through intense, shared experiences. Both adjectives matter: just hanging about in a college without going through the same grind that everybody else is going through doesn’t cut it (skin in the game). And that grind must be intense, it can’t be an optional, laid-back thing.

So sure, the grind is going to be online this year, but it still is shared, and it still is intense. That’s what helps with the bonding, and that bonding is valuable enough for Harvard to get away by charging you USD 50,000.

Peer networks developed online can be an extremely valuable resource, by the way. Ask David Perell or Seth Godin, to name just two people.

Second, those peer resources stay with you for life. You develop them now, but they get even better with time than does wine! As your peer group grows and matures, the number of connections they open up increases exponentially. So even if you can’t meet your peer group in a physical sense, it still is an investment worth making.

Tyler Cowen again:

Keep also in mind that the restricted Harvard services are probably only for one year (or less), so most students will still get three years or more of “the real Harvard,” if that is what they value. And they can use intertemporal substitution to do more networking in the remaining three years. It’s like being told you don’t get to watch the first quarter of a really great NBA game. That is a value diminution to be sure, but there will still be enough people willing to buy the fancy seats. Most viewers in the arena don’t watch more than three quarters of the game to begin with.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2020/07/signaling-vs-certification-at-harvard.html

If anything, Tyler Cowen’s analogy is slightly off the mark. The people who watch the NBA game in the stadium are never going to get in touch with each other twenty years down the line, much less depend on them for jobs or references.

So no, no discounts for reduced peer network benefits in 2020, sorry.

So far, Harvard can still justifiably charge you USD 50,000 – and they will.

So What Next?

Well, think of many vertically integrated colleges, all offering more or less the same kind of services:

… and ask yourself how we could introduce horizontal services into this structure. LinkedIn and Coursera attempt two separate models:

And those two models overlap more than you’d think. LinkedIn offers learning, for example.

But the real way, if you ask me, to think about how to unbundle college is by expanding our framework a little bit more:

This is a blog post, not an academic paper, much less a book. And therefore, forgive me for using catch-all terms here. By recruiters, I mean literally anybody who will work with graduates in any capacity: colleagues in start-ups, government, think-tanks, and yes, recruiters.

But the point of the framework I shared above is this: it will help us understand where change will come from, if at all it must.

Put another way, do you think $50,000 for Harvard (or whatever amount for whichever college) is too expensive? Then you need to explain how you can get the same things (or more) that a bundled college degree gives you for a lesser price with a different model.

How to get, that is to say, credentialing, peer networks and learning (and maybe more) for less than USD 50,000. That’s the million dollar question. And even if we come up with an answer, you’ll be up against the following:

  1. Colleges will be unwilling to change for two reasons.
    1. Why change something that isn’t broken? And college isn’t broken, from the perspective of the college.
    2. Inertia
  2. Firms such as Coursera and LinkedIn will struggle to replicate the “full-stack” experience that college has right now. And a piece-meal horizontal replacement will never be as valuable.
  3. Government will be unwilling to change the way college is structured right now
    1. Because of lobbying by colleges themselves
    2. Because too radical a change is a risky move, with unpredictable upsides and more than a little chaos in the short run
  4. Parents and students will not want colleges to change far too much, because the system as it stands right now is what enables jobs to come by.
  5. And that, finally, leaves recruiters. Or as I explained above, it is us: society. Until we (society) acknowledge the fact that college as a bundle has become too sclerotic, too expensive and too rigid for its own good, we can’t begin to change it.

And so, it ultimately comes down to this: we need to prove the inefficiency, and therefore the relative expensiveness of college as it stands today to society, before we can begin to talk about reforming it.

Well then, let’s get to proving the inefficiency of college as it stands today. That’ll be next up!

Notes on “Snap-Back and Gone-Forever Goods”

The actual title is a bit longer than that: “Snap-Back and Gone-Forever Goods: Understanding the COVID Recession’s Economic Winners and Losers“.

Tyler Cowen had shared this link on MR a couple of days ago, and I really liked this blog post for two reasons: one, a great framework that I can use in the coming semester for teaching Principles of Economics (more about the framework in a bit), and two, it speaks about higher education towards the end of the post.

Let’s get started:

  • “Due to the impending COVID pandemic, businesses, except for essential ones, simply had to shut down. People were essentially forced to stop buying things they actually wanted to buy.”
    ..
    ..
    It almost sounds trite put this way, but us economists are so used to thinking in terms of whether it is a “demand-side” problem or a “supply-side” problem that it makes sense to remember this: this one is neither! Folks are (more than) willing to supply, and folks are (more than) willing to buy – in most cases. We’ve imposed on ourselves, as a society, restrictions that prohibit such exchanges from taking place.
    ..
    ..
    There will be knock-on effects, some of which are already visible. And that will then take us into familiar territory (supply shock, demand shock etc). But a crisis due to a pandemic is fundamentally different!
    ..
    ..
  • First is the distinction between purchases of what I’ll call “Snap-Back” goods and services and those that are “Gone Forever.” In the Snap-Back category are things that we couldn’t buy during the heaviest COVID lock-down period, but these purchases were simply delayed.
    ..
    ..
    Simple frameworks are such lovely, beautiful things. I think all of us in India experienced “Snap-Back” goods – and to a lesser extent, services – with the winding down of the nationwide lockdown. The number of Amazon deliveries in my own household is proof enough for me. Of course, services such as the ones offered by The Urban Company, for example, is another story altogether – but still, the point remains. “Snap-Back” goods ought to be a thing, especially in 2020.
    ..
    ..
  • ““Gone Forever” goods and services, in contrast, are just like the term suggests: gone forever. Like me, you may have foregone several haircuts during shelter-in-place because you didn’t want to get (or give) coronavirus to your barber.”
    ..
    ..
    Anybody who knows me will know that haircuts isn’t the most appropriate example! But enough of splitting hairs, the point is well taken. There are certain goods and services (am I wrong in thinking that it will be mostly services) that will be “gone forever”.
    ..
    ..
    That being said, the nomenclature chosen here is slightly unfortunate. One might get the impression that the good or service in question will not be provided at all, except that is of course not true. It is just the case that business for the barber in question was bad during the lockdown. Fingers crossed, business will return to normal once things get back to normalcy – whenever that may be. And of course, if things open up without a vaccine/cure, business will be lower than would otherwise have been the case. But it still will not be “Gone Forever”.
    ..
    ..
  • “Economic booms and busts cause average incomes to rise and fall. As a result, businesses that sell a good or service that people purchase during good times and bad, like haircuts and toothpaste, are more insulated from recessions. Businesses that sell the Fountain Powerboat 32 Thunder Cat speedboat (see below, retail price $400,000), and other goods whose sales depend on people having a lot of money on their hands, fare poorly in a recession.”
    ..
    ..
    Tyler Cowen himself had made the point some months ago that certain business will probably not outlast this recession, and mentioned how that may not, on balance, be all that bad a thing. I’m paraphrasing, see the exact quote here. Would the world be worse off if we produced less Fountain Powerboat 32 Thunder Cat speedboats in the years to come?
    ..
    ..
    To be clear, I do not at all mean to suggest that Bruce Wydick will lament the potential passing of these speedboats. I am simply suggesting that some luxury goods not being produced may not be the worst thing ever (and yes, I am well aware of the macroeconomic implications).
    ..
    ..
Sourced from: http://www.acrosstwoworlds.net/?p=1176
  • This, above, is the simple framework I was referring to at the start of today’s blog post. 2×2 matrices are far too prevalent in management schools, and not prevalent enough in economic textbooks, and this was therefore very welcome indeed. But not just because of that! It really does help clarify my thinking.
    ..
    ..
    I need to note that Bruce Wydick has explained what income elasticity of demand is before showing this figure. I haven’t, but a simple Google search will help you learn what the income elasticity of demand is. Alternatively, click here to read about it, or watch this video.
    ..
    ..
  • First things first: it is interesting that all of the upper left quadrant is services, and not goods. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of a single good that would fall in this bracket. Maybe seasonal fruits that you won’t get again until the same season comes back next year (mangoes being a classic example in India, of course). Can you think of any other goods that are “gone forever”?
    ..
    ..
  • And now onto higher education.
    ..
    ..
    “Enrollments in higher education are typically thought of as a normal good, and estimates of income elasticity are typically slightly inelastic (slightly greater than 1.0), meaning that for each 1 percent increase (decrease) in income, enrollments increase (decrease) by about 1 percent.”
    ..
    ..
    That’s from this link, which I got by reading the blogpost we’re taking notes for. Worth keeping in mind for what follows.
    ..
    ..
  • “What this means is that the data show college-bound kids keep going to college even in recessions.”
    ..
    ..
    That quote is in the context of the income elasticity of education. I have two points to raise in this context, though:
    • First, as Bruce Wydick himself explains earlier on in the blogpost, this year is an example of supply and demand being willing, but markets still not clearing. That is, this time is different. Under normal circumstances, sure – but enrollment may drop because of other factors than change in income.
    • Second, bundling! When you buy an education from a college, you’re buying the signal that you have learnt, you’re buying the learning itself and you’re buying the peer networks you develop because you attend college.
      The current pandemic means that you need depend on college for only the first of these three goods: learning itself, if it is to be online, can happen through multiple online providers, and peer networks in the physical sense is unlikely to happen at least through 2020.
    • Combine the inevitable drop in nationwide income with the fact that only one out of the three “goods” from a college being up for sale, and you reach the conclusion that enrollment will likely suffer this year.
  • The reduction will of course be different for different countries, and different once again for colleges within the same country. But at the margin, my model of the world tells me to expect either a lower number of applications, or a lower number of enrollments – or both.
  • But this article is worth a read and a bookmark for the framework alone!

Notes from the Cowen-Roberts Talk about the Corona Virus

Russ Roberts and Tyler Cowen got together to talk about the corona virus some days ago, and what follow are my notes from reading the transcript. If you want to listen to the talk, or read the transcript, here is the link.

Excerpts above, my notes pertaining to the excerpt below.

 

I think Skype coffee is a really good thing. I recommend that to everybody. People you might normally have coffee with, get a cup of coffee and sit on Skype or Zoom and chat with them, and that way it’s not so bad. It’s not great, but it’s not so bad.

Skype or Zoom, and coffee or beer. Whatever works best for you, but socializing is important, and be sure to not under-rate it.

The understanding that it may be really some period of time before you are able to resume normal movements and interactions. Any given day it may seem fine, but what mental readjustment are you making?

The reason I excerpted this is because people here in India – at least the ones I speak to – seem to assume that everything will be back to normal in a matter of days, at worst a couple of weeks. I wish that were the case, but we’re going to be in for the long haul. At the absolute least, a month – almost definitely more. That’s the kind of timeline we’re looking at.

But nonetheless, if something is doubling every five to seven days, some very bad events are not so far away. But because they’re not vivid people, including a lot of economists I know, they’re not able to make that mental leap. I think my background with thinking about economic growth is a significant reason why I think I’ve seen some of the dangers here coming.

Take a look at the chart below (this is from Gapminder):

In particular, take a look at the horizontal axis. Each tick is a doubling, as opposed to the vertical axis, where each tick is the standard 10 units. The bubbles on the right are waaaaaay further apart than are the bubbles on the left. I said that, and you understood it, but your brain refuses to acknowledge or remember it, because we are a visual species, not a mathematically oriented one. Exponentials are hard for us to grasp, and we therefore can’t understand what doubling every five days means.

There seem to be many open questions, but the risks do seem to be rising and I would include the global front, the economic front. Tensions between the United States and China are much worse than they had been. China is calling it a virus from America. Trump is calling it the Chinese virus. It’s even possible, that’s the single worst outcome of all of these events.

If you’re confused about the how and the why, here’s a tweet:

And it’s as if we’re trying to put the economy in a coma, to cite an analogy Larry Summers gave. So I think we should be trying to put the economy in a coma. I’m okay with government doing that, but I think personally we need to be doing that quicker than what the government is up to.

In this blog post that I put up a while ago, a student had asked about how long we can afford a lockdown, implicitly asking what economic costs we were willing to tolerate to defeat this. Tyler Cowen’s response above is effectively saying that there’s no limit, no matter what the cost, this needs to be defeated. Or, if you want another way to put it: economic prosperity is the means to an end, not an end in itself.

I know one of my proposals is we should have things that make it more fun for people to be at home. So some of the entertainment companies are having free streaming on cable of some of their back catalog. Maybe that’s a marginal effect — but if it saves a few lives? So whatever we can do so that people are willing or indeed maybe even in some cases eager to stay home, making childcare issues easier.

Restaurants should be shut, but not takeaways, bars should be shut, but delivery of alcohol should be legalized, internet broadband should be a critical service, Netflix et al could chip in with some shows being made freely available – and so on. Note that there is always YouTube!

That’s the actual destruction going on is the relationships, the organizational capital, the intangibles that will decay. Not over two weeks, probably not over four weeks but over four or five months or longer. Then I think that’s a matter really of great concern.

I have only glanced through the book, not read it in detail, but reading this excerpt reminded me of The Third Pillar, by Raghuram Rajan.

This is from a Prakash Loungani review of the book: “Still, Rajan argues, markets and the state have usurped communities’ power, and the balance needs to be reset. Power must devolve from global and national levels to the community. Rajan notes that as machines and robots begin to produce more of our goods and services, human work “will center once again around inter-personal relationships.” Communities could well be the workplace of tomorrow.”

Not only is Rajan almost certainly right, but the current virus allows for an opportunity to the third pillar to be stronger than before. Governments and markets by themselves will struggle, community needs to come to the fore.

So I think the reopening decisions, especially in more bureaucratic corporations, it will be very hard for everyone to sign off and agree. Yes, we’re going to go ahead. There’s going to be an open Disneyland again. We’re going to have spectators at NBA games. The risk of bad publicity, social media storms against companies whether true or not, someone might have died as a result of going to a game. Over some time horizon social norms may shift and a lot of people might just say, “Look, we’re just going to take these chances and deal with it.” But I don’t think we’re close to that. And certainly, our legal system is not close to that. And human resources departments are not close to that.

You are responsible for five people’s jobs, and you need to sign a letter authorizing them to come back to work in mid-April. If you sign that letter, and they come to work, and they get the corona virus, then is it on your head? Would you sign that letter? What if it’s five hundred? Five thousand? 1.3 billion? Again, this will almost certainly last for more than two weeks.

I think the upside is to believe that at least biomedicine will be far swifter and better funded and less regulated, in the good sense of that word, and our response capabilities, when all this is over, for the next event will be far, far greater. We may overreact in some 9/11 kind of ways like we’ve done arguably with airport procedures, but if there’s one part of the economy that will get a huge, beneficial boost, I think it is our biomedical capabilities and our public health infrastructure.

If I may offer my two cents on this, specific to India: offices will now be very, very reluctant to buy desktops for their employees. I work in a college, and can attest to how many jobs are literally tied to their desk. Not as important as bio-medicine, but a change nonetheless. Second – and I hope this is true – classes will not be the same ever again.

Given that most people are not at all harmed by coronavirus, the safety of the vaccine has to really be very high. Right?

First, do no harm!

I think the thing I’m recommending for a lot of people now is to find a sphere of activity, no matter how small or how local, that you feel you can control and you can do at home and you can contribute to. This feeling of powerlessness may set in, that will cause people to panic more or become too depressed or just make them much less productive, or spread to their families, or maybe cause them to go out and want to get drunk and become a spreader in some manner, so really to think long and hard.

Teach something to somebody. If nothing else, teach into the void: create YouTube videos on a subject that you are an expert in. That’s my personal recommendation.

The degree of optimism or pessimism, it really seems to matter for economic stimulus.

Yup.

Buy the patent rights at auction, give them a huge prize, tens of billions of dollars, if they deserve it, I’m all for this. Even if you think it has no impact this time, this is not our last pandemic. It will matter for the next time around. I think those prizes should be large and credibly promised, and I would like to see us get on this.

Getting the incentives right for designing expensive-to-produce but needed-by-everybody medicines is very, very tricky. Even if you have read the entire transcript, please go back and read this section again.

Like they’re taking tools out of the toolbox from the last crisis. Things they thought should have been done and weren’t and saying now is the time to see I was right all along. It makes me very nervous. I’m seeing high levels of epistemic non-rationality. But that said, I really am not here trying to argue for doing nothing. I don’t think we can let all the cards fall to the ground. What’s your view on that?

I think of this as a statistician. When we have guests over, I and my wife often argue about how much food we should make/order. I usually argue for making too much, and she worries about leftovers. But here’s the thing: it’s almost impossible to get it just right. It’s a very hard problem to solve! So, if you must make an error, which one? Order too much or too little?

It’s the same problem at play here. We’re never – never – going to get fiscal policy just right. Give up that dream right now. You can either err by giving too much fiscal aid, or too little. What would you rather do? My personal opinion: the same as with the food. I’d rather have too much fiscal policy than too little. This time, you see, is different.

But that being said, the specifics are going to be a headache. Does anybody have the answers? Right now, no.

I think some schools will do online education well for a subset of classes and we’ll end up in a world where 20% of what is now done face to face will be done online and that will be cheaper and better. I fully get, you cannot do a face to face discussion humanities class that way, but I think we’ll see much more online education.

Again, that’s a good – nay, wonderful! – thing.

Going around and talking about redistributing the wealth, letting in so many more immigrants, whatever you think of those points of view, I think they will have much, much less social impact and we will be more inward looking, more nationalistic, less cosmopolitan. I think you’ll see this already.

Tribalism will rise, in short. And that’s a horrible – and tragic! – thing. But he’s right: it will rise.

I think there’ll be a huge wave of promiscuous sex once there’s the first break in the virus for instance.

Nothing will ever explain the principle of diminishing marginal utility better. Ever. Especially to undergraduate students.

Don’t trust everything you read out there. The degree of misinformation is very high. The degree of uncertainty from the best and most reputable sources is very high. There’s no magic bullet on how to figure out what’s going on. I can’t quite say, “Oh, trust the authorities.” It’s not exactly how it’s gone, but there’s not any single way to really know what’s happening. That’s very frustrating. I would say do your best and keep in mind that’s a highly imperfect endeavor. There’s a lot you won’t know and some of the things you think you know are probably wrong.

Potentially the most underrated part of this conversation, and I’ll expand on this. First the obvious: treat everything you receive on WhatsApp as a joke. Discount most of what you read, particularly when received as forwards, in emails, in discussions. But, and this is where it gets hard, even stuff that you read on really reputed sites, treat with a pinch of salt. Not because the people who came up with that content want to lie to you, but because there is nobody on this planet who really and truly knows everything.

And that applies to this site too, of course. Read everything, trust nothing, and tread carefully. Macro is easy in comparison.

Once again, the link to the conversation.

 

 

 

 

 

Econ101: Policy Responses to a Pandemic

If you haven’t played it already, go ahead and give this game a try: The Fed Chairman Game. I have a lot of fun playing this game in class, especially with students who have been taught monetary policy. It usually turns out to be the case that they haven’t understood it quite as well as they think the have! (To be clear, that’s the fault of our educational system, not the students.)

But the reason I started with that is because the game always throws up a scenario that mimics a crisis, and asks you what you would do if you were the Chair of the Fed.

In this case, policymakers the world over are now staring at a very real crisis, and they need to be asking themselves: what should we do?


 

There are two broad answers, of course: monetary policy, and fiscal policy.

The Federal Reserve has cut interest rates to zero, and while it has other tools to stimulate the economy, a crisis like this requires fiscal as well as monetary responses. The legislation passed thus far has been important, but another round of fiscal policy will be required immediately to fully address this crisis.

A robust fiscal response can provide income support to households, ensure broad and continuous access to safety net programs, provide incentives for employers to avoid layoffs, provide loans to small businesses, give liquidity cushions to households and firms, and otherwise stimulate the economy.

That’s a write-up from Brookings. The specifics follow in that article, but the article makes the point that more of the lifting will need to  be done by fiscal, rather than monetary policy. And that is true for a variety of reasons,  which the article does not get into, but long story short – fiscal, more than monetary.

But, ok, fiscal policy of what kind? Should we give money to firms or to workers? Here’s Paul Krugman with his take…

And here’s Alex Tabarrok with his response:

So what’s the correct answer? Well, as we’ve learnt before, and will learn again, macro is hard! In an ideal world, all of the above, but as is manifestly clear, we are not in an ideal world. If we must choose between giving money to firms or to people, to whom should we give it? My opinion? People first, businesses second. This is, of course, a US centric discussion, what’s up with India?


 

Here’s, to begin with, a round-up from around the world – you can search within it for India’s response thus far.

Calls are getting louder for governments to support people and businesses until the new coronavirus is contained. The only questions are how much money to shovel into the economy, how to go about doing it, and whether it will be enough.

Already, officials from Paris to Washington DC are pulling out the playbook used in Asia for slowing the spread of Covid-19: they’re restricting travel and cracking down on public gatherings. While those measures have the potential to reduce deaths and infections, they will also damage business prospects for many companies and cause a synchronized worldwide disruption.

Here’s the FT from two weeks ago about the impending slow down:

Venu Srinivasan, whose company TVS is one of India’s largest makers of motorcycles and scooters, said the business had lost about 10 per cent of production in February owing to a lack of Chinese-made parts for the vehicles’ fuel injection system. He added that TVS has now managed to find a new supplier.

But Mr Srinivasan said he was bracing for India’s recovery to take longer than anticipated. “One would have expected a V-shaped recovery, but instead you have an L shaped recovery,” he said. “It’s been the long haul.”

R Jagannathan in the LiveMint suggests this:

This is how it could be designed. Any unemployed urban youth in the 20-30 age group could be promised 100 days of employment and/or skilling options paid for by the government at a fixed daily rate of ₹300 (or thereabouts, depending on city). At an outlay of ₹30,000 per person annually, the unemployed can be put to work in municipal conservancy services, healthcare support, traffic management, and other duties, with the money also being made available for any skill-acquiring activity chosen by the beneficiary (driver training for Ola-Uber, logistics operations, etc). All companies could be given an opportunity to use the provisions of the Apprentices Act to take on more trainees, with the apprenticeship period subsidized to the limit of ₹30,000 per person in 2020-21. If the pilot works, it could be rolled out as a regular annual scheme for jobs and skills. Skilling works best in an actual jobs environment.

 

He also mentions making the GST simpler, which the Business Standard agrees with:

Certainly, the rationalisation of GST will also affect government revenues. However, a simpler and more transparent system would allow greater collection and reduce evasion. The government will receive a windfall this year from lower crude oil prices. The moment to move on the structural reform agenda is now. The GST Council has done well to address the inverted duty structure in mobile phones. Further rationalisation will give confidence to the market that the government is serious about reforms. It was promised that GST would remain a work in progress, and that the GST Council would act often to improve it. So far, however, the changes have been marginal and haphazard. A more structured and rational approach, which outlines a quick path to a single rate, would pay dividends for the economy in the longer run. It would also be an effective way to manage the immediate effects of a supply shock such as is being caused by the pandemic.

Also from the Business Standard, a report on the government now considering (not happened yet) relaxing bad loan classification rules for sectors hit by the corona virus. That’s pretty soon going to be every sector!


 

Assorted Links about the topic – there’s more to read than usual, please note.

Here is Tyler Cowen on mitigating the economic impacts from the coronavirus crisis.

Here’s Bill Dupor, via MR, about the topic:

First, incentivize behavior to align with recognized public health objectives during the outbreak.

Second, avoid concentrating the individual financial burden of the outbreak or the policy response to the outbreak.

Third, implement these fiscal policies as quickly as possible, subject to some efficiency considerations.

Again, via MR, New Zealand’s macro response.

Arnold Kling is running a series on the macro response to the crisis.

Claudia Sahm proposes direct payment to individuals:

This chapter proposes a direct payment to individuals that would
automatically be paid out early in a recession and then continue annually
when the recession is severe. Research shows that stimulus payments that
were broadly disbursed on an ad hoc (or discretionary) basis in the 2001 and
2008–9 recessions raised consumer spending and helped counteract weak
demand. Making the payments automatic by tying their disbursement to
recent changes in the unemployment rate would ensure that the stimulus
reaches the economy as quickly as possible. A rapid, vigorous response to
the next recession in the form of direct payments to individuals would help
limit employment losses and the economic damage from the recession.

Here are the concrete proposals, the entire paper is worth a read:

Automatic lump-sum stimulus payments would be made to individuals
when the three-month average national unemployment rate rises by
at least 0.50 percentage points relative to its low in the previous 12
months.
• The total amount of stimulus payments in the first year is set to
0.7 percent of GDP.
• After the first year, any second (or subsequent) year payments would
depend on the path of the unemployment rate.

 

Macroeconomics IS HARD!

Economics in the times of COVID-19, there is already a book. I learnt about it from Tim Taylor’s blogpost. I have not read the book, but will soon.

The NYT, two weeks ago, on the scale of the problem facing policymakers.