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?

Observe, and Ask

Most students who take introductory economics seem to leave the course without really having learned even the most important basic economic principles. For example, their ability to answer simple economic questions several months after leaving the course is not measurably different from that of people who never took a principles course (Hansen, Salemi and Siegfried 2002). The problem seems to be that instructors of principles courses almost always try to teach students far too much. In the process, really important ideas get no more coverage than minor ones. Everything ends up going by in a blur

Frank, R. H. (2006). The economic naturalist writing assignment. The Journal of Economic Education37(1), 58-67.

So begins a paper called “The Economic Naturalist Writing Assignment”, a paper that everybody can (and dare I say should) read. Robert Frank has forgotten more about teaching principles of economics than most of us will ever learn. 48 years of teaching, so that last sentence isn’t rhetorical.

A successful economics learning experience should mirror these same steps. A short list of basic principles should be presented to students, one at a time in the context of simple examples drawn from familiar settings. Following each, students should be asked to practice the principle by using it to solve simple problems that are closely parallel to the ones used to illustrate the principle. The student should then be given the opportunity to pose original questions and use the same basic principles to answer them.

Frank, R. H. (2006). The economic naturalist writing assignment. The Journal of Economic Education37(1), 58-67.

Readers who are familiar with the book The Economic Naturalist will have guessed where this is going. For years, Professor Frank asked his students to write essays about things they saw around them that they found puzzling, interesting, or counterintuitive. The point of the essays was to, well, observe and ask. And then, using the principles of economics that had just been taught to them, try and come up with answers.

A really successful paper is one that begins with a really interesting question (one that makes the listener instantly curious to learn the answer) and then uses an economic principle or principles to construct a plausible answer. You’ll know you have a good paper if the first thing your roommate wants to do upon reading it is to tell friends about it.

Frank, R. H. (2006). The economic naturalist writing assignment. The Journal of Economic Education37(1), 58-67.

What kind of questions? Here are just two (the names in parentheses are of the students who asked the question, and went on to answer them in their essays):

  1. Why do brides spend so much money on wedding dresses, whereas grooms often rent cheap tuxedos, even though grooms could potentially wear their tuxedos on many other occasions and brides will never wear their dresses again?
    (Jennifer Dulski)
  2. Why are round-trip fares from Hawaii to the mainland higher than the corresponding fares from the mainland to Hawaii? (Karen Hittle)

Curious to hear the answers? Please, read the paper as an appetizer, and for the mains, buy the book.


In the paper I have been excerpting from, Professor Frank uses the analogy of how tennis is taught to beginners, beginning with basic drills (of which the forehand comes first).

Those who aspire to move their games to a higher level typically continue with formal instruction. However, for them, too, an important part of the learning process is continued play.

Same as earlier, which is what ibid means

Now, about that “continued play” being an important part of the learning process, Tyler Cowen has a post out today, titled “Why do they keep the books wrapped in Mexican bookstores?“:

Yes, wrapped in clear shrink wrap. So you can’t page through them and see what the book might be like. I can think of a few hypotheses:
They don’t want you standing in the bookstore reading the thing, rather than buying it. A bit like some U.S. comics news stands in days past. Yet this doesn’t seem so plausible for longer books or most novels.
They want the books to look nicer and less grimy.
How about price discrimination?

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2021/07/why-do-they-keep-the-books-wrapped-in-mexican-bookstores.html

If Tyler Cowen can take the time out to practice his forehand, surely the rest of us can also train like athletes?

Principles of economics can be learnt for free online, using any resource of your choice. I’m not linking to any specific one because I want to make the point that you can very, very easily choose a resource, and it will likely be great.

But better still, principles of economics can be practiced very easily too! What are you waiting for? 🙂

Finally: Crosswords (at least the one closest to my home) wraps some books in clear shrink wrap, but not others. Does anybody know why?

The Almost Ideal University, Part I

Tyler Cowen recently wrote about “his” university:

If you were to design a university from scratch, what might it look like? The idea isn’t necessarily to have a model for other schools to follow, but rather an experiment. Assume that various legal, contractual and accreditation constraints do not stand in your way.

https://www.bloombergquint.com/gadfly/what-would-your-fantasy-university-look-like

In this post, which may well end up being a fairly lengthy one, I will outline what “my” university will look like. This is a place I would want to work at, would want to be involved in the administration of, and would want many (but not all) students to study at. That’s what I mean by “my university”.


First things first: my idea is to have a model for other schools to follow. There are many interesting models of what an institution of learning should look like, but the problem with almost all of them is that they don’t scale. And the ones that do scale aren’t interesting models of what an institution of learning should look like. You want to be at the sweet spot between the two extremes.

It’s actually a little more complicated than that. You don’t just want to be at the sweet spot between these two dimensions, but you also want to have optimality along two other dimensions: affordability and replicability.

My ideal university, in other words, should optimize for a sweet spot that acknowledges the trade-offs between quality, scale, affordability and replicability.

All students who are in this university should get education of high quality at a price that is reasonable for the kind of education they are getting. All models of dispensing education in this university should be documented and freely available in the public domain.

When I say:

  • All students: I’m talking about scale. No student should be turned away because they were not able to solve x questions in y minutes on a particular day in the year. That’s how entrance examinations work, and the reason we need entrance examinations is because we can’t scale well enough. Patting ourselves on the back for getting the “best” students is our way of disguising the fact that we are unable to provide quality education to many more students.
    ..
    ..
  • High quality: I’m talking about quality. It is difficult to define and dangerous to measure, but you know it when you see it. Quality is not A+ on the NAAC, because nobody who has been through a NAAC process can put their hand on their heart and say that it is a good way to measure quality. Neither is quality the number of students who score more than x% in an examination, because ditto.
    Here’s a definition of quality that I am comfortable with: are you, at the end of your education, able to readily apply concepts you have learnt in order to be productive in your workplace?
    If you want to be educated in order to be a professor, did we teach you well enough for you to be able to teach right away? If you want to be educated in order to be a data analyst, did we teach you well enough for you to be able to work on a project right away? And so on, but that’s the point of a quality education – can you put what you claim to have learnt to good use?
    More: if your job requires you to acquire a skill we didn’t equip you with, did we teach you how to teach yourself? A quality education isn’t just about learning, it also ought to be about learning how to learn.
    Each of us has our own way of learning, of course. Some do better by listening, some by reading, some by visualization, some by introspection. A student who graduates from a university must have the ability to understand what she lacks in terms of skill sets, and have the ability to equip herself with that skill by using resources online.
    That’s quality.
    ..
    ..
  • A price that is reasonable: Tyler Cowen urges us to not worry about constraints, and I think I understand where he is coming from when he makes the request. Figure out the best you can build, and we’ll solve the constraints as we go along. But at least in India, one of the reasons higher education is in such a mess is precisely because we haven’t used the price mechanism effectively enough. Of the four, this dimension is perhaps the trickiest to think about.
    I’m a big believer in the fact that students should have skin in the game, and therefore I think that a price should be paid for acquiring an education. But I’m also all too aware of the fact that some students simply cannot pay, and therefore think that some amount of subsidization is inevitable.
    It gets trickier still, because you will almost certainly have to spend more resources on those students who will need subsidization. They are, other things held constant, likelier to need more intensive training in getting the quality of their writing up to the same level as that of other students, simply because they are likelier to not have had the same exposure to quality education in school. And this will apply to other dimensions as well: quantitative skills, the luxury of having time to practice their skills and so on.
    Cross-subsidization? Vouchers from the government? Income sharing agreements? My personal preference would be for the last of these, but I’ll happily admit to being uncertain about what the correct answer is.
    ..
    ..
  • Replicability: The last sentence in my statement above is about replicability. It doesn’t matter if your approach works or not, where replicability is concerned. Funding/regulatory approval for your university ought to be contingent on it being easily replicable. Your methods, your ideas and your processes must be open source. Why? Because an educated populace is the whole point of education! At a system-wide level, the opportunity cost of protecting the trade secret of an well-run educational institution is simply too high.
    Documenting the ideas, their implementation, the challenges encountered during implementation, the refinement, the impact evaluation and the evolution of the university – and that on an ongoing basis, needs to happen. And this should be publicly available, for reasons stated above.
    And it isn’t even that big a risk, because the secret to a well run university isn’t the ideas for it – it lies in their implementation, and therefore in human capital. Spread the knowledge of how to build good universities far and wide!

Now, about the trade-offs between these four dimensions. No university, anywhere in the world, can optimize all four (scale, quality, affordability and replicability) at the same time. The first two alone will inevitably involve trade-offs.

What would my ideal university optimize for, and what would I be ok sacrificing, at the margin?

The SQAR framework

I will sacrifice scale at the altar of quality, and I will also sacrifice affordability at the altar of quality. Quality and replicability are non-negotiable in my worldview.


Why sacrifice scale?

Because if I have to choose between scale and quality, I’ll choose quality every day of the week. A job well done is preferable to lots of jobs not-so-well done. Lot of jobs really well done is great in theory, but it tends to not work out in practice, and especially so when it comes to education.

Why sacrifice affordability?

Because if I define quality as the ability to apply what you’ve learnt, a graduate from my university stands a better than even chance of being productive, and therefore employable. And that means a better than even chance of income sharing agreements working out in practice. And so yes, education in my university may not be cheap, but you can always pay later, out of your future income streams. And my university has skin in the game too! No income stream, no income sharing, and my university has taught you for free. We have taught you badly, since you aren’t able to generate income, and so we don’t deserve to be paid. That’s it.


What might students actually do in my university, and how will it actually work? I’ll get to this in Monday’s post.

Economist Writing Everyday

That’s a blog I came across thanks to MR, and if you’re a student learning about economics, this is very much the kind of blog you should be reading.

Why?

  1. Updated regularly, which should serve as inspiration
  2. Written in an easy, conversational style (ditto)
  3. A lot of interesting blogposts that serve to help you think through concepts you may have learnt recently (students who’ve just embarked on macro might like reading this post, for example)
  4. And a meta point that I’m going to spend the rest of this blog post on, so please continue below the fold 🙂

One post that Tyler Cowen himself linked to in his post on MR was this one, about academic publishing:

There are a lot more people writing academic journal articles.
There is a lot more well-executed economic research.
The teams of co-authors on papers/projects have become much larger.
The number of journals whose prestige is commensurate with a tenured position at an elite school has grown slower than the total faculty employed by elite schools.
Economics research has become more expensive and labor intensive.

https://economistwritingeveryday.com/2021/05/31/academic-publishing-how-i-think-we-got-here/
  1. I’ll get to my thoughts about this in just a bit, but I want to spend a little bit of time in helping you learn how to draw parallels.
    1. Those points noted above, they work just as well if you replace journals with universities, and faculty with applicants.
    2. Further reading, if you’re now suddenly interested in the topic. Also ask yourself if your answer changes depending upon whether you’re in Harvard or not (or have been published in a top-tier journal or not – same thing, for the purposes of this post)
    3. “Where else can this be applied?” is a question that should be front and center when you’re learning a new concept is the larger point I want to make.
    4. So when you learn about the pyramid in publishing, ask if it can be applied to the world of student applications. To, say, the IPL. To, say, becoming a “top lawyer”, or a “top doctor”…. you get the drift.
  2. The rest of the post is a wonderful explanation of how to build a simple model to help you arrive at the equilibrium. More people should learn this skill, and more universities should teach this skill!
  3. The author’s conclusion? More papers should be published by top journals, which is tantamount to saying more students should be accepted by Harvard. Who is right? Mike Makowsky or Tyler Cowen? Why? If your answer is both, what makes student applications different from paper submissions? What a wonderful set of questions to think about!
  4. This blog (not just the blogpost, the blog) gets better from here on in because they’ve published a follow-up post on this topic!
    1. It’s written in “yes, and” style, rather than a “no, but” style, which is a lovely thing to see
    2. It asks this question: “As an academician, what are you optimizing for?” And employing the concept of division of labor, Jeremy Horpedahl argues that if you’re the kind of academician who likes to teach, maybe it’s ok to not be published in a top 5 journal. If you’re the kind of academician who likes to research, on the other hand…
    3. Homework: how does this work in the case of student applications?
  5. And all this from just two posts on the blog! I’ve subscribed, of course, and I would strongly recommend you to do the same.
  6. I’m going to be a little greedy, and give one final recommendation. This post on Identifying Ideas That Motivate You is great reading for young would-be researchers.

What Else Is There But Stories?

I have spent the day immersed in Leave it To Psmith, and what a magnificent day it was. And I have now purchased Summer Lightning, and I refuse to feel the least bit guilty about it, so there.

On a related note, I also happened to read a (mostly) lovely essay by Salman Rushdie titled “Ask Yourself Which Books You Truly Love“:

All human life is here, brave and cowardly, honorable and dishonorable, straight-talking and conniving, and the stories ask the greatest and most enduring question of literature: How do ordinary people respond to the arrival in their lives of the extraordinary? And they answer: Sometimes we don’t do so well, but at other times we find resources within ourselves we did not know we possessed, and so we rise to the challenge, we overcome the monster, Beowulf kills Grendel and Grendel’s more fearsome mother as well, Red Riding Hood kills the wolf, or Beauty finds the love within the beast and then he is beastly no more. And that is ordinary magic, human magic, the true wonder of the wonder tale.

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/24/opinion/sunday/salman-rushdie-world-literature.html

And (or should the word be but?) because us economists are always supposed to look at all ides of the issue, here’s the other side of the spectrum:

As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you’re telling a good vs. evil story, you’re basically lowering your I.Q. by ten points or more.

https://fs.blog/2012/01/the-danger-of-storytelling/

Here’s the full talk.

(And finally, do remember that The Truth Always Lies Somewhere In The Middle)

So You Want to Work in Public Policy…

If you’re between the age of 18-24, and aspire to work in the field of public policy, how should you prepare for such a career? Outside of the academic requirements and the network that you will build, reading about what public policy experts have done when on the “front-lines” is a useful exercise.

In today’s blogpost, I aim to get you started on this journey by referring to a book, an interview and an article.

The book? To Move the World, JFK’s Quest for Peace.

The book is about the lead-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the crisis itself, its succesful resolution, and the aftermath. It is a short book, and well worth your time if you are an aspiring public policy student.


At the very start of the ExComm process, Kennedy made the basic decision—one that was never second-guessed within the group—that the Soviet weapons must go. Either the weapons would be removed peacefully by the Soviets themselves, or they would become the cause of war.

Sachs, Jeffrey. To Move The World: JFK’s Quest for Peace . Random House. Kindle Edition. (Location 529)

Decide upon a goal. In this case, the goal was to get the Soviet weapons to go. Professor Sachs lays out the consultations that led to this goal being chosen in subsequent pages. But that is step 1. Without a clear goal, the rest of the process is meaningless.

Be crystal clear about the “What are we trying to do here?” question, first and foremost.


That brings you to step 2. And once step 1 has either been decided, don’t make your arguments from now on about step 1. The time for that is now gone. Step 2 is about clear-eyed assessments about what maximizes your chances of getting step 1 done.

The ExComm held divergent views on the substantive effect of the missiles on the East-West military balance. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara held that the missiles had zero net effect, given that the Soviets had intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could target the United States from Soviet territory anyway. The military brass felt otherwise, that Soviet missiles just off the U.S. coast would substantially enhance Soviet military power, especially since the Soviet strategic forces at that point depended overwhelmingly on bombers with a long and difficult flight path to the United States. All agreed, however, that the missiles must go.

Sachs, Jeffrey. To Move The World: JFK’s Quest for Peace . Random House. Kindle Edition. (Location 548)

“How should we go about getting to our goal?” is the difficult, contentious issue. This is where your expertise is called upon as a public policy expert.

This forced a thorough review of options, and it allowed some time for communication between Kennedy and Khrushchev, albeit through a laborious and confused process of letters, public pronouncements, telegrams, and messengers. It gave time for heated emotions—panic, fear, and desire to lash out at the adversary—to be kept in check so that reason could be invoked. “Slow” rational thinking was given time to dominate the “quick” emotional thinking.

Sachs, Jeffrey. To Move The World: JFK’s Quest for Peace . Random House. Kindle Edition. (Location 558)

It sounds peaceful and professional – “a thorough review of options”. But this is where you have to:

  1. Really, really know your subject, or admit that you don’t and get out of the way.
  2. Have a strong point of view on the basis of your expertise, and defend it passionately. Arguing at this stage isn’t just fine, it is expected.
  3. The really, really difficult bit: figure out where your argument is weak, and listen to folks on the other side of this issue. What are they saying that is worth including in your recommendation? What are they saying that makes you want to refine/exclude parts of your proposal? Can a happy medium emerge? Remember, The Truth Always Lies Somewhere In The Middle.

Even if you think the article is mostly fluff, I found this excerpt relevant for this blogpost:

Before making up his mind, the president demands hours of detail-laden debate from scores of policy experts, taking everyone around him on what some in the West Wing refer to as his Socratic “journey” before arriving at a conclusion.
Those trips are often difficult for his advisers, who are peppered with sometimes obscure questions. Avoiding Mr. Biden’s ire during one of his decision-making seminars means not only going beyond the vague talking points that he will reject, but also steering clear of responses laced with acronyms or too much policy minutiae, which will prompt an outburst of frustration, often laced with profanity.

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/14/us/politics/joe-biden-policy-decisions.html

And finally, for those of you who are hoping to get into public policy and are currently studying economics:

I would like economists to be working with engineers, to be working with public health, to be working with the medical professionals so that we’re actually working on the real systems of our time and adding our pieces to that, understanding and studying that so that we have an answer to robotics, not a pure theoretical model, which is nice and fun, but something that can be helpful.

https://conversationswithtyler.com/episodes/jeffrey-sachs/

The point isn’t to build a theoretically correct model. The point is to build a model that maximizes the chances of getting to the goal we established in step 1: What are we trying to do here?

Or put another way, if you have to choose between being theoretically correct and doing whatever it takes to achieve step 1, choose the latter. If I had to choose between the two, that is what I would do.


There’s tons of other books, papers, blogs and newsletters to read on this topic, of course. If you asked me to pick just one, make it Anticipating the Unanticipated. Spend the summer reading every single one of their posts and taking (and then publishing!) notes. Better, if you ask me, than any other way to learn.


[Thank you to all those who reached out to check if I was ok. It means a lot. There’s been a covid death in the family, and a covid scare. We’re getting back to a semblance of a routine, but it has been tough and slow going. Please, stay safe, all. And again, thank you for your wishes.]

Education and Signaling

I’d linked to this video this past Friday too, but just in case you haven’t seen it yet:

And a bonus today, Bryan Caplan on the same topic:

What is common between the AER and markets in Nashik?

Not a joke, that is a genuine question.

The AER, by the way, is the American Economic Review. Getting published in the AER for an economist is like a cricketer getting to a century in a Test at Lords. Although drawing this analogy does remind me of what Harsha Bhogle said about Sachin and the Lord’s honours board.1. Nashik, of course, is a city in Maharashtra.

So what’s the reason for the title of today’s blog post?

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

Amid rising Covid-19 cases in Maharashtra, the Nashik district administration has now issued new restrictions to limit people from visiting the markets unnecessarily. The people in Nashik will now have to pay ₹5 per person for an hour every time they visit any market in the city. news agency ANI reports.

https://www.livemint.com/news/india/new-covid-19-restrictions-in-nashik-now-pay-rs-5-for-hour-long-market-visit-11617154785051.html

In the boring but functional language of the economist, no free entry in these markets anymore.2.

What should we anticipate in terms of effects of such policies? Why? Are these policies good, or bad?

  1. Frivolous visits to both markets become rarer than before. In both cases, that was the intended outcome.
  2. In Nashik’s case, the price isn’t just 5 rupees, but also the time that you will have to spend waiting in line before you can cough up the fie rupees. Plus, the fine print says that if you end up spending more than one hour, you will have to pay 500 rupees as an additional fine.
  3. 1000 dollars is steep even by American standards. It is just completely out of reach for most of the rest of the planet. 5 rupees is nowhere close to being a back-breaking amount for most Indians. Does that make the AER price too high and the Nashik price too low? I think so, but that then begs the question of what the price should be in each case.
  4. You’ll “bunch together” a number of separate visits to the market. You won’t just pop down to the market to buy half a litre of milk in the morning and then pop back later in the day for some onions. You’ll combine the two trips. That is the intended outcome, so this is a good thing! But in the case of the AER entry fee, you’ll want to “get your money’s worth” – which means there is a chance that your paper will end up being longer than would otherwise have been the case. This is nobody’s idea of a good idea!
  5. Neighbours might get together and deputize one person to go get the shopping done. Again, that’s wonderful! Authors will get together too, that is, co-authorship will go up. Free <cough> rider <cough> problems?
  6. At the margin, sellers in Nashik’s markets are incentivized to figure out home delivery options. Again, wonderful! Since getting published in the AER is anything but a perfectly competitive market (just the one seller, by definition), AER has no such incentive. But the substitution effect will come into play, no? Other journals will see more papers being submitted. And if those journals raise prices, then fewer papers will be submitted all around. Personally, I don’t see this as such a big problem.3

(Here’s Tyler Cowen on other, related points about the AER pricing.)

As a student of economics, you should be able to see the similarity between both of these pricing calls, and also see the differences. That allows you to begin to think through whether these will, in fact, be good ideas or not, and why. I’m sure that there are many other points to think about in both cases.

If you are a student of microeconomics (and who isn’t, really), it might be worth your while to think about what I am missing in my analysis. Please, feel free to let me know!

  1. Sachin famously never managed to score a century at Lord’s, and therefore his name isn’t up on the Lord’s honours board. Harsha Bhogle apparently asked whose loss it was, Sachin’s, or Lord’s[]
  2. To be clear, the AER thing was an April Fool’s joke.[]
  3. To be clear, research may not go down. The attempt to publish that research will. And I’m ok with that![]

What’s Up with the World Outside of Covid-19?

Yash Agarwal, ex-student and good friend recently shared this link on Twitter.

The last line of the article shared by Yash goes like this:

What is starting today is a new age of technological wonder, the Great Acceleration.

https://spectator.us/topic/great-acceleration-looking-forward-post-covid-age/

The background to this is that Tyler Cowen had written a book some years ago called The Great Stagnation. The basic thesis in that book is that innovation was slowing down, since the low hanging fruit in terms of technical innovation had already been picked. But the book also spoke about how this was not to say that innovation was forever going to be slow – it’s just that it had slowed down around then.

He wasn’t the only one, by the way. There were quite a few folks who were less than impressed with technological progress aobut a decade ago. Everybody has heard of the comparison between Twitter and flying cars, but there’s much more where that came from:

In the 2010s, we largely decided that we were in the middle of a technological stagnation. Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation came out in 2011, Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth came out in 2016. Peter Thiel declared that “we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters”. David Graeber agreed. Paul Krugman lamented the lack of new kitchen appliances. Some economists asked whether ideas were simply getting harder to find. When the startup Juicero came out with a fancy new kitchen appliance, it was widely mocked as a symbol of what was wrong with the tech industry. “Tech” became largely synonymous with software companies, particularly social media, gig economy companies, and venture capital firms. Many questioned whether those sorts of innovations were making society better at all.
So it’s fair to say that the 2010s were a decade of deep techno-pessimism.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/techno-optimism-for-the-2020s

By the way, on a related note (although this deserves its own post, which will be out tomorrow) you may want to read this post by Morgan Housel in this regard.

In any case, Covid-19 has in some ways accelerated innovation, and that’s the point that Bruno Macaes1 is making in the article above.

Take transportation and energy: the demand for driverless cars and delivery vans boomed last year because people were fearful of getting infected. In response companies quickly scaled up their plans. Last October, for example, Waymo announced the launch of a taxi service that is fully driverless. Walmart announced in December its plans to use fully autonomous box trucks to make deliveries in Arkansas later this year. As retail goes online as a result of the pandemic, massive delivery volumes are now placing greater pressure on others to follow suit.

https://spectator.us/topic/great-acceleration-looking-forward-post-covid-age/

Note that without Covid-19, we would be having debate about automation, jobs and how technology is promoting inequality. That may well be true. But this is precisely why we study opportunity costs in college!


Perhaps the most interesting (to me) advance this past year has been in terms of we humans understanding how protein folding happens. Understanding is perhaps the wrong word to use (and note that I know as much biology as forecasters know about the future), but we have trained machines to understand it.

At CASP14 DeepMind produced an advance so thorough it compelled CASP organizers to declare the protein structure prediction problem for single protein chains to be solved. In my read of most CASP14 attendees (virtual as it was), I sense that this was the conclusion of the majority. It certainly is my conclusion as well.

https://moalquraishi.wordpress.com/2020/12/08/alphafold2-casp14-it-feels-like-ones-child-has-left-home/

As I understand it (and please note once again that I am no expert) this has the potential to change by orders of magnitude how we approach the treatment of a variety of diseases in this century.


But if you are anything like me, you are also curious to know about what else has been going on this past year. Again, before we proceed: this post is about the “what” in terms of scientific advancement. Tomorrow is a rumination about the “why”.

First, I’d referred to this interview in an earlier post, an interview of Patrick Collison by Noah Smith. It refers to some of what we have been speaking about, but much more as well:

I think the 2020s are when we’ll finally start to understand what’s going on with RNA and neurons. Basically, the prevailing idea has been that connections between neurons are how cognition works. (And that’s what neural networks and deep learning are modeled after.) But it looks increasingly likely that stuff that happens inside the neurons — and inside the connections — is an important part of the story. One suggestion is that RNA is actually part of how neurons think and not just an incidental intermediate thing between the genome and proteins. Elsewhere, we’re starting to spend more time investigating how the microbiome and the immune system interact with things like cancer and neurodegenerative conditions, and I’m optimistic about how that might yield significantly improved treatments. With Alzheimer’s, say, we were stuck for a long time on variants of plaque hypotheses (“this bad stuff accumulates and we have to stop it accumulating”)… it’s now getting hard to ignore the fact that the immune system clearly plays a major — and maybe dominant — role. Elsewhere, we’re plausibly on the cusp of effective dengue, AIDS, and malaria vaccines. That’s pretty huge.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-patrick-collison-co-founder

Second, Caleb Whitney has a lovely blogpost on this topic, and shares with us this chart – and if this chart isn’t beautiful, I do not know what is.

The tiny red vertical line tells you when the cause of the disease was identified, and the tiny green vertical line tells you when the cure was licensed in the United States of America. And now think of what happened with Covid-19!2

There’s much more in that post, and there’s more on Patrick Collison’s website, Matt Clancy’s reading list, Matt Clancy’s Substack, and this blogpost by Eli Dourado. I am sure there is more I have missed – much more! – but isn’t that only reinforcing my point?


It is easy to get caught up in the short term pessimistic narrative, and be overwhelmed by it. It happened to me last year, as I am sure it did to many, many other people on this planet. I gave up on what until then had been my proudest achievement in terms of my work: posting here every single day.

But on a personal level, the past year has also taught me this, and I have Morgan Housel to thank for the central insight: the seeds of calm are planted by crazy.3

So when things are really bad and grim (and again, this is not over yet), look to the bright side. And not just because it’s a good thing to do! But also because the bright side is likely to be brighter precisely because of everything else being so goddamn dark.

Tomorrow, I’ll attempt to answer a question I have, and I am sure you do as well: why?

  1. I don’t know how to type out a c with a cedilla in WordPress, my apologies[]
  2. Please note, covid-19 ain’t over yet, especially here in India. That’s not the point though. The point is to ask if the kind of progress we have made this past year would even have been possible in the past.[]
  3. The reverse is also probably true, more’s the pity[]

A Review of Stubborn Attachments

I’d written a post last week, the title of which was “Growth. Just, only, simply growth.

There’s two books that I’d recommend you read to get a fuller understanding of the importance of growth. One is a book about the need for growth in an Indian context. It is authored by Vijay Joshi, and the title is India’s Long Road: The Search for Prosperity.1

There are many reasons why India’s Long Road is an excellent read. The one that is directly relevant here is his succinct summary of why growth in India over the long run is such a challenge:

India should strive for rapid, inclusive, stable and sustainable growth within the parameters of a political democracy.

In the book, Joshi explains why he chooses these aspects as being worthy of his analysis, covers how well India has done along these parameters thus far and what needs to be done from here on in. But the reason I am beginning my review of Stubborn Attachments by speaking about Joshi’s book is because Joshi speaks about growth as being more than just an increase in GDP over the long run.

Rapid growth as measured by GDP, yes, but not at the cost of the environment – therefore sustainable. Rapid growth, yes, but also stable. Rapid growth, yes, but also inclusive. And growth, yes, but not by sacrificing democracy.

You might say that Vijay Joshi is stubbornly attached to growth, but with qualifications.


Here is one way to think about Tyler Cowen’s book, Stubborn Attachments. It is as if he takes Vijay Joshi’s statement above and distils it down to its barest minimum. And in his distillation, he leaves us with the following:

Growth at all costs, except at the cost of human rights and concern for the environment.

It’s not just his own philosophy, but as he puts it, it is his recommendation that this be your philosophy too:

No punches are pulled, this is my account of what I strongly believe you should believe too. My bottom lines, so to speak.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2018/08/preface-stubborn-attachments-book-especially-important.html

How does he arrive at his stubborn attachment to prioritizing growth above all else, subject to only two constraints?

Before we begin our journey in terms of answering this question, a couple of things to note.

He is trying to answer the question of what is best for “our civilization”. And as the book makes clear, that’s all of us – every single person on this planet is his implicit definition of “our civilization”.

Second, a useful way of reading the book is to think of this book as his answer to the Ultimate Big Picture Question: “But what is the point of all this?”

I think of his answer as a sort of Pascal’s wager: we don’t know yet if there is a point or not. But if and when we discover what the point is, it is better to be prepared to deal with that point, whatever that point may be. And better prepared is, in his view, more growth.

So how does he arrive at his stubborn attachment? He begins by laying out his philosophical starting points:

1. “Right” and “wrong” are very real concepts which should possess great force.
2. We should be skeptical about the powers of the individual human mind.
3. Human life is complex and offers many different goods, not just one value that trumps all others.

Cowen, Tyler. Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals (p. 19). Stripe Press. Kindle Edition.

I have not the slightest objection to any of these points – they’re all but axiomatic to me.

So far, so good.

Next, how to choose which thing to get stubbornly attached to, given the points above? To arrive at that decision, there are, in his view, six things to consider:

  1. Time: Take the very, very, very long view when making a choice. This is not about dessert after lunch today and the implications of that for my future self. This is about dessert after lunch today and the implications for my daughter near the end of her life. More! It is about the implications for my daughter’s grand-daughter – and her grand-daughter, and ad infinitum. Make decisions about which things to get stubbornly attached to with the longest possible view in mind.

    Why, you ask? Well, think of it this way: would you expect your parents to take decisions that will benefit you tomorrow? Will you take decisions that will positively impact your children’s lives? Apply the principle of induction, and well, how could you not take the long view? (That is my argument, to be clear, not Professor Cowen’s. But I don’t think he’d disagree.)
  2. Aggregation: What if I want to go out for a nice dinner, but my wife prefers a nice light salad at home instead? My preference over hers or vice versa? Tyler Cowen has an easy way to resolve this: pick the option that maximizes long term growth, not short run pleasure. Nice light salad at home it is then, unfortunately for me. (He has a nice explanation later on in the book for why this makes sense, on pg. 52 of the Kindle edition.)
  3. Rules: I was telling some close friends about how I was not in favor of piercing my daughter’s ears while she was a baby. My logic was that she should choose for herself when she is old enough to do so. One of my friends asked if the same rule was applicable when it came to vaccination. Now, obviously, no: my daughter has had all her vaccinations. So really, the rule is she should choose when she is old enough to, except when it comes to issues of her health. Which, of course, has been the rule all along – I just didn’t state it well enough. The point, though is this: you have to be consistent with the rules you set for yourself, and for the game. Calvinball is fun to read about, but it is a poor way to live life.
  4. Radical Uncertainty: How can we know anything for sure? What if we are wrong? What if our actions have enormously negative unintended consequences centuries down the line? It is interesting (instructive?) to me that this is the one point among the six where Tyler Cowen doesn’t definitively say what his opinion/conclusion is when he ontroduces these concepts for the first time. It is almost as he if he is conceding the point that you can’t ever know for sure. But even so – or perhaps therefore – he is stubbornly attached to the idea of growth. What else is there, eh?
  5. How Can we Believe in Rights?: Professor Cowen says that this is undecided territory in philosophy – I don’t know enough to argue either way. But he also says that “some key elements of ethical reasoning do support the notion of objectively valid human rights, and, indeed, of their nearly sacred character.”
    As I said, I don’t know enough to comment authoritatively, but in my worldview, rights are axiomatic. How can you not believe in rights? There’s not much of a civilization left if there are no human rights. No?
  6. Common Sense Morality: Here is his definition of common sense morality – “Common sense morality holds that we should work hard, take care of our families, and live virtuous but self-centered lives, while giving to charity as we are able and helping out others on a periodic basis.” I’m more than ok with that description, but reconciling this with the more extreme utilitarianism view has, it seems, proven to be problematic. But he comes down on the side of common sense morality, and I’m happy to go along.

All right, so three basic points, and six things to consider. To which he adds two “moves”.

First, whatever it is that our civilization has been able to achieve so far is because of the productive power of our economy. Had our economy not been productive enough, Beethoven may have ended up being a farm laborer. Adam Smith could write about the division of labor precisely because society had been making use of the concept for thousands of years. We are where we are today precisely because of the productive power of our economy. Why not do more of it, then?

The second move is really a restatement of the first of the six things to consider. When in doubt, take the long term view, and whatever your long term view, make it longer.2


From these ingredients then – the three basic points, the six things to consider and the two moves – he reaches the conclusion that growth is a moral imperative. He makes use of a concept called a Crusonia Plant3 to arrive at this conclusion.

Growth, however, measured not by wealth, but by “Wealth Plus”:

Wealth Plus: The total amount of value produced over a certain time period. This includes the traditional measures of economic value found in GDP statistics, but also includes measures of leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities, as summed up in a relevant measure of wealth.

Cowen, Tyler. Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals (p. 30). Stripe Press. Kindle Edition.

And that, of course, is why I began with Vijay Joshi’s book. As I said, a maximizing Wealth Plus is essentially Vijay Joshi’s statement distilled.

And to do this – to maximize Wealth Plus – there are three questions we need to continually ask ourselves:

What can we do to boost the rate of economic growth?

What can we do to make our civilization more stable?

How should we deal with environmental problems?

Cowen, Tyler. Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals (pp. 32-33). Stripe Press. Kindle Edition.

Or, put another way, maximize growth subject to human rights not being violated, and subject to the environment not being ignored.

That is his stubborn attachment, and it is what he would like ours to be as well, all of us.

Please, do read the book to understand his defense of his view. The book is only 150 odd pages long, and written in an easy, conversational style.


I’ve been reading some of the reviews of the book in order to prepare for writing my own. Of the ones I have read, I am in complete agreement with the one that says that Tyler Cowen is basically saying let’s worship a community called humanity. And the one that I found most interesting was the one that put the argument in terms of optionality. I think that is another of way saying “Pascal’s Wager”.


Finally, what would my stubborn attachment be?

There are three reasons I have spent a large part of my review focusing on writing about Tyler Cowen’s assumptions, axioms and approach, rather than his conclusions.

  1. One of Ayn Rand’s unfortunate caricatures is fond of saying “Check your premises.” I have, for years, found that to be useful advice. And if you, like me, find yourself in agreement with Cowen’s premises, you should either reach exactly the same conclusion, or a closely related one (mine is closely related).
  2. Most of the reviews that I have read focus on the conclusions, or take issue with ways to implement the conclusions. See this review, for example. I found it enjoyable and instructive to think through Cowen’s premises, and they helped me make my own clearer. For the record, they are mostly the same, save for one, which leads me to my third point.
  3. Knowing is always and everywhere better than not knowing. I’d personally add this as a fourth axiom, in addition to the three he has listed out.

And so my own stubborn attachment: to know more, and to help other people know more. Ideas are the ultimate good. Not only can I share my ideas, I ought to share my ideas. You ought to share yours. Ideas should have sex! That, as Matt Ridley says, is what has built civilization – growth comes from “ideas meeting, and indeed mating.”

Wealth Plus, in other words, is an outcome of more people knowing more. What you really want to maximize is the spread of ideas. A civilization devoted to learning more, and helping everybody learn more, cannot help but accrue more Wealth Plus – it is an inevitable outcome. More, it is a guarantee of maximizing your chances of perpetuating this progress.

Or put another way, what provides nourishment to the Crusonia plant is the spread of knowledge, and without it, the plant may well wither.

And so my own personal stubborn attachment is to the accrual and spread of knowledge. Wealth Plus is a guaranteed, and welcome, consequence.

  1. The book started off as a collaboration between Vijay Joshi and TN Ninan. Things didn’t work out, for whatever reason, but that had a positive spillover for us readers, for now there’s two books to read. TN Ninan’s book is called The Turn of the Tortoise, and it is also worth a read.

    Joshi’s book is an excellent read in it’s own right, and it provides a pretty good summary of the Indian story since independence. That’s hardly surprising if you are a student of the Indian economy, for Vijay Joshi has authored two excellent books on this already, with his co-author IMD Little. One covers the Indian economy from 1964 until 1991, and the other discusses India’s economic reforms post 1991.[]

  2. Or that is how I understand it, at any rate[]
  3. read the first three paragraphs of this review for a short description[]