Confessions of a Supply-Side Liberal

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Posts tagged growth

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Drew Hinshaw: Nigeria Produces Half the Electricity of North Dakota-for 249 Times More People

I have heard distressing, yet fascinating, stories from a colleague who has spent time in Africa about how folks in Africa often act like the “Homo Economicus” of our theories, but without the benefit of adequate property rights to keep things on track. One example I found vivid is the routine theft of wire from power lines in order to sell the copper. So I was interested to read Drew Hinshaw’s Wall Street Journal article linked above about electricity in Nigeria. I particularly noticed these passages which help make vivid the kinds of problems that can face a poor country trying to get richer:

The quest to turn the lights back on in Nigeria is pitting some of the country’s richest men against rusted power lines, pilfered electricity and grenade-lobbing saboteurs. …

Half of Nigeria’s electricity is stolen or lost on quarter-century-old power lines. Companies have taken on the job of installing electric meters and bringing bills to the hundreds of thousands of Nigerian households that run wires to nearby electrical poles, without paying. …

Nigeria will need to lay fresh pipelines to tap its gas reserves—the world’s eighth largest—to fuel those turbines. One problem: Saboteurs lurking in the swamps keep throwing grenades under what few gas pipelines exist in an attempt to extort protection money from Nigeria’s government. …

When Mr. Elumelu’s staff first walked into the plant last November—they weren’t given access until it was purchased—they discovered technicians weren’t wearing safety goggles or even shoes. Some crawled into the innards of deadly gas turbines wearing flip flops.

Those workers had also lost track of turbine parts, rendering the massive machines unusable. All told, the station produces just 160 megawatts—half the wattage the company assumed when it bought the place.

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Matt Ridley, Michelle Klein and Rob Boyd on Population Size and Technology: Why Some Islanders Build Better Crab Traps

In this ungated Wall Street Journal article, Matt Ridley gives a nice report on research by Michelle Klein and Rob Boyd on the idea that higher effective population size leads to better technology.  The important idea that higher effective population size leads to better technology is also reflected in

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Josh Barro: We Need a New Supply Side Economics—Here Are 8 Things We Can Do

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Josh Barro

Noah Smith and Christopher Cordeiro tweeted that Josh Barro’s column "We Need A New Supply Side Economics — Here Are 8 Things We Can Do" sounded like ideas I would favor. They are right. 

I fully agree with Josh’s lead-in:

Demand stimulation remains the right goal today, but it’s not going to be the right goal forever. …

We’re going to need a new supply side economics that encourages people to work, invest and innovate.

Some of Josh’s proposals cost money, for which he proposes more progressive income taxes as a revenue source (as his 8th point). I have proposed tapping the resources of the rich in a different way. I want to  finance an expansion of the nonprofit sector (see the links in "The Red Banker on Supply-Side Liberalism"). To get there politically, I enunciated the principle of "No Tax Increase Without Recompense." So I cannot go along with Josh’s proposal raise income taxes at the upper end in a conventional way. (Also see the Twitter discussions "Daniel Altman and Miles Kimball: Should We Expand Government or Expand the Nonprofit Sector?" and "Daniel Altman and Miles Kimball: Is It OK to Let the Rich Be Rich As Long As We Take Care of the Poor?") The expansion of the nonprofit sector that I propose will help the poor tremendously in many ways beyond the dimension Josh is focuses on. 

More generally, I think it is better to build progressivity into the spending side of the government’s activities—including transfers—than into the tax side. Instead, I think Josh’s proposed enhancements of programs to direct more resources toward the poor can also serve as ways to compensate the poor for increases in increases in taxes on externalities such as carbon dioxide emissions and the consumption of soft drinks and junk food that affect the behavior of all those around us through not-fully-conscious social influences

Here is Josh’s list, minus the income tax increase, with my comments:

1. Invest in smart infrastructure, ideally without building much.

Yes! Noah and I have an column on infrastructure investment. And I agree with Josh that it is a bad habit to get into to think of infrastructure investment as a demand-side thing. We need to keep in our sights getting supply-side benefits from the infrastructure investments that we make.  

I would emphasize government support for basic research in the same breath as infrastructure investment. Indeed, I think there is even more supply-side benefit to be had from government support for basic research than from additional infrastructure investment. 

2. Reform means-tested entitlements without soaking the poor.

Josh wants to phase out aid to the poor more slowly with higher income, in order to avoid discouraging people from working hard and avoid discouraging people from building their careers through education and other means. This is great, but it will cost the government more money. I would like to reward healthy eating and not contributing too much to global warming across the whole population, as well as rewarding the poor for working hard and getting an education. That combination can finance itself.    

3. Move the deregulatory agenda down to the state and local level.

This is one of Josh’s points that I think needs to be shouted from the rooftops. Here is the full text of what he said on this point:

In the 1970s, the big deregulation fights were properly at the federal level. Then the government deregulated airlines and trucking. Though technological change, regulation has become less important in broadcasting and telecommunications. Bank deregulation has been a mixed bag over this period; people talk about it as a cautionary tale, but some of the deregulations (such as ending the limit on savings account interest and allowing interstate banking) have served consumers very well.

The big federal regulatory fights that remain are in mostly areas where the federal government properly uses a heavy hand: banking and securities, and environmental protection.

The next round of big deregulation fights should be at the state and local level. Governments impose pro-incumbent regulations on a variety of industries from barbering to interior design to medicine to restaurants. These rules raise incomes for existing practitioners, but they make it difficult for new practitioners to enter the fields, and they raise consumer prices.

State and local governments should stop doing this.

In the interest of promoting interstate commerce, the federal government should pre-empt many of these regulations. For example, states should be forced to allow a broad scope of practice for nurse practitioners so they can serve as independent primary care providers. This would reduce doctors’ incomes, but it would reduce the cost of health care, raise patients’ real incomes and help to control government expenditure.

What I have said on this topic can be found in my post

4. Deregulate America’s most overregulated industry: real estate.

Here, Josh is on the same side as Matthew Yglesias, who wrote the book on this issue: The Rent is Too Damn High. I am part of the cheering section for their efforts. Given the fraction of household budgets spent on housing, this is a huge issue.  

5. Reform intellectual property — by weakening it. 

I endorse this idea in my link post "The Wonderful, Now Suppressed, Republican Study Committee Brief on Copyright Law." I also muse on how much protection is necessary in my post "Copyright." Wonderful, amazing new things will happen if we shift to less restrictive intellectual property rules. And if we overshoot in a way that undercompensates creators, that can easily be fixed later. It is high time we experimented with more fluid rules. 

Given the pace of innovation and the rate at which things become obsolete, one change that almost certainly a winner is to shorten the term for patents and copyrights. The only place this seems problematic is in retaining adequate incentives for the development of new drugs. There, combining a shorter period of exclusivity with the government paying for half of the cost of drug trials would probably keep just as much innovation while still helping the government budget, since the government pays for drugs as part of Medicare now.  

6. Improve education, somehow.

I have written a fair amount about education. Improving education will be an ongoing theme for me. Here is a link to my sub-blog on education, and here are some of the most important posts:

7. Admit more high-skill immigrants.

More open borders is something I am passionate about. But I would not limit it to high-skill immigrants. Helping the poor who are currently in other countries is also important. Here are some of my more important posts in that vein:

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Expert Performance and Deliberate Practice

K. Anders Ericsson

I wanted to back up some of what I have been writing about deliberate practice with more academic references. It matters because the evidence indicates that human capital accumulation can be dramatically improved by getting to best practice about practicing skills. K. Anders Ericsson is one of the foremost academic experts about deliberate practice. Here is an excerpt from his "Expert Performance and Deliberate Practice":

The recent advances in our understanding of the complex representations, knowledge and skills that mediate the superior performance of experts derive primarily from studies where experts are instructed to think aloud while completing representative tasks in their domains, such as chess, music, physics, sports and medicine (Chi, Glaser & Farr, 1988; Ericsson & Smith, 1991; Starkes & Allard, 1993). For appropriate challenging problems experts don’t just automatically extract patterns and retrieve their response directly from memory. Instead they select the relevant information and encode it in special representations in working memory that allow planning, evaluation and reasoning about alternative courses of action (Ericsson & Lehmann, 1996). Hence, the difference between experts and less skilled subjects is not merely a matter of the amount and complexity of the accumulated knowledge; it also reflects qualitative differences in the organization of knowledge and its representation (Chi, Glaser & Rees, 1982).  Experts’ knowledge is encoded around key domain-related concepts and solution procedures that allow rapid and reliable retrieval whenever stored information is relevant. Less skilled subjects’ knowledge, in contrast, is encoded using everyday concepts that make the retrieval of even their limited relevant knowledge difficult and unreliable. Furthermore, experts have acquired domain-specific memory skills that allow them to rely on long-term memory (Long-Term Working Memory, Ericsson & Kintsch, 1995) to dramatically expand the amount of information that can be kept accessible during planning and during reasoning about alternative courses of action.  The superior quality of the experts’ mental representations allow them to adapt rapidly to changing circumstances and anticipate future events in advance.  The same acquired representations appear to be essential for experts’ ability to monitor and evaluate their own performance (Ericsson, 1996; Glaser, 1996) so they can keep improving their own performance by designing their own training and assimilating new knowledge.

Below are some references. You can find a lot more by googling “Ericsson deliberate practice.” 

References:

Read more …

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Quartz #28—>Benjamin Franklin’s Strategy to Make the US a Superpower Worked Once, Why Not Try It Again?

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Link to the Column on Quartz

Here is the full text of my 28th Quartz column, ”Benjamin Franklin’s strategy to make the US a superpower worked once, why not try it again?” now brought home to supplysideliberal.com. It was first published on August 12, 2013. Links to all my other columns can be found here.

If you want to mirror the content of this post on another site, that is possible for a limited time if you read the legal notice at this link and include both a link to the original Quartz column and the following copyright notice:

© August 12, 2013: Miles Kimball, as first published on Quartz. Used by permission according to a temporary nonexclusive license expiring June 30, 2014. All rights reserved.

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Ben Franklin was one of the greatest grand strategists in American history. He “had the vision of the Great Power of the New World” as refugees from the Old World poured in, writes Conrad Black in his page-turning, tour-de-force Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. Franklin then followed up that vision with brilliant diplomacy and sponsoring, along with George Washington, the constitutional efforts of Madison, Hamilton and Jay. 

The flow of immigrants to America was crucial not only in the initial rise of America as a credible power in the world, but also in dealing with the stain of slavery: the North would have been unable to defeat the South in the Civil War if the North had not had a three to one advantage in population because of its greater ability to attract immigrants.

Ratio of Per Capita GDP: China/US

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In the rest of the 21st century, America faces another grand-strategic challenge: the challenge of China. Since Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms were introduced in December of 1978, China’s economy has been growing at a ferocious pace. As former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers put it, at Chinese growth rates, “In a decade, an individual goes from walking to having a bicycle; in another decade to a motorcycle; in another decade or two to having an automobile.” Yichuan Wang explains in “How China’s poorest regions are going to save its growth rate,” the reason the Chinese economy can grow so fast is that it is in the midst of “catch-up growth”: that is, it can copy technologies that have already been researched and developed better than other countries. As shown in the graph above, China went from a per capita GDP (income per person) less than 1/50 of the US level to per capita GDP of roughly 1/6 the US level in the 30 years from 1980 to 2010. It will not be easy for China to get all the way to the US level of income per person, but with half-decent economic policies, it should have no problem getting to half the US level of income per person.

The reason China’s economic rise matters for US grand strategy is that China has a much larger population than the United States. Indeed, as the graph below shows, the US now has less than a quarter the population China has (the extreme measures China has taken to hold down its population growth since 1979 through its one-child policy have stabilized the ratio of US to Chinese population in recent years). Multiplying per capita GDP by population yields total GDP, so if China has 1/4 the per capita GDP, but four times as many people, its total GDP will be the same size. More generally, if China gets to a larger fraction of US per capita GDP (see graph above) than the US population as a fraction of China’s population (see graph below), then China’s total GDP will be bigger. Although per capita GDP is what matters for people’s standard of living, total GDP is crucial for the ability of a country to wage war—or more importantly, to deter other countries from waging war against it. Power corrupts. So even though idealism has had some effect on US foreign policy (as Black details), it should surprise no one that the US has done some bad things as a superpower. Yet I am convinced that the combination of Chinese nationalism and “Communist” oligarchy—or the combination of Chinese nationalism with some tumultuous future political transition in China—would lead a dominant China to behave much worse than the US has.

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Data source: Populstat and Census

What can be done to maintain US power relative to China? The worst answer would be to try to inhibit China’s economic growth. Berkeley economics professor and influential blogger Brad DeLong’s rhetorical question says it best:

Does it really improve the national security of the United States for schoolchildren in China to be taught that the United States sought to keep them as poor as possible for as long as possible?

An excellent answer is to do everything possible to foster long-run growth of per capita GDP in the US. At a minimum, this includes radical reform of our system of K-12 education, removing the barriers state governments put in the way of people getting jobs, and dramatically stepped-up support for scientific research. And both the US tax system and the balance in its government spending between (a) mailing people checks in direct government transfers and (b) investments in raising the productive capacity of the economy by, say, keeping roads and bridges in good repair. But when all is said and done, economic growth at the frontier of high living standards is simply harder than catch-up economic growth. So, short of some disaster for China that we should not wish on them, the ratio of China’s per capita GDP to US per capita GDP is bound to go up.

Fortunately, to add to the pro-growth policies listed above, there is another way to increase the size of the US economy that would be remarkably easy: expanding the United States economy—with all of its power to make people richer than they are in most other countries—to encompass a larger share of the world’s people. In the 19th century, many Americans felt a “manifest destiny” to expand the land that the US encompassed—westward, all the way to the Pacific. But in a modern economy, it is human beings and their skills (and the factories and machines their saving makes possible) that are the key to national wealth, not land.

So in the 21st century, we should view claiming more of the world’s people—not more of the world’s land—as the key to national wealth, and therefore, national power. And all we have to do to claim more of the world’s people for the US, is to open our doors to immigration, as the US did in the 18th and most of the 19th century. Ben Franklin knew that America would become a great nation because people from all over the world would eagerly move to America. The key to maintaining America’s preeminence in the world is to return to Ben Franklin’s visionary grand strategy of making many more of the world’s people into Americans.

Before the American Revolution, Franklin said that America “will in another century be more than the people of England, and the greatest number of Englishmen will be on this side of the water.” With a quarter-millennium of additional experience beyond what Franklin had seen, we know that America’s melting pot can make people from anywhere in the world (not just England) into Americans at heart within two generations. And we know that, together with all the other elements of this unbelievable American system, Franklin’s grand strategy for the rise of America worked once. It can work again to keep America on top.

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Update: Steve Sailer has an interesting post pointing out the importance of birth rates, as well as the immigration rates I emphasize in the column. In order to keep an open mind, before reading Steve Sailer’s post, I recommend reading my post "John Stuart Mill’s Argument Against Political Correctness." In his post Steve also points out that Ben Franklin favored English immigration over German immigration. 

Ezra and Evan’s Flag. I was very pleased to see Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas flag the column, and intrigued by the way they boiled it down:

KIMBALL: The Ben Franklin strategy to a U.S. renaissance. “The reason China’s economic rise matters for US grand strategy is that China has a much larger population than the United States…An excellent answer is to do everything possible to foster long-run growth of per capita GDP in the US. At a minimum, this includes radical reform of our system of K-12 education, removing the barriers state governments put in the way of people getting jobs, and dramatically stepped-up support for scientific research…The key to maintaining America’s preeminence in the world is to return to Ben Franklin’s visionary grand strategy of making many more of the world’s people into Americans.” Miles Kimball in Quartz.

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Benjamin Franklin’s Strategy to Make the US a Superpower Worked Once, Why Not Try It Again?

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Here is a link to my 28th column on Quartz "Benjamin Franklin’s strategy to make the US a superpower worked once, why not try it again?"

Update: Steve Sailer has an interesting post pointing out the importance of birth rates, as well as the immigration rates I emphasize in the column. In order to keep an open mind, before reading Steve Sailer’s post, I recommend reading my post "John Stuart Mill’s Argument Against Political Correctness." In his post Steve also points out that Ben Franklin favored English immigration over German immigration. 

Ezra and Evan’s Flag. I was very pleased to see Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas flag the column, and intrigued by the way they boiled it down:

KIMBALL: The Ben Franklin strategy to a U.S. renaissance. “The reason China’s economic rise matters for US grand strategy is that China has a much larger population than the United States…An excellent answer is to do everything possible to foster long-run growth of per capita GDP in the US. At a minimum, this includes radical reform of our system of K-12 education, removing the barriers state governments put in the way of people getting jobs, and dramatically stepped-up support for scientific research…The key to maintaining America’s preeminence in the world is to return to Ben Franklin’s visionary grand strategy of making many more of the world’s people into Americans.” Miles Kimball in Quartz.

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Quartz #26—>The Government and the Mob

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Link to the Column on Quartz

Here is the full text of my 26th Quartz column, "The US government’s spying is straight out of the mob’s playbook," now brought home to supplysideliberal.com. It was first published on July 4, 2013. Links to all my other columns can be found here. My preferred title above better represents my broader theme: what governments need to do to foster economic growth.

I pitched this column to my editors as an Independence Day column. I am proud of our American experiment: attempting government of the people, by the people, and for the people. This column is about the principles behind that American experiment, from an economic perspective. 

If you want to mirror the content of this post on another site, that is possible for a limited time if you read the legal notice at this link and include both a link to the original Quartz column and the following copyright notice:

© July 4, 2013: Miles Kimball, as first published on Quartz. Used by permission according to a temporary nonexclusive license expiring June 30, 2014. All rights reserved.

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Reading Ben Zimmer’s “How to talk like Whitey Bulger: Mobster lingo gets its day in court“ in the International Herald Tribune provided by the hotel during my recent stay in Tokyo reminded me of my litany of the basics the government must provide to make anything close to market efficiency possible:

  1. blocking theft,
  2. blocking deception, 
  3. blocking threats of violence.

Let me give two examples of what I have written in this vein. The first is from “So You Want to Save the World“:

If someone’s overall objective is evil or self-serving, the only way what they do will have a good effect on the world is if all their attempts to get their way by harming others are forestalled by careful social engineering. It is exactly such social engineering to prevent people from stealing, deceiving, or threatening violence that yields the good results from free markets that Adam Smith talks about in The Wealth of Nations—the book that got modern economics off the ground.

The second is from ”Leveling Up: Making the Transition from Poor Country to Rich Country“:

The entry levels in the quest to become a rich country are the hardest.  The basic problem is that any government strong enough to stop people from stealing from each other, deceiving each other, and threatening each other with violence, is itself strong enough to steal, deceive, and threaten with violence.  Designing strong but limited government that will prevent theft, deceit, and threats of violence, without perpetrating theft, deceit, and threats of violence at a horrific level is quite a difficult trick that most countries throughout history have not managed to perform.

How to talk like Whitey Bulger: Mobster lingo gets its day in court“ describes the example I have in mind when I write about “threats of violence”:

Charging “rent” is extorting money from business owners under the threat of violence.

I have thought about whether I should include actual violence in the list, but decided that, with only a few exceptions, the motivations for violence boil down to either theft or being able to provide some credibility for one’s threats of violence.

Deception covers a wide range of destructive activities. The idea that the free market requires tolerance of corporate deception is itself a big lie. Even routine secrets have a measure of deception to them, and as Sissela Bok demonstrates in her book Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation, the ethical justification for keeping secrets is much trickier than many people think.

Blackmail presents an interesting case that doesn’t quite fit my litany: the threat to reveal deception is used to distort the deceiver’s behavior. But there is an element of deception in such a revelation, since the selective revelation of one person’s secrets and not the secrets of others makes the person whose secret is revealed look much worse than if all secrets were revealed. I think I would fare very well if the day ever came that Jesus predicted when he said:

For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open. (Luke 8:17)

But I have no doubt that if someone revealed all of my secrets, while everyone else got to keep theirs, I could be made to look very bad.

The possibility that threats of selective revelation of secrets could be used by members of the government to blackmail others—or to deceive the public about the relative merits of different individuals—is the most serious concern raised by government spying. That is why I join Max Frankel in advocating that government spying be overseen not by judges in their spare time, but by a dedicated court whose judges can develop special expertise, with lawyers who have high-level security clearance given the task of representing the interests of those whose communications are being monitored, whether directly or indirectly. Frankel said it this way in his New York Times editorial ”Where did our ‘inalienable rights’ go?“:

Despite the predilections of federal judges to defer to the executive branch, I think in the long run we have no choice but to entrust our freedom to them. But the secret world of intelligence demands its own special, permanent court, like the United States Tax Court, whose members are confirmed by the Senate for terms that allow them to become real experts in the subject. Such a court should inform the public about the nature of its cases and its record of approvals and denials. Most important, it should summon special attorneys to test the government’s secret evidence in every case, so that a full court hears a genuine adversarial debate before intruding on a citizen’s civil rights. That, too, might cost a little time in some crisis. There’s no escaping the fact that freedom is expensive.

If modern technology makes it harder to keep secrets in general, I think that is all to the good. People usually behave better when they believe that their actions could become known. (See for example this TedEducation talk by Jeff Hancock, “The Future of Lying,” which reports evidence that people are more honest online than offline.) Those overthrowing tyrants may benefit from secrecy in putting together their revolutions, but tyrants need secrecy even more. So a general decline in the ability to keep secrets is likely to be a net plus even there.

Above, I pointed out the fundamental problem of political economy:

… any government strong enough to stop people from stealing from each other, deceiving each other, and threatening each other with violence, is itself strong enough to steal, deceive, and threaten with violence.

Although it pains me to say so, the literature on economic growth (see for example Pranab Bardhan’s Journal of Economic Literature survey article ”Corruption and Development: A Review of the Issues“) argues that centralized corruption by a strong but evil state can yield better economic outcomes than decentralized corruption by many local mob bosses or warlords. Nevertheless, I believe the elimination of tyrants and the progress of democracy throughout the world will be one of the most important contributors to human welfare in the coming decades. May those of us who enjoy the blessings of democracy be willing to make the sacrifices that could be necessary to help others enjoy that blessing. And may all nations add to democracy all of the other restraints on government necessary to make government our servant rather than our master.

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Miles on HuffPost Live: Barack Obama Talks about the Long Run, While We Wonder about His Pick for Fed Chief

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Link to HuffPost Live segment “Back to the Economy”: Mark Gongloff, Edward G. Luce and Miles Kimball, hosted by Mike Sacks


It was a little odd having two fairly disparate topics in this HuffPost Live segment: long-run issues and who the new Fed Chief should be. Here is what I talked about:

Filed under longrunfiscal finance education money emoney laborio growth media

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Shane Parrish on Deliberate Practice

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Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin

In my introductory macroeconomics class, I recommend that my students read Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. (Daniel Coyle also has a website called The Talent Code”)There are two key messages of that book, important both for gaining skill in economics and for thinking about the economics of education and economic growth

  1. Effort can bring skill to almost anyone.
  2. The kind of effort required is the difficult regimen of deliberate practice.

Talent is Overrated. Geoff Colvin’s book Talent is Overrated has the same two messages. Shane Parrish, in his Farnam Street blog post "What is Delieberate Practice?" ably pulls from Talent is Overrated a description of deliberate practice.

Shane begins with these two quotations from Talent is Overrated indicating the difference between deliberate practice and what most people think of when they think of practice:  

  • In field after field, when it comes to centrally important skills…parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with less experience. 
  • Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance and tons of it equals great performance.

Shane clarifies:

Most of what we consider practice is really just playing around — we’re in our comfort zone.

When you venture off to the golf range to hit a bucket of balls what you’re really doing is having fun. You’re not getting better. Understanding the difference between fun and deliberate practice unlocks the key to improving performance.

Shane then structures the rest of his post by this that Geoff Colvin says of deliberate practice:

  1. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help;
  2. it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available;
  3. it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; it isn’t much fun.

1. Deliberate practice is designed to improve performance. Teachers can help in that design. As Geoff Colvin writes: 

  • In some fields, especially intellectual ones such as the arts, sciences, and business, people may eventually become skilled enough to design their own practice. But anyone who thinks they’ve outgrown the benefits of a teacher’s help should at least question that view. There’s a reason why the world’s best golfers still go to teachers.
  • A chess teacher is looking at the same boards as the student but can see that the student is consistently overlooking an important threat. A business coach is looking at the same situations as a manager but can see, for example, that the manager systematically fails to communicate his intentions clearly.”

Shane comments:

Teachers, or coaches, see what you miss and make you aware of where you’re falling short.

With or without a teacher, great performers deconstruct elements of what they do into chunks they can practice. They get better at that aspect and move on to the next.

Noel Tichy, professor at the University of Michigan business school and the former chief of General Electric’s famous management development center at Crotonville, puts the concept of practice into three zones: the comfort zone, the learning zone, and the panic zone.

Most of the time we’re practicing we’re really doing activities in our comfort zone. This doesn’t help us improve because we can already do these activities easily. On the other hand, operating in the panic zone leaves us paralyzed as the activities are too difficult and we don’t know where to start. The only way to make progress is to operate in the learning zone, which are those activities that are just out of reach.

2. Deliberate practice can be repeated a lot, with appropriate feedback.

Shane gives these two quotations from Talent is Overrated:

  • Let us briefly illustrate the difference between work and deliberate practice. During a three hour baseball game, a batter may only get 5-15 pitches (perhaps one or two relevant to a particular weakness), whereas during optimal practice of the same duration, a batter working with a dedicated pitcher has several hundred batting opportunities, where this weakness can be systematically exploited. 
  • You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring.

Shane points out that if results must be subjectively interpreted, it is valuable not to have to rely entirely on one’s own opinion to judge the results. A coach can provide such a second opinion. But sometimes all it takes is a friend with good judgment. 

3. Deliberate practice is highly demanding mentally and isn’t much fun. 

Shane writes

Doing things we know how to do is fun and does not require a lot of effort. Deliberate practice, however, is not fun. Breaking down a task you wish to master into its constituent parts and then working on those areas systematically requires a lot of effort.

Indeed, Geoff Colvin claims that it is hard to do deliberate practice for more than four or five hours a day, or for more than ninety minutes at a stretch. 

Deliberate practice can also be embarrassing. Shane quotes from Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking this claim:

  • Deliberate Practice is best conducted alone for several reasons. It takes intense concentration, and other people can be distracting. It requires deep motivation, often self-generated. But most important, it involves working on the task that’s most challenging to you personally. Only when you’re alone, Ericsson told me, can you “go directly to the part that’s challenging to you. If you want to improve what you’re doing, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class—you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time.”

Presumably, a tutorial by a good coach is even better than doing deliberate practice alone.  But some people do manage deliberate practice alone. A wonderful example is Ben Franklin.

A detailed example of deliberate practice: Ben Franklin. I remember vividly from my own reading of Talent is Overrated this passage Shane quotes about Ben’s program for improving his writing:

  • First, he found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce, a bound volume of the Spectator, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would have ever thought of.
  • It began with his reading a Spectator article and marking brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, “discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.
  • One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required an extensive “stock of words” because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. …
  • Franklin realized also that a key element of a good essay is its organization, so he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original; again, he “discovered many faults and amended them.”

Other Readings. Shane recommends this New Yorker article by Dr. Atul Gawande.Many others have written online about deliberate practice, as googling the words “deliberate practice” indicates. One I stumbled across in my googling was Justin Musk’s excellent post "the secret to becoming a successful published writer: putting the deliberate in deliberate practice."

A Plea: I would love to see more in the economics blogosphere about what deliberate practice looks like for gaining skill in economics.

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