Tyranny of numbers

Thomas Schelling (1921-2016) and the Iran nuclear deal

Posted in General, Sanctions by Djavad on December 21, 2016

Thomas Schooling, who died last week at the ripe age of 95, was the winner of the Nobel Economics prize in 2005 and the economist who “saved the world,” as fellow Nobelist Roger Myerson put it.  In his essay honoring Schelling, Myerson wrote that his classic book, Strategy of Conflict (Harvard University Press, 1960), “should be recognized as one of the most important and influential books in history of social science.”

Schelling came to Harvard’s economics department in 1960, and later helped found the Harvard Kennedy School (where I am visiting this academic year).  He is also credited with the establishment of public policy as a legitimate and rigorous field of study, one that Iran’s education system undervalues.

When I was in graduate school here, in the 1970s, he was one of several residents of Littauer (the building that then housed the economics department and the School of Government, before the latter became HKS) who whisked about the building wearing bow ties and shuttled back and forth to Washington to give advice.  Although he liked to think of his role in government as helping decision-makers learn about choices and understand their consequences, he has been criticized for his role in the Vietnam war.  He had supported the bombing of North Vietnam based on the theory (in the hope?) that Ho Chi Min would see it as a signal and would thus deter his further actions. In the event, the North Vietnamese saw it as the American desire to destroy their country and fought harder.

Which takes me to Schelling’s connection to Iran and his advice for how the US should approach negotiations with Iran, in particular avoiding humiliation and overuse of threats.


In January 2008, he visited Iran at the invitation of Sharif University’s School of Management and Economics, at the height of the nuclear standoff.  You see him here gracefully accepting an honorary PhD from Sharif.


At the time it was reported in the Iranian press that he was critical of the US sanctions against Iran, but as far as I can tell this is not a policy implication the models of conflict for which he is famous (I cannot find any references in English to this effect).  Sanctions were quite mild in 2008 compared to what they morphed into a few years later.  He learned from his trip that foreign policy decisions in Iran are made by Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, and not by the firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.   He knew that in any conflict, identifying the actual decision makers was critical to its resolution or at least peaceful coexistence.

There were more important ways in which Schelling’s thinking was relevant for the Iran nuclear dispute.  Having learned a lesson from his Vietnam intervention, he offered more tempered counsel on how a powerful county like the US confronts a smaller adversary like Iran.   He criticized those threatening war to stop Iran’s nuclear program and considered the US refrain of “All options are on the table” unwise, preferring to say, ‘No – we’re negotiating through the U.N.; we’re not going to do anything unilaterally.”  As the talk of regime change is returning to the highest levels of US foreign policy making, thanks to Trump’s cabinet appointments, Schelling’s counsel is worth remembering.

One of the ideas for which Schelling is famous is coordination without communication and how people with opposing interest find ways to cooperate.  For example, people who lose each other in a large city can nevertheless find each other by converging on a place each expects the others to think of as a likely point of default, the “Schelling point.” In disputes between nations, his model showed how adversaries communicate by threats without having to talk directly to each other.  Nevertheless, to avoid accidents, his policy advice was for direct communications, as in the famous Hotline between Moscow and Washington.

Iran is not a nuclear power, but misunderstandings and accidents threaten the nuclear deal reached in July 2014 daily.   Direct communication between top US and Iran nuclear negotiators, thanks to personal rapport between Kerry and Zarif and Muniz and Salehi, has been credited with not only reaching the nuclear accord, but also of keeping it from unraveling due to small but inevitable mishaps. For example, the overproduction of heavy water reported by the IAEA in November could have triggered punitive action on the part of the US and escalated into the full blown crisis had it not been for the ability of the parties to talk and settle the issue before it got out of hand.  The loss of such communication will be one of the many casualties of the US presidential election, as the creators of the JCPOA are replaced with its adversaries.  This will be a serious threat to the nuclear deal even if Trump does not follow through with his election promise to tear it up.

Understanding the rial’s strength

Posted in General, Inflation, Macroeconomy, Sanctions by Djavad on January 18, 2016

Last month a headline (link in Persian) in Eghtesad News read: “Do not buy dollars, it will get cheaper”!  More surprising than the headline was who said it: Iran’s Central Bank Governor, Valliollah Seif.  As his critics were quick to point out, it was unwise for the one official whose economic predictions should be muted and very general — the US Fed’s statements about the future need expert decoding — to claim to know which way the exchange rate will move in the future (you can read here — in Persian — the CBI’s lengthy explanation for the controversial remarks). (more…)

Iran’s economic recovery: the view from employment data

Posted in Employment, General, Sanctions, Unemployment by Djavad on October 20, 2014

In my last post I examined if the quarterly growth in the GDP using data released by the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) that indicated a robust economic recovery during spring 2014.  As promised, I will now review the most recent employment figures released by the Statistical Center of Iran (SCI). (more…)

Recording a lackluster economic performance in Iran

Posted in General, Macroeconomy, Sanctions by Djavad on August 4, 2014

Today is the first anniversary of President Rouhani in office, so I wrote a piece for Lobelog.com reviewing the economy’s performance.  I noted his accomplishments –lower inflation, stopping or slowing down economic free fall and above all lifting business spirits —  and setback — continued loss of jobs in industry right up to this summer.  The fact that I am able to claim the latter is because of another accomplishment of his government, which I did not note in that piece — timely release of economic data.


Inflation and energy price reform in Iran

Posted in General, Inequality, Inflation, Sanctions, Subsidy reform by Djavad on February 19, 2014

The dominant view of the high inflation of the last three years blames it on the subsidy reform. (The latest high profile assertion to this effect came from a piece by Hashem Pesaran and Hadi Salehi Esfahani published by the Fars News Agency, to which Mohammad Ali Farzin, the former head of the subsidy reform program,  responded by claming that only 10% of the inflation was due to the subsidy reform).  Were it not for the fact that blaming energy prices for the destructive inflation of the last three years casts a long shadow over future policy on energy prices, the mere fact that it is wrong would not prompt me to bore the readers of this blog with yet another post on inflation. (more…)

Inflation and money supply in Iran: a closer look

Posted in General, Macroeconomy, Sanctions, Subsidy reform by Djavad on February 11, 2013

Last week, in a post on the Lobelog.com I noted further signs of moderating inflation.  Prices in the Iranian month of Dey (ending 20 January 2013) rose by 1.7%, compared to 2.5% the month before and 4.5% per month in the previous two months after devaluation.  These are high rates of inflation on an annual basis (see chart below), but a sign that the Central Bank may have found a way to keep the growth of money supply below the rate of inflation.  I was curious enough if this were the case to look up money supply data published by the Central Bank and here is what I found.  For the quarter that ended on December 20, 2012, which covers the three month period after devaluation, the rate of growth of money supply was 20 percentage points below the rate of inflation. (more…)

Iran’s Inflation showing signs of moderating

Posted in Inequality, Macroeconomy, Poverty, Sanctions, Subsidy reform by Djavad on January 10, 2013

The Central Bank of Iran has just released the Consumer Price Index for the month of Azar (ending on November 20, 2012), and it shows a much smaller increase in prices than the previous two months.  The index rose by about 4.5% per month during the last two months (equal to 70% annually), but its pace moderated in Azar, rising by 2.5%.  This is still a sizable increase (about 35% annually), but it may be a sign that the large devaluation of the rial during the last week of September has run its course and consumers maybe back in the territory that, unfortunately, they have come to regard as normal: prices rising by about 20% per year.  This is, of course, conditional on no new shocks happening to the exchange rate or the money supply in the near future. (more…)

Prices in Iran and what they mean for the PPP exchange rate

Posted in General, Macroeconomy, Sanctions by Djavad on November 4, 2012

As I have argued in this blog and elsewhere, there is not a single equilibrium exchange rate for the rial. If you believed my rough calculations in my previous post, and if you needed to report only one number, the exchange rate would be something around 20,000 rials per dollar (about 96.5% increase over the old exchange rate of a little over 10,000). The next best thing after an equilibrium exchange rate (ER), one that is actually more useful for welfare comparisons, is the Purchasing Power Parity ER. Here are my back-of-the-envelop calculations of the PPP rate for Iran in 2012.


Rial devaluation and inflation — without the hype

Posted in General, Macroeconomy, Sanctions by Djavad on October 29, 2012

For the past several weeks, the rapid fall of the rial has been linked to hyperinflation and a possible quick end to the impasse in nuclear negotiations with Iran. Inflation estimates of 196% per year in NYT, 70% per month in Boston Globe, and similar reports in Washington Post and Bloomberg, were all traceable to an article in the Cato website that had prematurely added Iran as the 48th worst case of hyperinflation in the world. Some commentators could hardly hide their joy in the prospect that sanctions were finally, and mercifully, about to spare the Middle East yet another war and the Iranian people years of suffering under sanctions. But these predictions have failed to materialize, and the media interest in the issue has waned. We are slowly hearing the other story of the rial devaluation, its positive effect on local production (see, for example, Jason Rezaian’s informative report in Saturday’s Washington Post).


More on the falling rial

Posted in General, Macroeconomy, Sanctions by Djavad on October 5, 2012

I have not been able to write much on this blog because I have been trying to catch up on my research.  But the rial troubles in the last two weeks have been impossible to ignore.  I am not a macro economist, but some of what the media was reporting about the freefall of the rial even I knew was over-sensationalized — hyperinflation, economic collapse… and one Iranian BBC reporter said he had run out of words to describe it!  Yesterday I tried to explain on the lobelog three things. (more…)