Authoritarianism in times of the corona virus

An anonymous reader muses upon the following question, and asks that I do so as well:

“This pandemic also brings out a clear cut difference between an authoritarian state and democratic state. For Authoritarian states, it is much easier to control the pandemic for they have surveillance over every movement of their citizens, which can’t be in a democratic state
So, this might also lead to states assuming more power and control after the pandemic gets over”

First things first, let me tease out two separate aspects of this question:

  1. Is there a case to be made for a state to be authoritarian while tackling the crisis?
  2. If the answer to the first question is in the affirmative, might it be likely that said authority will want to remain in power after the crisis is over?

Let’s consider the evidence at hand in terms of authoritarian governments being better at tackling the crisis:

Danielle Pletka, writing in The Dispatch, begins and continues her essay arguing against the idea that authoritarian regimes will  do a better job in these times:

Dictatorships make you sick. Not spiritually, not morally (though both may apply), but actually sick. Consider the responses to coronavirus by China and Iran, two authoritarian regimes whose rank mismanagement and compulsion to cover-up have driven the world to a full-blown pandemic.

She also shows this figure:

and quotes from The Economist:

Using data from the International Disaster Database, maintained by researchers at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, we analysed all recorded epidemics since 1960, from an outbreak of smallpox in Nepal in 1963 to more recent threats such as Zika and Ebola. The results were highly dispersed but a distinct trend was apparent: for any given level of income, democracies appear to experience lower mortality rates for epidemic diseases than their non-democratic counterparts (see chart). In authoritarian countries with China’s level of income, for example, we found that past epidemics have killed about six people per 1m population. In democracies with similar incomes, they have killed just four per 1m.

The key takeaway is this:

Authoritarian regimes are much more likely to be concerned with their image, and with keeping bad news down, because that is important to the perpetuation of said regimes. A media clampdown, in fact, is all but guaranteed if you are in an authoritarian regime. And I hope I don’t speak for myself when I say that is the last thing one could want.

We cannot fully test the counterfactual and know whether conversely regime support would have further eroded under restrictive media policy. However, our matching (quasi)-experiment strongly suggests that the authorities failed to reap obvious benefits from this strategy. Indeed, later restrictions on access to and reporting from the epicenter and the arrest of several activists seem to confirm our finding that the benefits of openness and transparency are tenuous at best. For better of worse, media control is key ingredient of authoritarian resilience.

The Atlantic argues that public trust, transparency and collaboration are key at such times:

Yet good public-health practice doesn’t just require control. It also requires transparency, public trust, and collaboration—habits of mind that allow free societies to better respond to pandemics. Democracies’ ability to cope with COVID-19 will soon be tested; after a proliferation of cases in South Korea, Japan, and Italy in recent days, officials are weighing how to respond. But citizens of democratic nations can reasonably expect a higher level of candor and accountability from their governments.

For these reasons, I find myself arguing against the idea that an authoritarian government will necessarily be better.

In addition, it is worth noting that Taiwan and South Korea – to the best of my knowledge the countries that have dealt with the crisis the best – are anything but authoritarian regimes today.

A better way to think about this issue is to ask if a country has the state capacity. Read this article by Gulzar Natarajan, and this review of In the Service of the Republic by me (preferably the entire book) to get a better idea about state capacity.

Now, the second question:

If the answer to the first question is in the affirmative, might it be likely that said authority will want to remain in power after the crisis is over?

Hungary has already succumbed:

On Monday, Hungary’s parliament passed a controversial bill that gave Orban sweeping emergency powers for an indefinite period of time. Parliament is closed, future elections were called off, existing laws can be suspended and the prime minister is now entitled to rule by decree. Opposition lawmakers had tried to set a time limit on the legislation but failed. Orban’s commanding two-thirds parliamentary majority made his new powers a fait accompli.

And this Twitter thread makes for depressing reading:



Might some leaders, and some citizens (from countries the world over) wish for a more authoritarian regime in the hope that the corona virus is better tackled than at present?


But it will almost certainly make a bad situation worse, and the regime will almost certainly outlive the crisis.

And so, to me, it is an unreservedly bad idea.

To be clear, I know for a fact that the anonymous reader does not want such a regime: they simply wanted to air the question – and so, dear anonymous reader, thank you for helping make my thinking about this clearer than it was before!


Non-medical, non-economics links about Covid-19

David Brooks in the NYT:

Viktor Frankl, writing from the madness of the Holocaust, reminded us that we don’t get to choose our difficulties, but we do have the freedom to select our responses. Meaning, he argued, comes from three things: the work we offer in times of crisis, the love we give and our ability to display courage in the face of suffering. The menace may be subhuman or superhuman, but we all have the option of asserting our own dignity, even to the end.

John Authers in Bloomberg:

For now, the approach being adopted across the West is Rawlsian. Politicians are working on the assumption that they have a duty to protect everyone as they themselves would wish to be protected, while people are also applying the golden rule as they decide that they should self-isolate for the sake of others. We are all Rawlsians now.

How long will we stay that way? All the other theories of justice have an appeal, and may test the resolve to follow the golden rule. But I suspect that Rawls and the golden rule will win out. That is partly because religion — even if it is in decline in the West — has hard-wired it into our consciousness. And as the epidemic grows worse and brings the disease within fewer degrees of separation for everyone, we may well find that the notion of loving thy neighbor as thyself becomes far more potent.

And on that note, this by me from a couple of days ago.

A cartoon from the New Yorker about social distancing and how to do it “right”.

Also from the New Yorker, Siddhartha Mukherjee, writing like only he can:

But three questions deserve particular attention, because their answers could change the way we isolate, treat, and manage patients. First, what can we learn about the “dose-response curve” for the initial infection—that is, can we quantify the increase in the risk of infection as people are exposed to higher doses of the virus? Second, is there a relationship between that initial “dose” of virus and the severity of the disease—that is, does more exposure result in graver illness? And, third, are there quantitative measures of how the virus behaves in infected patients (e.g., the peak of your body’s viral load, the patterns of its rise and fall) that predict the severity of their illness and how infectious they are to others? So far, in the early phases of the covid-19 pandemic, we have been measuring the spread of the virus across people. As the pace of the pandemic escalates, we also need to start measuring the virus within people.

And finally, Ben Thompson, probably the only writer alive who can build a story linking Compaq and the coronavirus.


Corona Links, 20th March, 2020

Christopher Balding runs the numbers, and says that the virus is spreading faster than we think, but is not as deadly as we feared.



Scott Alexander analyzes (and I mean analyzes!) masks.



Via MR, an obituary for Maurice Hilleman from the Economist in 2005:


Mr Hilleman’s greatest contribution to a healthy world may have been his work on the safe mass production of vaccines that can be stored ready for use against the pandemics that since antiquity have regularly swept across continents, such as the 1918 flu outbreak that killed more than 20m people. In 1957, when flu swept through Hong Kong, Mr Hilleman identified the virus as a new form to which people had no natural immunity and passed on his findings to vaccine-makers. When the virus reached the United States a few months later 40m doses of vaccine were ready to limit its damage. Mr Hilleman established that the flu virus is constantly mutating, making it difficult to provide a reliable vaccine. Developing a vaccine can be complex. His fellow-workers saw him as an artist as much as a scientist, bringing to his discipline an instinctive feeling of what would work. Following his guidelines, many nations are making large quantities of what they believe will be useful vaccines in the hope of defeating a possible pandemic of bird flu, should the virus spread from Asia.



An Ask Me Anything (AMA) with Bill Gates about Covid19

A therapeutic could be available well before a vaccine. Ideally this would reduce the number of people who need intensive care including respirators. The Foundation has organized a Therapeutics Accelerator to look at all the most promising ideas and bring all the capabilities of industry into play. So I am hopeful something will come out of this. It could be an anti-viral or antibodies or something else.

One idea that is being explored is using the blood (plasma) from people who are recovered. This may have antibodies to protect people. If it works it would be the fastest way to protect health care workers and patients who have severe disease.

Speaking of blood and plasma, Alex Tabbarok in MR a while ago:

“A simple and medically feasible strategy is available now for treating COVID-19 patients, transfuse blood plasma from recovered patients.” New York, with other states following closely behind, is now trying the idea.

Read the link within the link above for Alex Tabarrok’s original post as well.

Rahul Gupta’s Recommendations


Rahul Gupta (a well thought-out URL, that) graduated from Gokhale Institute, and now works with EY in Gurgaon. He sent across his list of recommendations for students to go through, and it can be found below.

Keep ’em coming, everybody!


Here is a list of my recommendations –

  • For students of Economics –

    • Hubris: Why Economists Failed to Predict the Crisis and How to Avoid the Next One – Lord Meghnad Desai
    • History of Economic Thought: A Critical Perspective – Emery Kay Hunt
      Both books by Abhijit Banerjee & Esther Duflo (currently reading the second one)
    • Most books recommended by you and the faculty at GIPE. Hopefully, some of them will be read cover to cover. Please do.
    • An Economist in the Real World: The Art of Policymaking in India – Kaushik Basu
    • In service of the Republic – Vijay Kelkar & Ajay Shah (Thank you!)
  • General stuff that I would recommend –

    • Anything by Yuval Noah Harari
    • Books and lectures by Jordan Peterson (if you can digest that kind of stuff easily)
    • The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee
    • Following books in the domain of philosophy and political economy –
      • Leviathan – Thomas Hobbes
      • Art of War – Sun Tzu
      • Republic – Plato
  • Some of the books that are on my radar –

    • A Theory of Justice – John Rawls
    • Anarchy, State and Utopia – Robert Nozick
    • Road to Serfdom – Friedrich Hayek
    • How Fascism works – Jason Stanley
    • The Book of Why – Judea Pearl
    • The origins of Political Order – Francis Fukuyama
    • and some more additions to it, it will be a long list.
  • For the students who are currently figuring out what to do, some things that might interest all:

    • – It’s a free course that really explains the ideas behind AI/ML in an easier to digest and intuitive way. Randomly stumbled across this and really loved the content.
    • Introduction to Statistical Learning – Gareth James et al. Highly recommended, it digs deep into statistical learning, takes some time for the non-math-y person, but eventually it is an interesting read.
    • 3Blue1Brown YouTube channel, already posted in your recommendations. It is a delight to watch.
    • Numberphile YouTube channel – Good to know how much of maths and numbers you have no clue of, and an occasional greek letter that you never knew existed.
  • Finally, anyone who doesn’t like reading. These podcasts might be a welcome addition to daily schedule –

And he ends with a request:

Would love to know your top 5 books of all-time/2019, my reading list would keep growing this way.

All time is a dangerous thing to think about, because you end up thinking about all day long, and keep wishing you could go back and change, but for what its worth, here you go:

  1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig
  2. Mahabharata, pick whichever version you like to start with – Amar Chitra Katha is actually under-rated – and keep reading other versions
  3. How Asia Works, by Joe Studwell – this taught me more about international trade and development than any other single book. Not even close.
  4. Triumph of the City, by Ed Glaeser. Urbanization is increasingly my favorite topic to read about, which is also why the final book is…
  5. Order Without Design, by Alain Bertaud


I owed you a fair amount of beer in any case, let’s just end up doubling the owed amount for sending in this list, Rahul. Thank you so much!

Team Lockdown, or Team Get Back to Work?

An anonymous reader writes in with the question below:

As a student of economics, our mind forces us to think rationally, even during the present time of corona pandemic which is taking a toll on several lives. The question which is bothering me is about the enactment of lockdown and bypassing the one of the fundamental right of livelihood without constitutionally declaring emergency in the country due to COVID-19. As we’re constantly keeping an eye on news, the millions of businessman, traders, labor whose daily living is in danger (for at least coming 2 more weeks) has been taken away with an announcement of PM.
Are we sacrificing our country’s livelihood in the wake of moral persuasion by PM or it is the just the ignorance/illiteracy towards our fundamental rights?


First things first: I’m the very opposite of a legal scholar! But here’s my attempt at answering the question, first from a legal viewpoint, and second from a philosophical viewpoint.

You’d think I’d want to answer this question from an economist’s point of view, considering my “profession” and “qualification”, but honestly, this is best viewed and thought about from the prism of philosophy.


But legal aspects first:

As best as I can tell, the right to livelihood is guaranteed by Article 21:

Article 21 reads as:

“No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to a procedure established by law.”

Although Article 19 also deserves a closer look, especially sub-clause (g) of clause (1) of Article 19:

19. Protection of certain rights regarding freedom of speech etc
(1) All citizens shall have the right
(a) to freedom of speech and expression;
(b) to assemble peaceably and without arms;
(c) to form associations or unions;
(d) to move freely throughout the territory of India;
(e) to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India; and
(f) omitted
(g) to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business

But both Articles 19 and 21 have far too many loopholes, exceptions and what-have-yous. Again, I am not a legal expert, but this, with regards Article 19 seems pertinent:

(6) Nothing in sub clause (g) of the said clause shall affect the operation of any existing law in so far as it imposes, or prevent the State from making any law imposing, in the interests of the general public, reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub clause, and, in particular, nothing in the said sub clause shall affect the operation of any existing law in so far as it relates to, or prevent the State from making any law relating to,
(i) the professional or technical qualifications necessary for practising any profession or carrying on any occupation, trade or business, or
(ii) the carrying on by the State, or by a corporation owned or controlled by the State, of any trade, business, industry or service, whether to the exclusion, complete or partial, of citizens or otherwise

And Article 21 ends with “according to a procedure established by law”, and so I’m sure the legality is not, therefore, an issue at all.


Now that the legal aspect is out of the way, let’s try and figure out the philosophical issue at hand here.

Seen Sophie’s Choice? (I haven’t, because the one of the premises is so horrifying that I have never been able to get myself to watch it). Spoiler alert, consider yourself warned!

She reveals to him that, upon arrival at Auschwitz, she was forced to choose which one of her two children would be gassed and which would proceed to the labor camp. To avoid having both children killed, she chose her son, Jan, to be sent to the children’s camp, and her daughter, Eva, to be sent to her death.

Seen Eye in the Sky? Again, spoiler alert, but here’s the core dilemma of the movie:

You can kill three terrorists who have committed unspeakable crimes by ordering a drone to shoot a missile at a home in which they are hiding. BUT: you will also end up killing a little girl who is selling bread right outside that home, blissfully unaware that there are terrorists inside. Do you order the strike?

Heard of the trolley problem?

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:

Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply: What is the right thing to do?

Here, as simply put as possible, is the dilemma in front of the leaders of almost all nations on the planet:

Let people move about freely, letting them earn their living, BUT also be spreaders of COVID-19, thereby putting themselves, and an untold number of others at risk


Confine people at home, therefore saving at least some lives, BUT therefore deny people, especially the poor, the chance to earn a living.

Put another way:

do we optimize for health and life, at the cost of untold economic suffering (Team Lockdown)…

…or do we optimize for the opportunity to earn money, at the cost of people (for no fault of theirs) losing their lives? (Team Get Back to Work)


My personal opinion? A human life is a non-negotiable. That, to me, is axiomatic. And on first blush, you might think that therefore I am Team Lockdown.

But will the lockdown, at the margin, cause deaths inflicted by the imposition of the lockdown? Almost certainly yes. So both policies will result in the loss of some lives. That’s just the hard truth.

Then, morally speaking from my perspective, we ought to choose that policy which minimizes death and suffering.

Can Team Get Back to Work minimize death and suffering, or do a better job of minimizing death and suffering than Team Lockdown?

In my opinion, no.

Therefore, Team Lockdown for me.

But that being said:

Can Team Lockdown try and ensure that those most impacted by the lockdown get all the support we (all of us) can possibly give? That, in my opinion, now becomes a moral imperative.

Beginning with tripling the current stimulus!

That’s just my opinion, for reasons explained above. That doesn’t necessarily make it right, and I’m more than open to listening to opposite points of view. Here’s one from the other side, for example. The-Pensford-Newsletter-3.23.2020

But right now, and at the current margin?

I’m Team Lockdown.


My thanks to the anonymous reader for raising this question; it helped me clarify my own thinking on the issue!

Links from Folks About the Corona Virus

Prashant Jain sends in this website:

Rohit Kumar (not Srivastav, my apologies for the error!) sends along this PDF: The-Pensford-Newsletter-3.23.2020: I don’t agree with most of it, but it does provide an interesting point of view about the cost benefit analysis.

Also from Rohit, a podcast in which economists from Goldman Sachs try to get a grip on where the American economy is headed.

Harsh Doshi has a podcast up about living through the lockdown. The first episode is he interviewing Dr. Sanjay Baru.

Prof. Asawa shared a blog written by SA Aiyar in the TOI about how our stimulus needs to triple from its current level – at least.

Parag Sancheti shares a video about exponential functions

Parag Sancheti, a batchmate from GIPE shared a video after reading my last post about exponential functions:

I’ve been watching old videos by 3Blue1Brown, and had no clue that these were up! Thanks Parag.

Speaking of new videos on that channel, take a look at this one as well:


Pro tip, especially to the BSc students at GIPE (but honestly, the entire planet) – consider subscribing to this channel?

Understanding exponential functions in the times of the corona virus

Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke for the entire teaching community recently, when he said the following:

So if you were nodding off or were otherwise engaged when exponential functions were taught  in your class – or you just feel like a refresher – here’s some links to help you understand what exponential functions are, and why they matter so much where the corona virus is concerned:

First, from yours truly, in plain simple English: exponential functions essentially imply that y is going to change pretty darn quickly, even for very small changes in x.

“x” thoda si bhi change hone pe “y” legendray change kar jaayega

It means more than that, and there are exceptions, but if you are a non-math person, that line above is what you need to take away.

Here’s Wikipedia on the same topic, and here’s a short videoby Khan Academy:

(The link before the YouTube video will also have other, related videos and a practice set. Recommended)

If you want to play around with exponential graphs yourself, try Desmos:

Do you see the little “play” buttons next to a, b and c? Try clicking them and see what happens. “a” and “b” are crucial for social distancing. The lower those values, the slower the spread. Try it for yourself! (Note, this will work best on a desktop/laptop, rather than a phone)

So why does this matter in times of the corona virus?

On Monday, March 15, the US had about 4,000 confirmed cases. You might have said “Hey, that’s a tiny fraction of the country’s population. What’s all the fuss?” By Wednesday it had grown to around 8,000. So then you might think the total will grow by 4,000 every two days. That would be wrong; that’s linear thinking. It’s much worse than that.

That is from a Wired article, from which I will continue to quote below as well. So if four thousand becomes eight thousand, eight thousand becomes twelve thousand, and twelve thousand becomes sixteen thousand… not so bad, right?


With exponential growth, the number of new cases each day constantly increases—graph the total over time, and you’ll see that the line curves upward—and that can get you into big numbers real fast. What you need to look at is the percentage increase. In this case, it doubled (an increase of 100 percent) in two days. At that rate, it will grow from 8,000 on Wednesday to 16,000 on Friday, and 32,000 by Sunday.

Please read the rest of the article, and take your time doing so. This is important!

By the way, I’ve said this before on these pages, and I’ll say it again – don’t be confused when you look at a graph that shows a linear growth, but the chart says growth is exponential. First look at the axes!

For example, take a look at the picture below, taken from this post:

Please read the entire post, here is the link again.

Now, every article we’ve read so far has given us cause to worry, right?

Go back to the start of this article:

…exponential functions essentially imply that y is going to change pretty darn quickly, even for very small changes in x.

I used the word “changes” quite deliberately. You see, exponentials go up in a hurry, it is true – but they also come down in a hurry!

And since the number of new cases also depends on the number of infectious people (which declines as folks recover), that will also be exponential, but exponentially decreasing.

Bottom line; While the bad news grows rapidly, the good news will also evolve rapidly. So let’s just hope that by invoking sheltering-in-place and other strategies, we can reduce the infection rate and cause the inevitable bell-shape curve of the number that are sick to turn over sooner.

Think of the corona virus as us chugging up at the start of a roller-coaster ride. That’s kind of where we are right now. The good news is, when we start to “come down”, that’ll be pretty quick too.

But until then, one thing, and one thing only: social distancing!

A clarification about yesterday’s post

I wrote yesterday in a post about research put up by The Center For Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy. This is the link to my post.

I got the PDF as a Whatsapp forward, and shared it only after running a Google search for more details. I hit upon the website mentioned above, within which I found the page on which the results of the PDF were shared, along with the PDF itself.

This is from their “About” page:

CDDEP was founded with the objective of using research to support better decision-making in health policy. CDDEP researchers employ a range of expertise—including economics, epidemiology, disease modeling, risk analysis, and statistics—to conduct actionable, policy-oriented research on malaria, antibiotic resistance, disease control priorities, environmental health, alcohol and tobacco, and other global health issues.

CDDEP projects are global in scope, spanning Africa, Asia, and North America and include scientific studies and policy engagement. The CDDEP team is experienced in addressing country-specific and regional issues, as well as the local and global aspects of global challenges, such as antibiotic resistance and pandemic influenza. CDDEP research is notable for innovative approaches to design and analysis, which are shared widely through publications, presentations and web-based programs.

CDDEP has offices in Washington, D.C. and New Delhi, India and relies on a distinguished team of scientists, public health experts, and economists around the world.

The report seems to have been published on the 24th of March, 2020. But the reason I wanted to write this post is because of the following tweet:

This is the reply from Johns Hopkins:

The report that I shared with you was tweeted out by them on the 24th of March, 2020, at 11.45 pm:

CDDEP hasn’t retracted, so far, their report, nor have they responded publicly to Johns Hopkins saying that they haven’t had anything to do with this publication.

I will update this page with clarifications as and when they emerge, from either Johns Hopkins or from CDDEP.

My apologies for causing any confusion, if any, with my post from yesterday and my thanks to Prashant Jain for a brief conversation about this issue.



Looking for Silver Linings

Prakshal Jain from the Gokhale Institute writes in:

Hello Sir
Hope you are doing well

Current fiscal and Monetary measures (not stimulus as Parchure Sir mentioned) that are undertaken by Government to infuse money and ensure consumption of essential goods in the hand of public to fight the lockdown situation is actually a blessing.
Our economy needed these reforms since a very long period of time and government has been ignoring it, so can this injection result in some sort of economic upliftment?
Secondly, can more measures like these to the various sectors can help us fight economic slowdown?

I’m treating this as an extremely Rawlsian take. Read more about Rawls here, and his most famous book here.

Rawls’s positive distributive thesis is equality-based reciprocity. All social goods are to be distributed equally, unless an unequal distribution would be to everyone’s advantage. The guiding idea is that since citizens are fundamentally equal, reasoning about justice should begin from a presumption that cooperatively-produced goods should be equally divided. Justice then requires that any inequalities must benefit all citizens, and particularly must benefit those who will have the least. Equality sets the baseline; from there any inequalities must improve everyone’s situation, and especially the situation of the worst-off. These strong requirements of equality and reciprocal advantage are hallmarks of Rawls’s theory of justice.

I understand Prakshal as asking if the corona virus has made our government (and indeed, governments the world over) more Rawlsian in its outlook, and if that is, on balance, a good thing.

Three things come to mind:

  • First: It is a given that the poor will be the most badly hit in these times. See here for a list of recommendations (each of which is worthy of greater debate and potential implementation), follow this Twitter handle to get a sense of how bad things are (or are going to get). Any government would have no choice but to help out the poorest sections of society: it is a moral imperative. From that perspective, yes, the government is more Rawlsian right now than as of a week ago, and that is a great, great thing.
  • Second: The crucial part is the phrase “on balance”. The government is more Rawlsian right now because of the corona virus lockdown, and it is all but certain that the lockdown will do more harm than the government will do good where the economic well-being of the poorest of the poor is concerned.
    Let me be clear: this is not me accusing the government of not doing enough. This is me saying that the problem is far too big for anybody to handle. So even if you were a person who thought we should be more Rawlsian, this is surely far too high a price to pay.
  • Third: And this relates to Prakshal’s final question (will more such initiatives help?), absolutely yes. Governments, NGO’s, civil society – everybody can and must chip in to help out.

Prakshal, if this doesn’t answer your question, please let me know. Thank you for writing in!