Mancur Olson in Afghanistan (And Thakur in Sholay!)

Who is (was) Mancur Olson?

An American economist of some note, who is perhaps not as widely known as he should be. Let me be honest upfront and say that I have never read a single book of his cover to cover, in spite of repeated attempts – they are really hard going, at least for me. But even dipping into them every now and then, based on snippets I pick up here and there is by fun, and rewarding. (One such snippet was provided by The Economist recently, about which more in a second.)

Olson is perhaps most well known for his theory of the “roving” and “stationary” bandit. Here’s Wikipedia:

In his final book, Power and Prosperity (2000), Olson distinguished between the economic effects of different types of government, in particular, tyranny, anarchy, and democracy. Olson argued that under anarchy, a “roving bandit” only has the incentive to steal and destroy, whilst a “stationary bandit”—a tyrant—has an incentive to encourage some degree of economic success as he expects to remain in power long enough to benefit from that success. A stationary bandit thereby begins to take on the governmental function of protecting citizens and their property against roving bandits. In the move from roving to stationary bandits, Olson sees the seeds of civilization, paving the way, eventually for democracy, which by giving power to those who align with the wishes of the population, improves incentives for good government. Olson’s work on the roving vs. stationary bandits is influential in analysis of the political and economic order structured in warlord states and societies.

And here’s the Economist, writing about the current state of Afghanistan:

At the edge of Kabul, the boss of a company which imports cooking gas says the security of his tankers has actually improved over the past year, because the Taliban control more roads. They charge 35,000 afghanis ($455) for every lorry travelling from Herat, on the Iranian border, to Kabul. “In the past there were no Taliban taxes,” he says. “But they used to shoot us with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]. So we are happy with the taxes.”

The trick (for the bandit) lies in getting the quantum of taxation just right, of course…

Cowen and Tabarrok Talk Coivd-19

That’s all you need to say, no?

Tweets for 7th November, 2020

Nobody. Nobody does puns better. Yes, life goals.

Internet Explorer jokes are something else:

Very, very late to this, but FWIW:

Whatay reading list!

This deserves a blog post of it’s own – next week, hopefully!

End of the week reading list: 6th Nov, 2020

The NYT comes up with a lovely selection of Agatha Cristhie novels. Light Diwali vacation reading if you are new to her works, perhaps?
(Also, every time I am reminded of this book below, I feel this urge to apologize to that one friend I inadvertently revealed the ending to – so once again, I’m really sorry!)

That would be “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” the story of a wealthy man slain in his study less than a day after the woman he hoped to marry commits suicide. Although — as Hercule Poirot discovers — the dead man’s assorted friends, relatives and servants have reasons to wish him ill, “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” will still leave you reeling. When you find out who the murderer is and begin leafing through the pages, looking for missed clues, you’ll realize just how completely Christie snookered you.

On the race to redesign sugar:

As public opinion turns against sugar, food companies have outdone one another in pledges to cut the quantities of it that appear in their products. Pepsi has promised that by 2025 at least two-thirds of its drinks will contain a hundred calories or fewer from added sweeteners. A consortium of candy companies, including Mars Wrigley, Ferrero, and Russell Stover, recently declared that by 2022 half of their single-serving products will contain at most two hundred calories per pack. Nestlé has resolved to use five per cent less added sugar by the end of this year—though, as of January, it still had more than twenty thousand tons of the stuff left to eliminate.

A short (and delightful) history of mashed potatoes:

During the Seven Years War of the mid-1700s, a French army pharmacist named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was captured by Prussian soldiers. As a prisoner of war, he was forced to live on rations of potatoes. In mid-18th century France, this would practically qualify as cruel and unusual punishment: potatoes were thought of as feed for livestock, and they were believed to cause leprosy in humans. The fear was so widespread that the French passed a law against them in 1748.

The excerpt below was an excerpt in the post I am linking to (if you see what I mean), but well worth your time, the entire blog post:

70% of us think that the average household income of the top 1% is more than ₹2.5L. In fact, a majority of us guess it is more than ₹5L. Similarly, a majority of the respondents assume that the average income of the top 10% of households is more than a ₹1L… We think of the top 1% as super-rich people. A majority of the respondents estimate that all of the top 1% have 4-wheelers. And 70+% feel that at least 90% of the top 1%-ers have 4-wheelers.

Robin Hanson wonders about taking rest:

While we seem to “need” breaks from work, many of our break activities often look a lot like “work”, in being productive and taking energy, concentration, and self-control. So what exactly is “restful” about such “rest”?

Calling Bullshit: An Appreciation

This past Tuesday, I went on a long rant about exams in general, and exams especially in the year 2020. That rant was inspired by a Twitter thread put out by Prof. Carl Bergstrom.

Now, if you happen to share my views on examinations, I’m guessing you were already likely to be a fan of Prof. Bergstrom. Today, your fandom might just go up a couple of notches. Check out the first paragraph on my favorite discovery of 2020 so far – Calling Bullshit:

The world is awash in bullshit. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. Higher education rewards bullshit over analytic thought. Startup culture elevates bullshit to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bullshit — and take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with bullshit of the second order. The majority of administrative activity, whether in private business or the public sphere, seems to be little more than a sophisticated exercise in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit.

He and his collaborator on the project, Prof. Jevin West, are nothing if not thorough:

What do we mean, exactly, by bullshit and calling bullshit? As a first approximation:

Bullshit involves language, statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener, with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence.

Calling bullshit is a performative utterance, a speech act in which one publicly repudiates something objectionable. The scope of targets is broader than bullshit alone. You can call bullshit on bullshit, but you can also call bullshit on lies, treachery, trickery, or injustice.

In this course we will teach you how to spot the former and effectively perform the latter.

There’s a book, there’s videos of the course lectures (yes, you can earn credits for learning about bullshit), there’s a list of heuristics about detecting bullshit when it comes to interpreting visualizations, reading academic papers, and facial detection algorithms. There are case studies too!

And hey, if you insist on being politically correct (there’s merit in the argument that you shouldn’t, but hey, entirely your call) – well, they got you covered:

If you feel that the term bullsh!t is an impediment to your use of the website, we have developed a “sanitized” version of the site at There we use the term “bull” instead of “bullsh!t” and avoid other profanity. Be aware, however, that some of the links go to papers that use the word bullsh*t or worse.

Some weeks ago, I promised somebody that I would come up with a lecture on demystifying statistics – and set myself the challenge of trying to come up with lecture notes without using a single equation.

As is the case with 95% of the things I really want to do, I promptly forgot all about it.

I haven’t seen all the videos yet on Calling Bullshit, but it does seem as if outsourcing this exercise – at least in part – to this fantastic website would be a really good idea.

Check out the syllabus here. A part of me is tempted to say that I would like to run this module as a summer school at GIPE, but you will remember what I said about things I really want to do.

But hey, there’s always hope, right?

Or should I be calling bullshit on myself?

Five Links About – Well, What Else?

It doesn’t matter whether you support Trump, Biden – or even Kanye. It doesn’t matter whether you read this at 10 in the morning on the 4th of November 2020, which is when I’ll be scheduling this post, or much later (and that could be hours, days, weeks or months later). I’ve tried to collate five sources that will give you the long view of whatever might happen on this day. With that in mind, here we go:

Ezra Klein speaks about the American divide, and posits that it isn’t about Republicans v Democrats (and read the whole excerpt, and then the whole book!):

Over the past decade, the dreams of democratic theorists everywhere actually came true. The internet made information abundant. The rise of online news gave Americans access to more information — vastly more information, orders of magnitude more information — than they had ever had before. And yet surveys showed we weren’t, on average, any more politically informed. Nor were we any more involved: Voter participation didn’t show a boost from the democratization of political information. Why?

But among those with cable and internet access, the difference in political knowledge between those with the highest and lowest interest in cable news was 27 percent. That dwarfed the difference in political knowledge between people with the highest and lowest levels of schooling. “In a high-choice environment, people’s content preferences become better predictors of political learning than even their level of education,” Prior wrote.

Misperceptions were particularly high when people were asked to describe the other party. Democrats believed 44 percent of Republicans earned more than $250,000 a year; it’s actually 2 percent. Republicans believed that 38 percent of Democrats were gay, lesbian, or bisexual; the correct answer is about 6 percent. Democrats believed that more than four in 10 Republicans are seniors; in truth, seniors make up about 20 percent of the GOP. Republicans believed that 46 percent of Democrats are black and 44 percent belong to a union; in reality, about 24 percent of Democrats are black and less than 11 percent belong to a union.

Here’s the kicker: As the charts below show, the more political media people consumed, the more mistaken they were, in general, about the other party. This is a damning result: The more political media you absorb, the more warped your perspective of the other side becomes.

… while Bruno Macaes hypothesizes that the split is between fiction and reality (and interpret that any way you will)

The main binary in American politics is not between left and right, but between fiction and reality. One experiences particular fictions, but at some point they must be revealed as no more than fictions. They must be switched off, in anticipation of new stories.

This article is impossible to excerpt from, but deserves to be read in full, multiple times. Ross Douthat on what the right, the centre and the left learned from four years of Trump.

A worthwhile read on – no matter the outcome, whenever you read this – the Nate Silver/Taleb debate:

Because FiveThirtyEight only predicts probabilities, they do not ever take an absolute stand on an outcome: No ‘skin in the game’ as Taleb would say. This is not, however, something their readers follow suit on. In the public eye, they (FiveThirtyEight) are judged on how many events with forecasted probabilities above and below 50% happened or didn’t respectively (in a binary setting). Or, they (the readers) just pick the highest reported probability as the intended forecast. For example, they were showered with accolades when after, ‘calling 49 of 50 states in the 2008 presidential race correctly’ Nate Silver was placed on Times 100 most influential people list. He should not have accepted the honor if he didn’t call a winner in any of the states!

And hey, take the long view!

In 44 chronological episodes, the “Presidential” podcast takes listeners on an epic historical journey through the personality and legacy of each of the American presidents. Created and hosted by Washington Post reporter Lillian Cunningham, “Presidential” features interviews with the country’s greatest experts on the presidency, including Pulitzer Prize-winning biographers Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, Jon Meacham and Bob Woodward. Start listening at the very beginning, with the life of George Washington, or jump ahead to any president whose story you want to better understand.

On Conducting Examinations, Especially in 2020

This is less a blogpost, and more of a rant. Consider yourself warned! 🙂

This past Saturday, I cam across a most excellent Twitter thread:

The author, Carl Bergstrom (Wikipedia article here, University profile here) makes a detailed, reasoned argument against online proctoring of examinations, especially in 2020. In my blogpost, I’m going to riff on this Twitter thread, and some related points, and build an argument against the way we conduct examinations in Indian Universities.

To begin, watch this Sugata Mitra TED talk about education:

Just the first five minutes or so is enough for the argument I will be making today, but you really should watch the full thing. There was, as it turns out, a case for rote memorization at one point of time. But today, as Mitra says in the video, it is the computers that are the clerks. They do (and to be fair to them, they do it much better than we ever could) the job of remembering everything, so that we don’t have to.

To every single professor reading this blogpost: when was the last time you yourself spent a day working without looking up something on the internet? When was the last time you researched something, wrote something, without using your computer, or the internet on some device?

Then why do we insist on examining our students for their ability to do so, when we ourselves don’t do it? And for those of our students who are not going to get into academia, they wouldn’t last in their organizations for even an hour if they tried to work without using computers and the internet.

They would (should!) be fired for being Luddites!

And yet, to land up in that firm, they must spend the last week of their lives as a college student cooped up for three hours in a classroom without a computer, without the internet, and use pen and paper to write out the important features of xyz in abc lines.

I can’t possibly be the only one that spots the incongruity, surely?

Here, from the Twitter thread I spoke about earlier, is a picture of Bloom’s taxonomy:


Read the Wikipedia article about Bloom’s taxonomy, or look carefully at the picture above. At best – and I think I am being charitable here – our question papers in higher education in India reach the evaluate stage, but certainly not create. And even that is a stretch.

Moreover, even if we somehow agree that we do indeed reach the evaluate stage, we are effectively asking students to evaluate based on their memory alone. Why?

One, won’t students write a better evaluation of whatever theory we are asking them to write about if we give them the ability to research while writing? Second – and I know this is repetitive, but still – are they ever going to write an evaluation without having access to to the internet?

In plain simple English: We train students for 25 years to get awesome at memorizing stuff, and then expect them to do well in a world which doesn’t value this skill at all.

(To be clear, some things you should remember, of course. Think of it as a spectrum – and I am not suggesting that we move to the end of the spectrum where no memorization is required. I am suggesting, however, that we are at the end of the spectrum where only memorization is required. Close enough, at any rate).

Coming specifically to this year, the year of online examinations, here’s a tweet that was quoted in Bergstrom’s thread:

There really isn’t much to say, is there? All universities the world over have sent out variations of this nightmare this year, and in some cases, repeatedly. It’s the whole null hypothesis argument all over again – we assume all students to be guilty until proven otherwise. That is, we assume everybody will cheat, and therefore force everybody to comply with ridiculously onerous rules – so as to prevent the few who might actually cheat.

And cheating, of course, being looking up stuff on the internet. The argument itself is pointless, as I have explained above, and we go to eye-popping lengths to enforce the logical outcome of this pointless argument.

Prof. Bergstrom makes the same points himself in the Twitter thread, of course:

This year, especially, is a good opportunity to turn what is otherwise a disaster of a situation into meaningful reform of the way we conduct examinations.

Students, parents – indeed society at large – will spot the incongruity of learning online, but being examined offline. If we, in higher education in India do not spot this incongruity and work towards changing it – well then, we will have failed.

And finally, the last tweet in the thread is something we would all do well to remember:

Reflections on “India Moving” by Chinmay Tumbe

Every now and then, you read about courses you would really, really want to attend yourself (and keep an eye out this Thursday for another such course). Here is one such course, which I found out about as a consequence of reading the book India Moving: A History of Migration by Chinmay Tumbe:

Hitchhiker’s Guide to Business and Economies across Five Centuries

As you’d expect (indeed, demand), the two major academic requirements for the course each have a weightage of The Answer To The Ultimate Question of Life, Universe and Everything. (Where can I sign up?)

Reading the book was an enjoyable experience for two reasons. One, there is a wealth of knowledge to be gleaned from the book – Chinmay Tumbe has clearly spent years and years engaged in researching this topic, and it shows. But second, the book never becomes turgid, because sprinkled with a judiciously light hand throughout the book are little snippets of delightful humor, and you almost end up turning the page to find out when the next one will appear.

Migration is a tricky topic to study, by the way, especially in terms of causality. Shown here is a little diagram that has helped me think about the issue as systematically as possible:

Taken from Todaro and Smith’s Textbook on Development Economics

Note that while this diagram is about rural to urban migration, I often find it helpful to use the same framework to think about migration out of India. The inputs into the decision-making process remain more or less the same. The professor inside of me wants to spend some time in explaining this chart more, but I’ll resist, for two reasons. One, the length of this blogpost. Two, I honestly think it is fairly self-explanatory!

Now, the reason I bring up this chart is because while it works in the sense that you understand how to think about migration, it really needs a complementary good. That good being this book!

For example, it is one thing to talk about rural-urban migration, but quite another to learn about the origin of the sobriquet ‘maca paos‘. Or the chapter on migration from Ratnagiri (the title of which has a lovely pun too), which speaks about the psychology of children (boys and girls), and how it may have been shaped by the trends of migration.

The book, in other words, talks about theory, but also works in examples that fill the book with more than just a dreary recital of facts, figures and theories.

The book is built around one central idea, that of the Great Indian Migration Wave, which is the author’s term for a phenomenon that has lasted for well over a century, and encompasses over 200 million people. As Chinmay Tumbe puts it, this Great Indian Migration Wave was ‘responsible for the formation of cities such as Kolkata and Mumbai, and ended up producing freedom fighters, political leaders, regional cultures and culinary delights’ – and much else besides!

Having explained the central idea in the second chapter, the rest of the book is about the consequences of the Great Indian Migration Wave, including chapters on the migration of capital (my term, not his), the folks who chose to not return, the impact of partition and finally the impact of migration on development.

Each chapter is full of little, and often surprising, nuggets of information. For example, we learn that:

If Kerala were to be a country , it would rank among the five most remittance – dependent nations in the world as its remittance to GDP ratio stood at a staggering 30 per cent .

Location 926 (All locations refer to the Kindle version)

… and you might say that well, this isn’t all that surprising, given what we know of migration patterns from Kerala to the ‘Gelf‘. But then how about this?

Annual migration to the Gulf from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar now exceeds that from Kerala

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Thirteen years after I got my passport, I finally understood what ECNR was all about!

In the 1840s , legal provisions introduced a ‘ protector of immigrants ’ at the port of disembarkation and a ‘ protector of emigrants ’ at the port of embarkation . The latter now survives as a department in India’s ministry of external affairs . As per an Act of 1844 , the protector of emigrants would ensure that ‘ no emigrant shall embark without a certificate from the Agent , countersigned by the Protector ’ leading to a curious phrase that is now imprinted in Indian passports as ‘ Emigration Check Not Required ’ .

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1840’s! Why do we still have this on our passports?

The next chapter looks at migration based on a mixture of geography and community. We learn about the Parsis, the Marwaris, the Chettiars among others, and one revelatory point for me was how much of migration there was between India and Myanmar before the IInd World War, and how badly it turned out.

Another highlight for me was a potential explanation for why communities from Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Sindh were as exceptional as they are:

Claude Markovits , a historian of Indian business , provides one possible explanation for the exceptional selectivity of merchant migrations from the region comprising Punjab , Rajasthan , Gujarat and Sindh . His ecological argument credits the ‘ dry zone ’ for honing skills in risk management , which provide a comparative advantage in trade and finance , over regions with more reliable access to water .

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Which, as the book goes on to say, may or may not be true, but it is certainly a point worth considering. This chapter also helped me understand why business is a ‘dirty’ word in India – and the answer may well be very, very ancient indeed!

The Arthashastra , India’s most famous treatise on statecraft compiled over 1800 years ago , mistrusted traders arguing that that they were ‘ all thieves , in effect , if not in name ’ and that ‘ they shall be prevented from oppressing the people ’. The caste system itself accorded the trading caste the third position , ritually lower than the priests and the warriors . Further , taboos on overseas travel were pervasive . In such a milieu , the trading castes were not likely to be in a position to expand their network or gain acceptance among other castes .

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(Although I still remain confused about why taboos on overseas travel were pervasive. And I think this is a very important question, too. What is it about India (and, I think, China) that made our societies reluctant to travel far and wide?)

Elsewhere in the book, Chinmay Tumbe also points out how low acceptance of Indian migrants was as much a problem in the receiving country as well:

According to an official report in 1910 , Indians were ‘ the most undesirable of all Asiatics and the peoples of the Pacific states were unanimous in their desire for exclusion ’

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How long does it take you to lose your Indian identity if you migrate abroad? There are two quotes in this regard that stood out to me:

Cricket itself became a litmus test of loyalty . The Tebbit test , named after Lord Tebbit , proposed that Indians could be considered to have successfully assimilated into British society only if they rooted for England during cricket matches against India . With a few exceptions like Madras – born Nasser Hussain , former captain of the England cricket team , most people of Indian origin would flunk this test even today , even though they have integrated on various other counts such as language and civic and political participation .

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Second, Punjab is famously known in India for its agricultural might but also infamously known for its ‘ missing women ’ phenomenon . Sex ratios at birth are skewed starkly in favour of males due to a preference for sons and abortion of female foetuses . As it turns out , studies have shown that this cultural trait persists in Canada , even if it is under different material conditions . Old habits often die hard in the diaspora.

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What I remain curious about is whether it is only ‘us’, or whether this applied to migrants from other nationalities as well. That is, are Indians unique in taking a long time to assimilate, particularly from a cultural viewpoint, or is this true for other nationalities as well. That is, of course, beyond the scope of this book, but in this regard, there was this delightful little nugget:

If there is one striking cultural practice that unites Indians across all these identities and separates India from the places they usually migrate to , it is the use of water in toilets as opposed to tissue paper abroad . Indians ’ love for water is closely matched with their love for steam generated by the pressure cooker , a wonderful gift of humankind celebrating both rice and noise , amplified many times over in silent honk – less neighbourhoods abroad . It is no wonder then that a mug and a pressure cooker are important objects packed in the luggage of a first – time visitor or settler in new lands .

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What unites Indians abroad may well be a continuation of our innate Indian-ness, but another thing that unites us is also the reasons we choose to go abroad. For example, is it not puzzling that Bihar and Kerala have similar rates of outmigration? Chinmay Tumbe’s answer to this little puzzle is linked back to our abysmally low rates of urbanization (although of course, there is the thorny little problem of trying to figure out our actual urbanization rate)

One reason I really loved the book was because while it speaks about migration, it does so by dipping into a whole host of related factors, such as caste:

According to one nasty upper – caste parody , ‘ untouchable ’ sweepers did not care about the violent chaos surrounding them during Partition , as nobody was going to ‘ touch ’ them in any case .

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…. and gender:

There is , however , an alternative brain drain that is rarely talked about . This refers to the migration of high – skilled spouses , almost always women , who accompany the high – skilled migrant workers , but do not end up working for remuneration due to restrictions placed by families or visa regulations . Within India , this leads to a colossal under – utilization of talent as millions of female graduates forgo active professional careers upon their move to a new state or city , to look after children or the family . Outside India , visa restrictions on work for dependents can kill aspirations and dull the brains . In the USA , over a 1,00,000 Indian dependents live on the less – known H4 visa , known as the depression visa . Studies have shown how this brings about a loss of self – confidence and discomfort because of financial dependence on the spouse , even for remittances , and overall , retards professional careers due to the erosion of skills . In such cases , the American sitcom Desperate Housewives offers only partial relief to the brain pain.

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…besides, of course, poverty, rural-urban divides, community and ethnicity, which we have touched upon earlier.

My ‘standard’ papers to recommend to students to read about migration are Theories of International Migration: A Review and Appraisal, by Massey et al and The Costs and Returns of Human Migration, by Sjaastad. (And I can’t resist adding that you really should read We Wanted Workers, by Borjas and Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, by Caplan. Two diametrically opposite views about immigration, but that is exactly why you should read both.) Here’s an older EFE post about immigration, with a set of five links (the fifth of which is this very book).

In short, an excellent book, and heavily recommended!

Two further notes:

  1. There is an excellent set of links about migration on Chinmay Tumbe’s homepage. For those of you who want to go down a seemingly endless rabbit-hole, well, dive in!
  2. He has got a new book coming out in early December, called The Age of Pandemics. I have (of course!) pre-ordered it, and hope to write a review as soon as I get a chance to read it.

Video for 1st Nov, 2020: The Important before the Urgent