Links for 29th May, 2019

  1. “And so India will continue to grow at her sluggish pace; socialism will continue to thrive; Air India will continue to fly; and Modi will continue to waste a fifth of our yearly budget on PSUs. Modi always knew that the secret to winning elections is socialism. What he has learnt now is the secret to running India. It is to gamble.”
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    I have posted this link not because I agree with the conclusion (I don’t), but because I share the sense of pessimism when it comes to matters pertaining to economic reforms, or the lack of them. India needs me, and the author, to be completely wrong about our pessimism.
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  2. “Zahran Hashim, 33, radical preacher and alleged ringleader, found little acceptance in his hometown Kattankudy, in eastern Batticaloa. Mosques in the predominantly Muslim town rejected him outright. Their members even complained to authorities, before he went absconding in 2017 after a clash with a fellow priest who challenged his interpretation of Islam.But soon, a team of young Muslim men — and one woman — from other, mostly Sinhala-majority, areas eagerly joined him on his Easter mission to carry out a suicide attack on churches and high-end hotels in and around Colombo and Batticaloa. All nine bombers were in their 20s and 30s.”
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    A mostly depressing, but also revealing, portrait of the nine people who perpetrated the terror attacks in Sri Lanka recently.
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  3. “There are striking parallels between the philosophies of Trump and NIMBY urbanists. Trump asserts that America is “full” and so wants to restrict the flow of immigrants. The urbanists, who tend to be Democratic and highly educated, assert that their cities are too crowded and so want to restrict the supply of housing. The cultural valence of the two views is quite different, but the practical implications have a lot in common — namely, a harder set of conditions for potential low-skilled migrants to the U.S.”
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    As he so often does, Professor Cowen reminds us why studying economics is entirely worth our time. In this case, he explains why NIMBYism, and high minimum wages are at least as anti-immigration as are, well, walls.
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  4. “Our goal is to defeat the snail in a race.”
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    Possibly the shortest extract I have put up ever, but it is hard to improve on that sentence. For once, I won’t speak about what the link is about. Try guessing what it might be about before clicking here!
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  5. “What’s happening here is much more complicated than an imagined zero-sum game between the defenders of books and library futurists. The decline in the use of print books at universities relates to the kinds of books we read for scholarly pursuits rather than pure pleasure, the rise of ebooks and digital articles, and the changing environment of research. And it runs contrary to the experience of public libraries and bookstores, where print continues to thrive.”
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    The Atlantic on substitutes and complements. On books actually, but read this article to understand how to think about the implications of thinking about complements and substitutes
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Links for 27th May, 2019

  1. ” In today’s world, we’re typically writing contracts in natural language, or actually in something a little more precise: legalese. But what if we could write our contracts in computational language? Then they could always be as precise as we want them to be. But there’s something else: they can be executed automatically, and autonomously. Oh, as well as being verifiable, and simulatable, and so on.”
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    Stephen Wolfram on computational languages, and what it might mean for all of us in the future. Can’t say I understood all of it right off the bat, to be honest – which is why I’ll be reading it again sometime later.
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  2. “I was interested in the notion that you could take a busy place — an airport and a marketplace, you can call it kind of a mall, with hundreds of shops and all that comes with it — and cohabit it with a magical park, which is nature at its best, which is relaxing and serene, and is the escape from all of that busyness.Airports are not exactly relaxed places, and I thought, what would be better than to create a place of total serenity?

    We’ve planted thousands of trees and all kinds of other vegetation. And now, six months since we planted it all, it’s already a lush jungle.

    You walk through the trails, and you forget you’re in a city, and you forget you’re in an airport, and you forget you’re in a building. You’re just out there in nature and, in that sense, it’s completely magical.”
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    Singapore’s Changi airport now has a seven storey waterfall apparently. Of course it does.
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  3. “Econtwitter is wonderful. Yesterday, an undergraduate emailed me to ask for book recommendations about the overlap between economics and philosophy. I recommended:Amartya Sen The Idea of Justice
    Michael Sandel What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets
    Agnar Sandmo Economics Evolving
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    D M Hausman and M S McPherson and D Satz Economic analysis, moral philosophy, and public policy
    Then I asked Twitter, and here is the resulting, much longer, list. I won’t editorialise about them, although some are not good undergraduate intros in my view. One striking thing is how few recent overviews there are, however (as @esamjones also pointed out on Twitter). Huge thanks to all who made suggestions. This is a fantastic collective list.”
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    Whatever bookmarking method you use, add this to that resource. And as she mentions, #econtwitter, really is wonderful. Diane Coyle with a very important, very useful list. Undergrad resources for the intersection of economics and philosophy.
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  4. “If you missed the Chinese mission, maybe it’s because you were focussed on the remarkably inexpensive spacecraft from SpaceIL, an Israeli nonprofit organization, which crash-landed into the moon on April 11th, soon after taking a selfie while hovering above the lunar surface. The crash was not the original plan, and SpaceIL has already announced its intention of going to the moon again. But maybe you weren’t paying attention to SpaceIL, either, because you were anticipating India’s Chandrayaan-2 moon lander, expected to take off later this year. Or you were waiting for Japan’s first lunar-lander-and-rover mission, scheduled to take place next year. Perhaps you’ve been distracted by the announcement, in January, on the night of the super blood wolf moon, that the European Space Agency plans to mine lunar ice by 2025. Or by Vice-President Mike Pence’s statement, in March, that the United States intends “to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years.””
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    The New Yorker explains how the moon is becoming a rather crowded place, and is likely to only get even more crowded in the years to come – and also explains why.
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  5. “Santacreu and Peake compared research and development (R&D) efforts of the U.S. and China for the period 1999-2015. As of the most recent year, China’s R&D intensity, measured by R&D spending as a percentage of GDP, was 2.1% of GDP versus 2.8% for the U.S.However, China’s R&D intensity grew from less than 1% over the period studied, therefore increasing considerably faster than that of the U.S. “Because R&D intensity is a proxy for technological advancement, these data suggest that China is catching up to the U.S. in technology,” the authors wrote.”
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    Ask yourself this: in about thirty years from now, are you more likely to see the world’s innovation hub be in China or America? This article points to the likely answer.

Links for 23rd April, 2019

  1. “Obviously, there are many more novels and memoirs that mention long lists of books than are included here, but I’m limited, as ever, by time, availability of data, and the demands of maintaining sanity. So below, please find twelve books that are filled to the gills with mentions of other books, and feel free to add further suggestions in the comments.”
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    If you, like me, are fond of bookmarking lists that will prove to be useful at some undefined point of time in the future, you might find this useful. Books that contain lists of other books worth reading is an interesting enough article by itself – as an academician, I’d argue it’s the very best way to include a bibliography.
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  2. “Alas, if only healthcare policy were so simple. The reality is messy and there is no magic bullet. Singapore’s success in healthcare is built on a panoply of measures developed and refined over decades. The measures employ a variety of policy tools that both individually and collectively target the market and government failures afflict the healthcare sector. For a comprehensive understanding of health policy in Singapore, we need to understand all the policy tools used and how they operate individually and in relation to each other.”
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    A very readable PDF about what makes Singapore’s healthcare system so very awesome. Truly worth a read to find out how it evolved, and as an Indian, to understand how far we have to go.
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  3. ““You will hardly find women with wombs in these villages. These are villages of womb-less women,” says Manda Ugale, gloom in her eyes. Sitting in her tiny house in Hajipur village, in the drought-affected Beed district of Maharashtra’s Marathwada region, she struggles to talk about the painful topic.”
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    Speaking of a long way to go
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  4. “Facebook’s powerful network effects have kept advertisers from fleeing, and overall user numbers remain healthy if you include people on Insta­gram, which Facebook owns. But the company’s original culture and mission kept creating a set of brutal debts that came due with regularity over the past 16 months. The company floundered, dissembled, and apologized. Even when it told the truth, people didn’t believe it. Critics appeared on all sides, demanding changes that ranged from the essential to the contradictory to the impossible. As crises multiplied and diverged, even the company’s own solutions began to cannibalize each other.”
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    A very long article about the troubles at Facebook, but you can never read too much about the how’s and what’s at Facebook.
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  5. “If that’s an equally unpleasant prospect, consider Andreessen, who’s 47, the perfect messenger. From showy check-writing to weaponizing his popular blog and (before Trump) Twitter account to hiring an army of operational experts in a field built on low-key partnerships, he’s one of Silicon Valley’s poster boys for upending the rules. And it’s worked: In one decade, Andreessen Horowitz joined the elite VC gatekeepers of Silicon Valley while generating $10 billion-plus in estimated profits, at least on paper, to its investors. Over the next year or so, expect no less than five of its unicorns—Airbnb, Lyft, PagerDuty, Pinterest and Slack—to go public.”
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    a16z is a firm everybody should know more about – this article helps. By the way, their podcast is good as well.

Links for 1st April, 2019

  1. “For many in technology, New & Improved means faster with more of every measurable parameter. More memory, more pixels, more storage, more bandwidth, more resolution. In devices, the tendency has been to communicate “new & improved” through an increase in screen size. We are subject to this to such an extent that phones are becoming unusable with one hand, stretching screens to the edge of the device and then wrapping those screens around the edges and then even folding the screens so that we have to unfold or unroll to use the product. Maybe an origami phone is in the works.But there is a parallel movement where “New & Improved” means smaller. This is the trend to miniaturization. Smaller is better because it’s more portable, more conformable. Things sold by the ounce are better than things sold by the pound. The best computer, the best anything, is the one you have with you and having it with you is more likely if you can take it with you. So that which you can take with you is the best. QED.”
    On the face of it, a review of the iPad mini. But the excerpt above is also a useful way to think about improvements in general – how much of learning, for example, has become better because of ‘miniaturization’?
  2. “It is yesterday once more. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has put forth an old solution for a perennial problem. It has suggested, through a discussion paper, the need to create ‘Wholesale & Long-Term Finance Banks’. The discussion paper argues that with the “deepening of the financial sector” there is a need to evolve a structure where apart from universal banks, “differentiated banks provideservices in their areas of competitive advantage”. The thesis is that this would enable fulfilling long-term financing needs of the growing economy.”
    This is from a while ago – nearly two years ago, in fact, but is worth reading, especially if you are a student of finance in India. The article is a good summary of the many, many efforts made by the government to arrange for long term financing in India – and how they just haven’t worked out – and are unlikely to work out in the future as well.
  3. “And what might Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves have thought of Ms. Grande’s song? Todd S. Purdum, the author of “Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution,” said the masters of musical theater enjoyed being in the thick of popular culture. But most important, he said, they were never ashamed of commercial success.“They would love the ka-ching of it,” Mr. Purdum said.”
    Have you heard the song seven rings? I haven’t, although as the article goes on to tell you, if you do go ahead and hear it, two long dead musical geniuses from the past will become richer. Copyright, property rights, music, licensing rights, streaming, the economics of music – all in there.
  4. “Then with the Kindle and the iBooks coming along, that allowed me to start treating books like I treat blogs. When I go to blog, I’ll actually skim through lots of articles until I find one that looks really interesting and then I’ll read that whole article all the way through and maybe take notes. Now I treat books the same way. I’ll skim through a large number of books. I’ll put them down. I’ll jump around, back, forward, middle, until I find a part that’s interesting. Then I’ll just consume that piece. I won’t feeling guilty about having to finish the entire book.I just view it as a blog archive. A blog might have 300 posts on it and you could read just the two, three, five that you need right now. I think you can think of a book the same way. Then that opens the world wide web of books back open to us instead of it being buried somewhere.”
    Books as a series of blog posts is a remarkably useful, and dare I say it, comforting idea. It probably is a more useful way to think about reading books, and about not reading them. I didn’t finish reading the entire transcript, but hope to get around to listening to the podcast soon.
  5. ““In a fight between a fly and a lion,” he wrote, “the fly cannot deliver a knockout blow and the lion cannot fly.” Using conventional methods “have at best no more effect than a fly swatter. Some guerrillas are bound to be caught, but new recruits will replace them as fast as they are lost.”I know very little about Kashmir, and I am aware of how little I know every time I read a little bit more about it. But this particular analogy leaped out at me, and helped me think about not just the insurgency problem in Kashmir, but about guerilla warfare in general. The entire article is worth reading, by the way. Multiple times, in fact.

Links for 28th March, 2019

  1. “While nightlife and entertainment are certainly drivers of the night-time economy, they need not be the only ones. According to a report released by the London mayor’s office, 1.6 million people in London—constituting more than a third of the workforce—worked at night in 2017. Of these, 191,000 worked in health and 178,000 in professional services, with nightlife coming in third at 168,000. These were closely followed by transport, automotive, IT and education.In other words, the city’s nighttime economy is not merely bars and restaurants, but an extension of its day-time economic activities as well. It is estimated that the night component comprises 6-8% of the city’s economy and contributes £18-23 billion in gross value added to the British economy. The figures are approximations but significant enough for Mayor Sadiq Khan to champion the night-time economy and appoint a “Night Czar” to manage it.”
    In which Nitin Pai makes the argument for having more shops, establishments and services operate at night as well, in India. A useful read for students of urbanization, microeconomics and life in India.
  2. “I think that our economic system reflects our understanding of humankind, and that understanding has been developing, with especial rapidity lately. You have to understand people first before you can understand how to devise an economic system for them. And I think our understanding of people has been accelerating over the last century, or even half-century.”
    Robert Shiller chooses five books to help us understand capitalism better. I haven’t read all of them, and read one a very long time ago (Theory of Moral Sentiments) – but this has tempted me to go and read at least A.O. Hirschman’s book, if not all of them!
  3. “The problem with cricket in most cricket-playing countries, certainly in India, is that the cricket market is what economists call a monopsony. A monopsony is a market in which there is only one buyer for a particular class of goods and services. Until now, a young Indian cricketer who wanted to play at the highest level could only sell his services to the BCCI. If it treated him badly and did not give him his due rewards, he had no other options open to him.”
    I am happy to admit that I got the IPL gloriously wrong – I approached the IPL while wearing my cricketing purist hat, but I really should have approached it wearing my economist’s hat. Which is exactly what Amit Varma did, ten years ago. Monopsony, the power of markets, incentive mechanisms, it’s all here.
  4. “The 737 assembly line in Renton, Wash. is a marvel of lean manufacturing. The line inches forward little-by-little as assembly proceeds. Born from Toyota’s production methods, the process is one of continual improvement. It’s what made the 737 the lifeblood of Boeing in the first place and why this crisis, taken to its most extreme, could threaten the company’s very existence. But the assembly line also comes with a tool called an Andon cord. The cord empowers all employees to pull it and stop the line if something is amiss or requires investigation and needs fixing. The rest of the world has already pulled it.”
    A mostly understandable explanation of the possible reasons behind the crash – but when I say possible reasons, I do not mean the technical ones. Why compromises had to be made, and the impact of those compromises.
  5. “I’m happy for the descriptive part of economics to stay as it is. The prescriptive part, when we tell people what to do – that one should be much more broad. In fact, we should stop using just economics and take all kinds of ideas from psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy and economics, and test which ones work, which ones don’t work and under what conditions. There is no question that behaviour is the ultimate goal – to try to understand behaviour, and how to change or modify it. I hope we can create a discipline that is much more empirically based and data driven. Maybe we can call it “applied social sciences”. It will draw from all the social sciences equivalently as we approach problems in the real world, and try to find solutions for them.”
    Dan Ariely on five books that he’d recommend when it comes to understanding behavioral economics better. If you are interested in this topic, as I am, the interview is great reading – and the books too! I have not read Mindless Eating, and will begin it soon.

A five part series on behavioral economics

This week’s posts were going to be about podcasts that I listen to, but I’ll push that out to next week.

I and a colleague of mine at the Gokhale Institute (which is where I work) are running a five day seminar at the Institute on behavioral economics. This one is for undergraduate students only, but based on how this one turns out, we might do a couple more through the year. But for that reason, I figured we might take a look at behavioral economics is, and explore work being done in this area, and why it matters.

In this post, I’ll give you an overview of behavioral economics, and in the five subsequent posts that follow, I’ll detail what we spoke about in each session.

First things first: behavioral economics really is a tautology, because economics is the study of choice, and we make our choices given what we know and given what we feel.

The trouble is, modern economic theory (most, but not all of it) would tend to say that what we feel ought not to matter, and in fact doesn’t actually matter in the real world. Except we’ve all demolished a big fat bowl of ice-cream because we’re feeling blue, the diet be damned. We’ve all bought items on sale on Amazon, when we clearly had no need for them. And we’ve all chosen to play a game on the phone over completing a task at hand, and hang the consequences. I could go on (and not just where individuals are concerned, but firms and governments too!), but you get the picture.

We’re all predictably irrational.

In a sense, behavioral economics is about the first word in that link. As a social scientist, it’s not much use to say that we’re irrational. That’s akin to saying that there’s nothing that we can say, do or predict about the choices that all of us make.

But predictably  irrational? Ah, how exactly? If our irrationality can actually be modeled, then perhaps we could understand how and why we make the choices we do. Even better, maybe we could push people towards eating more salads and less ice-cream. Although you should note that there are some people in my tribe who don’t necessarily think this to be a good idea.

Still, the study of

a) whether we think “rationally” or not, and…

b) if not, then can we think systematically about how we are “irrational” and why…

c) and can we use our findings from this exercise to make people, institutions and therefore societies behave differently (and hopefully better)…

…is the study of behavioral economics.

And the five day version (duly expanded) of this is what Savita Kulkarni and I will be talking about at Gokhale Institute over the course of the next five days. And I’ll keep you guys updated as we go along.

Staring into the abyss: A review of To the Brink and Back, by Jairam Ramesh

A while back, I read a book by Sanjaya Baru, famous nowadays for having penned the book “The Accidental Prime Minister”. While that book was certainly more topical, his other book, the one I am referring to right now, is far more interesting. The title of the book is , quite simply, “1991”, and the subtitle is “How P.V. Narasimha Rao Made History”.

The reason I bring that book up right now is because Mr. Baru begins his book by speaking about how, while at an event  at a university near Delhi, he asked students about the importance of the year 1991, and some levity aside, many people didn’t have a clue. Things became, he goes on to mention, slightly better when he asked the same question to a slightly older age group, and many people mentioned the reforms of 1991. What those reforms were, and who was responsible for them is a story, Mr. Baru says in the introduction to his book, many people are not aware of. Given the subtitle of his book, it is clear who the protagonist is – and further evidence in favour of his argument is to be found in the book that is the subject of this blog post: “To the Brink and Back: India’s 1991 Story”, by Jairam Ramesh.

The book (a very short one) is Mr. Ramesh’s recollections of those tumultuous three months or so, when, as he so memorably puts it, history was put in motion. I often say in classes I teach that India gained her political independence in 1947, and started to gain her economic independence in 1991. The first half of that statement is a fact, and the second half is false, too true or not true enough depending on where you stand on the spectrum of economic ideology. But no matter where you find yourself on that spectrum, what is indisputably true is the fact that 1991 was a turning point for the Indian economy.

Having read both books, and some others besides, on the events of 1991, here is my simple list of why 1991 was so important:

  1. A lot of people today don’t know, or don’t want to know this, but there was, for quite a few people, a choice to be made. “To default or not to default” was an actual dilemma for some, and reading about those times makes it clear that the former option was certainly on the table. It is our great good fortune that the people in charge, and the then finance minister in particular, did not view it as a dilemma – India simply would not default. That in itself was a signal to us and the rest of the world – and the importance of that signal cannot be overstated. Put another way, the economist took a political stance that had truly far reaching economic consequences.
  2. India finally became competitive in the global markets, because of the devaluation of her currency. A strong currency is often taken to be a proxy for a strong nation, but nothing could be farther from the truth. If you chart India’s exchange rate movements (vis-a-vis the dollar, say) against her GDP growth rate, you can see this quite clearly. That devaluation mattered, it truly mattered. Ask Infy. And as the book makes clear, getting people to agree with this decision wasn’t all that easy.
  3. This point is the most important of the lot: our industrial policy changed on the morning of the budget. Yes, Manmohan Singh presented that budget, but the far more important announcement was about our industrial policy changing – for the better, at long, long last. This includes changes in the MRTP (Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices)Act, changes to the way foreign firms could invest in India, and changes in what kind of licences would be needed to produce, well, almost anything. And much else besides, I should add – but the point that one should understand is that the shackles were taken off where India’s producers were concerned.

There is, please understand, much more to the reforms of 1991, and most of it is contained in the book. But to me, the book is important because it makes a point about a political decision that had far reaching economic ramifications: India would honour her debt, no matter what the cost, and no matter what changes needed to be made to her industrial policy. This (political) commitment to do the right thing has had (economic) consequences that we are benefiting from today and beyond.

The book speaks about who did what before, during and after the three months of June, July and August 1991, and credit is given and withheld in various cases by Mr. Ramesh. See, for instance, his repudiation of Yashwant Sinha’s claims to have been the true father of the whole reforms story.

I’m not so interested in who did what though – reading the book to understand what happened, and how it happened is a fascinating lesson in the art of political economy. The chapter on the roll back of the increase in urea pricing, for example, is a great for understanding how to push what you want through – you can almost see Cialdini nodding in approval.

Is the book written for the layperson who knows nothing of economics? I will not pretend that it will be easy going, but I will say this: you will appreciate the importance of 1991 far more at the end of it. And as a citizen of India, four hours or so is a worthwhile price to pay to understand how we got to be where we are.