A Review of Stubborn Attachments

I’d written a post last week, the title of which was “Growth. Just, only, simply growth.

There’s two books that I’d recommend you read to get a fuller understanding of the importance of growth. One is a book about the need for growth in an Indian context. It is authored by Vijay Joshi, and the title is India’s Long Road: The Search for Prosperity.1

There are many reasons why India’s Long Road is an excellent read. The one that is directly relevant here is his succinct summary of why growth in India over the long run is such a challenge:

India should strive for rapid, inclusive, stable and sustainable growth within the parameters of a political democracy.

In the book, Joshi explains why he chooses these aspects as being worthy of his analysis, covers how well India has done along these parameters thus far and what needs to be done from here on in. But the reason I am beginning my review of Stubborn Attachments by speaking about Joshi’s book is because Joshi speaks about growth as being more than just an increase in GDP over the long run.

Rapid growth as measured by GDP, yes, but not at the cost of the environment – therefore sustainable. Rapid growth, yes, but also stable. Rapid growth, yes, but also inclusive. And growth, yes, but not by sacrificing democracy.

You might say that Vijay Joshi is stubbornly attached to growth, but with qualifications.


Here is one way to think about Tyler Cowen’s book, Stubborn Attachments. It is as if he takes Vijay Joshi’s statement above and distils it down to its barest minimum. And in his distillation, he leaves us with the following:

Growth at all costs, except at the cost of human rights and concern for the environment.

It’s not just his own philosophy, but as he puts it, it is his recommendation that this be your philosophy too:

No punches are pulled, this is my account of what I strongly believe you should believe too. My bottom lines, so to speak.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2018/08/preface-stubborn-attachments-book-especially-important.html

How does he arrive at his stubborn attachment to prioritizing growth above all else, subject to only two constraints?

Before we begin our journey in terms of answering this question, a couple of things to note.

He is trying to answer the question of what is best for “our civilization”. And as the book makes clear, that’s all of us – every single person on this planet is his implicit definition of “our civilization”.

Second, a useful way of reading the book is to think of this book as his answer to the Ultimate Big Picture Question: “But what is the point of all this?”

I think of his answer as a sort of Pascal’s wager: we don’t know yet if there is a point or not. But if and when we discover what the point is, it is better to be prepared to deal with that point, whatever that point may be. And better prepared is, in his view, more growth.

So how does he arrive at his stubborn attachment? He begins by laying out his philosophical starting points:

1. “Right” and “wrong” are very real concepts which should possess great force.
2. We should be skeptical about the powers of the individual human mind.
3. Human life is complex and offers many different goods, not just one value that trumps all others.

Cowen, Tyler. Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals (p. 19). Stripe Press. Kindle Edition.

I have not the slightest objection to any of these points – they’re all but axiomatic to me.

So far, so good.

Next, how to choose which thing to get stubbornly attached to, given the points above? To arrive at that decision, there are, in his view, six things to consider:

  1. Time: Take the very, very, very long view when making a choice. This is not about dessert after lunch today and the implications of that for my future self. This is about dessert after lunch today and the implications for my daughter near the end of her life. More! It is about the implications for my daughter’s grand-daughter – and her grand-daughter, and ad infinitum. Make decisions about which things to get stubbornly attached to with the longest possible view in mind.

    Why, you ask? Well, think of it this way: would you expect your parents to take decisions that will benefit you tomorrow? Will you take decisions that will positively impact your children’s lives? Apply the principle of induction, and well, how could you not take the long view? (That is my argument, to be clear, not Professor Cowen’s. But I don’t think he’d disagree.)
  2. Aggregation: What if I want to go out for a nice dinner, but my wife prefers a nice light salad at home instead? My preference over hers or vice versa? Tyler Cowen has an easy way to resolve this: pick the option that maximizes long term growth, not short run pleasure. Nice light salad at home it is then, unfortunately for me. (He has a nice explanation later on in the book for why this makes sense, on pg. 52 of the Kindle edition.)
  3. Rules: I was telling some close friends about how I was not in favor of piercing my daughter’s ears while she was a baby. My logic was that she should choose for herself when she is old enough to do so. One of my friends asked if the same rule was applicable when it came to vaccination. Now, obviously, no: my daughter has had all her vaccinations. So really, the rule is she should choose when she is old enough to, except when it comes to issues of her health. Which, of course, has been the rule all along – I just didn’t state it well enough. The point, though is this: you have to be consistent with the rules you set for yourself, and for the game. Calvinball is fun to read about, but it is a poor way to live life.
  4. Radical Uncertainty: How can we know anything for sure? What if we are wrong? What if our actions have enormously negative unintended consequences centuries down the line? It is interesting (instructive?) to me that this is the one point among the six where Tyler Cowen doesn’t definitively say what his opinion/conclusion is when he ontroduces these concepts for the first time. It is almost as he if he is conceding the point that you can’t ever know for sure. But even so – or perhaps therefore – he is stubbornly attached to the idea of growth. What else is there, eh?
  5. How Can we Believe in Rights?: Professor Cowen says that this is undecided territory in philosophy – I don’t know enough to argue either way. But he also says that “some key elements of ethical reasoning do support the notion of objectively valid human rights, and, indeed, of their nearly sacred character.”
    As I said, I don’t know enough to comment authoritatively, but in my worldview, rights are axiomatic. How can you not believe in rights? There’s not much of a civilization left if there are no human rights. No?
  6. Common Sense Morality: Here is his definition of common sense morality – “Common sense morality holds that we should work hard, take care of our families, and live virtuous but self-centered lives, while giving to charity as we are able and helping out others on a periodic basis.” I’m more than ok with that description, but reconciling this with the more extreme utilitarianism view has, it seems, proven to be problematic. But he comes down on the side of common sense morality, and I’m happy to go along.

All right, so three basic points, and six things to consider. To which he adds two “moves”.

First, whatever it is that our civilization has been able to achieve so far is because of the productive power of our economy. Had our economy not been productive enough, Beethoven may have ended up being a farm laborer. Adam Smith could write about the division of labor precisely because society had been making use of the concept for thousands of years. We are where we are today precisely because of the productive power of our economy. Why not do more of it, then?

The second move is really a restatement of the first of the six things to consider. When in doubt, take the long term view, and whatever your long term view, make it longer.2


From these ingredients then – the three basic points, the six things to consider and the two moves – he reaches the conclusion that growth is a moral imperative. He makes use of a concept called a Crusonia Plant3 to arrive at this conclusion.

Growth, however, measured not by wealth, but by “Wealth Plus”:

Wealth Plus: The total amount of value produced over a certain time period. This includes the traditional measures of economic value found in GDP statistics, but also includes measures of leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities, as summed up in a relevant measure of wealth.

Cowen, Tyler. Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals (p. 30). Stripe Press. Kindle Edition.

And that, of course, is why I began with Vijay Joshi’s book. As I said, a maximizing Wealth Plus is essentially Vijay Joshi’s statement distilled.

And to do this – to maximize Wealth Plus – there are three questions we need to continually ask ourselves:

What can we do to boost the rate of economic growth?

What can we do to make our civilization more stable?

How should we deal with environmental problems?

Cowen, Tyler. Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals (pp. 32-33). Stripe Press. Kindle Edition.

Or, put another way, maximize growth subject to human rights not being violated, and subject to the environment not being ignored.

That is his stubborn attachment, and it is what he would like ours to be as well, all of us.

Please, do read the book to understand his defense of his view. The book is only 150 odd pages long, and written in an easy, conversational style.


I’ve been reading some of the reviews of the book in order to prepare for writing my own. Of the ones I have read, I am in complete agreement with the one that says that Tyler Cowen is basically saying let’s worship a community called humanity. And the one that I found most interesting was the one that put the argument in terms of optionality. I think that is another of way saying “Pascal’s Wager”.


Finally, what would my stubborn attachment be?

There are three reasons I have spent a large part of my review focusing on writing about Tyler Cowen’s assumptions, axioms and approach, rather than his conclusions.

  1. One of Ayn Rand’s unfortunate caricatures is fond of saying “Check your premises.” I have, for years, found that to be useful advice. And if you, like me, find yourself in agreement with Cowen’s premises, you should either reach exactly the same conclusion, or a closely related one (mine is closely related).
  2. Most of the reviews that I have read focus on the conclusions, or take issue with ways to implement the conclusions. See this review, for example. I found it enjoyable and instructive to think through Cowen’s premises, and they helped me make my own clearer. For the record, they are mostly the same, save for one, which leads me to my third point.
  3. Knowing is always and everywhere better than not knowing. I’d personally add this as a fourth axiom, in addition to the three he has listed out.

And so my own stubborn attachment: to know more, and to help other people know more. Ideas are the ultimate good. Not only can I share my ideas, I ought to share my ideas. You ought to share yours. Ideas should have sex! That, as Matt Ridley says, is what has built civilization – growth comes from “ideas meeting, and indeed mating.”

Wealth Plus, in other words, is an outcome of more people knowing more. What you really want to maximize is the spread of ideas. A civilization devoted to learning more, and helping everybody learn more, cannot help but accrue more Wealth Plus – it is an inevitable outcome. More, it is a guarantee of maximizing your chances of perpetuating this progress.

Or put another way, what provides nourishment to the Crusonia plant is the spread of knowledge, and without it, the plant may well wither.

And so my own personal stubborn attachment is to the accrual and spread of knowledge. Wealth Plus is a guaranteed, and welcome, consequence.

  1. The book started off as a collaboration between Vijay Joshi and TN Ninan. Things didn’t work out, for whatever reason, but that had a positive spillover for us readers, for now there’s two books to read. TN Ninan’s book is called The Turn of the Tortoise, and it is also worth a read.

    Joshi’s book is an excellent read in it’s own right, and it provides a pretty good summary of the Indian story since independence. That’s hardly surprising if you are a student of the Indian economy, for Vijay Joshi has authored two excellent books on this already, with his co-author IMD Little. One covers the Indian economy from 1964 until 1991, and the other discusses India’s economic reforms post 1991.[]

  2. Or that is how I understand it, at any rate[]
  3. read the first three paragraphs of this review for a short description[]

Krishna Subramanian’s List of Things to Read and Learn

Krishna Subramanian, Ajinkya Jadhav’s batchmate in SCMHRD, was kind enough to message me separately on LinkedIn, and send across his list of things students might benefit by reading, along with some tips and tricks that he found to be useful.

If you have finished college and are reading this, a request: please help out students who are currently in college, and are wondering how to add to their learning. I and other faculty members can help out with syllabi and all that, but you are folks with skin in the game. What helped you in your career, what helped you learn better, what did you wish you had done when you were in college?

I’m reachable on LinkedIn and on email. Please send along your recommendations, and I’ll share them here. Thank you!

On to Krishna Subramanian’s list – thanks a ton for sending these in, kind sir 🙂

 

My own top 5 books which all MBA Streams should read
1) Basic Economics by Thomas Sowel
2) Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
3) Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham
4) Goal by Etiyahu Go
5) Life and work priciples by Ray Dalio.
6) Linchpin by Seth Godin (Bonus)

Books for Finance professionals, Other than above:
1) Manorama Yearbook
– If you are working in India, it would surprise you how little you know about India. Keeping this handy and going through once in a while is a massive boon.
2) Security Analysis By Graham & Dodd
3) Damodaran on Valuation
4) R programming for dummies. (most underrated skill any finance professional can have)
5) Warren Buffett and the interpretation of financial statements by Mary Buffett and David clark.

This should help.

I would recommend the following technology trends
to keep an eye on:
1) Blockchain ( Blockchain Revolution by Don and Alex Tapscott is a good read )
2) Artifical Intelligence ( course by Andew Ng on Coursera and Prediction machines by Agrawal gans and goldfarb)
3) Augmented Reality (best is youtube videos, because you really need to understand visually why this will change business)

Ajinkya captured the blogs and podcasts perfectly, so I figured I would add a list of don’t dos?

1) Do not read any book only once.
2) Accounting is a mechanical process but Finance is not. Do not be close minded on how things must be done. (once you come into the world, even accounting is not mechanical)
3) Do not forget your basics. NPV, IRR, Time value of Money, P&L, Balance sheet, Cash flow statements.. these things should be absolutely solid. Its remarkable how many people still fumble with these.
4) Do not ignore Taxes./hidden charges. We always do things ” tax exclusive” but remember, taxes/ hidden charges are a massive key to anything. Eg: Read about active and passive Mutual Funds.
5) Do not call Ashish as Sir. (This is correct, and important – Ashish)

Lastly I think Ajinkya captured it best, you are the average of the 5 people you hang out with. Even if you read none of the above, bring out ruthless choice in your company.

Thank you for all the learnings,
Krishna Subramanian

 

Notes on In Service of the Republic, by Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah

A book that I have recommended unhesitatingly to students who ask me about how to go about learning public policy is “In The Service of the Republic” by Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah.

In this Monday post, I plan to write my observations from having read the book.

The book is divided into six sections:

  1. Foundations
  2. Diagnosing the Indian Experience
  3. The Science
  4. The Art
  5. The Public Policy Process
  6. Applying These Ideas: Some Examples

Part V and VI are the meat of the book, and that’s a good thing! If you are a student reading this book, it will be really helpful to have many, many examples of what the actual applications of the theoretical parts are.

What follows below are my highlights from having read the book, divided into four sections, with some commentary below each excerpt. The book is, it goes without saying, much much richer – and you should definitely read it, especially if you are interested in the field of public policy!


The Big Introductory Idea

The first question in the field of public policy is: What objectives of public policy are appropriate?

And for whom? For the government, for the people in society, for the elected representatives or somebody else? These questions need to be asked (and answered), for that changes the answers to the question in quotation marks above!

While the state is often seen as benign or benevolent, almost like an uncle or a parent, we have to remember that at the heart of the state, there is violence. The state acquires a monopoly upon violence. States establish conditions where nobody is permitted to engage in violence, but the state is able to inflict violence.

If this definition of the state strikes you as unusual, you should read, at the very least, this Wikipedia article.

The big idea of liberal democracy is to limit state violence into a controlled, predictable and just form.

That’s the plan, at any rate.



 

 

 

On State Intervention and Market Failure

The free market tends to overproduce things which induce negative externalities and underproduce things that induce positive externalities.

The price mechanism matters!

Markets work, but nothing ever works perfectly. People can (and should!) always debate how perfectly markets work, but it is simply an unavoidable reality that they sometimes fail.

Now, when they fail, it is usually because of one of the following four reasons:

Market failures come in four kinds: Externalities, Asymmetric information, Market power and Public goods.

When such a market failure occurs, a state intervention may be necessary. Without one or more of these factors being present, it absolutely isn’t necessary. But even with their presence, we’re on thin ice when we recommend that the state intervene:

When faced with a proposed state intervention, our first question should be: What is the market failure that this seeks to address? When market failure is not present, we should be sceptical about state intervention.

The state can intervene in three ways:

In many fields, we see three pillars of intervention: production (e.g., government running schools), regulating (e.g., government regulating private schools) and financing (e.g., government paying kids to attend private schools).

But the state can also intervene when there isn’t a market failure:

Forcing companies to spend 2 per cent of their profit on ‘corporate social responsibility’ is a use of the coercive power of the state that is not connected with market failure. Companies are rational economic actors, and if there is a problem with non-compliance, monetary penalties would suffice. When the law threatens to put individuals in jail for violating the rule, this is an excessive use of force.

And, pleasingly enough as an economist, every now and then, externality problems can be solved by the market itself:

In Maharashtra, there are professional beekeepers now charging farmers anywhere from Rs 1000 to Rs 3000 for renting out boxes for a month. 2 This presence of a private market for pollination services shows that this contractual solution is a feasible one. Through these private contracts, we have solved the externality problem, without a requirement for state intervention.


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Management is Hard!

It’s hard for anybody, anywhere. It is much harder for government:

There is quite a management challenge in identifying the 0.1 billion poorest people, and accurately delivering Rs 100 to them every day.

It is made harder for the following reasons (each of which is discussed in detail in the book):

Public policy failures are born of: (1) The information constraint; (2) The knowledge constraint; (3) The resource constraint; (4) The administrative constraint; and (5) The voter rationality constraint.

And “democratic decision making” is often problematic (also see Garett Jones‘ book about this):

Direct democracy also suffers from majoritarianism, the idea that policy should be made based on the views of 51 per cent of the population. We must question the extent to which ‘the voice of the people’ is the oracle that must be followed. There is much more to liberal democracy than winning elections.

Incentives matter, and policies have unseen, unintended consequences. The entire book is about this, but the following was my favorite passage by far:

In 1902 in Hanoi, under French rule, there was a rat problem. A bounty was set—one cent per rat—which could be claimed by submitting a rat’s tail to the municipal office. But for each individual who caught a rat, it was optimal to amputate the tail of a rat, and set the rat free, so as to bolster the rat population and make it easier to catch rats in the future. In addition, on the outskirts of Hanoi, farms came up, dedicated to breeding rats. In 1906, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague that killed over 250 people.

Update: Aadisht sends in this, from Discworld:

Shortly before the Patrician came to power there was a terrible plague of rats. The city council countered it by offering twenty pence for every rat tail. This did, for a week or two, reduce the number of rats—and then people were suddenly queueing up with tails, the city treasury was being drained, and no one seemed to be doing much work. And there still seemed to be a lot of rats around. Lord Vetinari had listened carefully while the problem was explained, and had solved the thing with one memorable phrase which said a lot about him, about the folly of bounty offers, and about the natural instinct of Ankh-Morporkians in any situation involving money: “Tax the rat farms.”

The Tinbergen Rule is really and truly important, and not just in public policy:

Public choice theory predicts that public organizations will favour multiple objectives as this gives reduced accountability. Clarity of purpose is efficient for the principal and not the agent.


Thinking about how government functions:

The five pillars of checks and balances—data, intellectuals, media, legislature, judiciary—all work poorly upon state governments.

As it turns out, not only is management hard, but management at the state level is even harder.

Why is there such a dearth of research when it comes to public policy?

At present in India, there is no community which systematically looks for fully articulated solutions. Academic journals do not publish policy proposals, hence academic researchers are not keen to invent policy proposals.

Or to use the jargon of public policy, we are missing incentive compatibility.

As Isher Ahluwalia says, nothing gets done by writing it in a government committee report, but nothing ever got done without it being repeatedly written into multiple government committee reports.

Public policy proceeds along the margins, and then very slowly!

Don’t fix the pipes; fix the institutions that fix the pipes. Old saying in the field of drinking water

The public policy equivalent of give a man a fish versus teach a man to fish

 


All this apart, the authors of the book also outline the “full pipeline”  of the policy process:

Stage 1: Collect data

Stage 2: Descriptive and Causal Research

Stage 3: Inventing and Proposing New Policy Solutions

Stage 4: Competing Policy Proposals are debated

Stage 5: Internal Governmental Debates, and Choice

Stage 6: Translate Decisions into Legal Instruments

Stage 7: Construction of State Capacity, Enforcement

I would personally add a stage 8: Monitoring, Evaluation, Feedback Loops.

But that quibble apart, the book is quite an education for anybody who hopes to learn more about the art and the science of public policy. If you are such a person, this book is certainly for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Etc: Links for 29th Nov, 2019

  1. “When the British actor Jonathan Routh published the first edition of his Good Loo Guide (“Where to Go in London”) in 1965, he singled out the device for mention every time he found one. Only five toilets, out of more than a hundred, held hand dryers – of the pedal-operated kind that, in the 1965 movie Help!, inhale the jacket sleeves of Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. Mostly, Routh encountered towels of cloth or paper, and quite often, he had to pay to use these products. (“Do loos ever advertise their attractions?” he wondered, while extolling the virtues of the splendid restrooms of Hyde Park in the 1968 update. “Has anyone ever seen an ad saying ‘Just arrived – new free electric hand-drier at the so-and-so loos.’”) Even in the third and final edition of the guide, released in 1987, I counted more instances of electric razors, armchairs and pre-pasted disposable toothbrushes than of hand dryers.”
    ..
    ..
    The excellent, excellent Samanth Subramanian in this lovely article about (of all things) paper towels and hand driers. Yes, really. What’s more, Samanth won the Financial/Economic story of the year award for this write-up. Read the book by clicking on his name here, also read Following Fish, and definitely read this article itself. Congratulations, Samanth!
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  2. “And which book takes the very top prize for best of the year? You can’t compare the Alter to the others, so I will opt for Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift and also Pekka Hämäläinen’s Lakota America, with Julia Lovell on Maoism and Alain Bertaud on cities as the runner-ups. But again a strong year all around.”
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    Tyler Cowen’s list of books he found worth his time in 2019. As he would say, self-recommending.
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  3. “So what’s a desperate founder to do? Smith impulsively flew to Las Vegas and played blackjack with the last of the company money .Amazingly, when he came back the next week, he had turned the remaining $5,000 into $27,000 – just enough for the company to stay in operation for another week.

    In the book “Changing How the World Does Business: FedEx’s Incredible Journey to Success – The Inside Story,” Roger Frock, a former senior vice president of operations at FedEx, describes the scene when he found out what Smith did. “I said, ‘You mean you took our last $5,000 – how could you do that? [Smith] shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘What difference does it make? Without the funds for the fuel companies, we couldn’t have flown anyway.'””
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    A lovely story about how Fedex came back from the dead.
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  4. “The money of the world’s mega-wealthy, though, is heading there in ever-larger volumes. In the past decade, hundreds of billions of dollars have poured out of traditional offshore jurisdictions such as Switzerland and Jersey, and into a small number of American states: Delaware, Nevada, Wyoming – and, above all, South Dakota. “To some, South Dakota is a ‘fly-over’ state,” the chief justice of the state’s supreme court said in a speech to the legislature in January. “While many people may find a way to ‘fly over’ South Dakota, somehow their dollars find a way to land here.””
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    Oh hey, Tiebout. Whassup.
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  5. “Behavioral finance is finance. That individual human beings can sometimes do silly things, for reasons to do with either nature or nurture, is not under dispute. That they may make these same mistakes in the aggregate is no longer heretical. That is the gift of those that have been “misbehaving” by attacking hallowed, efficient market doctrine. Economists now can consider potential irrationality versus a standard model of profit-maximizing utility without being disinvited to (those wild and crazy) economist parties. Economists can now suggest that cognitive biases can affect asset prices without threatening their tenure.”
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    The term may be overrated – the logic isn’t: in defense of behavioral finance.

RoW: Links for 23rd October, 2019

Five books that I have read about our neighboring countries that helped me understand them a little bit better. If you ‘re looking for books to read during the holidays, this list might help:

  1. From a while ago, and set many decades ago, but I loved reading The Glass Palace. Anything by Amitav Ghosh is worth your time, I’d say, but this helped me learn more about Myanmar.
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  2. Samanth Subramanian is a magnificent writer, and that is not hyperbole. In this book, This Divided Island, he brings us a raw, disturbing and depressing account of Sril Lanka today, and how it is divided, perhaps beyond repair, on grounds of ethnic and religious conflict. He doesn’t pull his punches, but more: he doesn’t take sides. If you are looking to understand Sri Lanka today, this is the book to read.
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  3. How did Bangladesh come to be Bangladesh? What was Pakistan’s role in it? What was India’s? What was – and this might come as a surprise to some – the USA’s? The Blood Telegram answers these questions, and more besides, in a always interesting read about the war of 1971.
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  4. And two recommendations about Pakistan. The first is a book by Stephen Cohen: The Idea of Pakistan. Is Pakistan an army with a country or the other way around? Why? Will this change in the future. What is (or what used to be) the political calculus of the United States of America when it came to Pakistan? This book answers these questions, and then some.
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  5. And finally, Pakistan: A Hard Country, by Anatol Leivin. A Ukraininan journalist who has spent some time in the country, and is equally horrified and fascinated by it. Somewhat sympathetic in its treatment, it still helped me understand the country a little bit better – without, of course and unfortunately, ever having been there.

EC101: Links for 19th September, 2019

  1. Are we all Japan now?
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  2. A review of the Jalan comittee report.
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  3. Eric Maskin writes an appreciation of Kenneth Arrow’s ouevre.
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  4. A New Yorker profile of Stephanie Kelton.
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  5. Bookmarked as want to read.

Notes from Launching the Innovation Resistance by Alex Tabarrok

After Murali’s talk in Gokhale Institute the previous week, I got around to reading this book. What follows are some of the highlights from my reading of the book on Kindle, along with a quick review of the book.

Key takeaways (for me):

  1. Alex Tabarrok ends his own post on the book over on MR by saying “although we share a few common themes that perhaps due to differences in personality Tyler focuses on describing problems while I am more excited to promote solutions!”
    That comes through in both the title of the book as well as what I think is they key question for Tabarrok: “What combination of incentives and foundation will bring the greatest innovation to the modern world? How can we create a 21st-century Renaissance?”
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  2. “But there is also a more fundamental critique: After hundreds of years of experience, there is surprisingly little evidence that patents actually do promote the progress of science and the useful arts.”
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    This has been an eye-opener for me: both from Murali’s talk as well as this book. There just isn’t that much evidence that patents have worked.
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  3. “Firms innovate because they know that if they don’t, someone else will. In this kind of industry, instead of stimulating innovation strong patents may create a “resting on laurels” effect. A firm with strong patents may reduce innovation, secure in the knowledge that patents protect it.”
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    And it may actually be even worse! Patents may actually discourage innovation, let alone protect it.
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  4. “Overall, however, the ODA did create real innovation, and as the number of new drugs for rare diseases increased, the mortality rate for people with rare diseases fell.”
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    The Orphan Drug Act seems to have been one of the few things that can be used as an argument in favor of patenting.
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  5. “When asked to rate various sources of competitive advantage only 4 percent of corporate managers regarded patents as highly effective. Much more effective was getting a head start, learning by doing, and investing in complementary sales and service.”
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    ..and…
    “The aircraft patent-war slowed innovation in the American aircraft industry so much that just prior to World War I the government forced the industry to share its patents for reasons of national security.”
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    …were real eye-openers for me
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  6. So what might be the solution, if not patents?
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    “The major vice of a prize fund is that it replaces a decentralized process for rewarding innovation with a political process.” In this regard, you might want to read this book, by Peter Diamandis
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  7. “I see two views of humanity. In the first view, people are stomachs. More people mean more eaters and less for everyone else. In the second view, people are brains. More brains mean more ideas and more for everyone else.”
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    And patents, of course, are a way to restrict ideas.
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  8. “From Florence in the 14th century to Great Britain in the 19th and the United States in the 20th, the leading economic power has always been a leading educational power.”
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    Alex Tabarrok goes on to speak about the usual econometrician’s worries about a statement like that, but all that notwithstanding, this is exactly why India’s education standards (outcomes?) need to be way higher.

 

Overall, definitely recommended.

Etc: Links for 21st June, 2019

  1. “We are doomed not because we have damaged the environment, not becasue we are running out of water; not because we have run up too much debt; not because we have accumulated too much wealth in too few hands but because we know not and refuse to admit we know not.”
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    In other words, our refusal to acknowledge the unknown unknowns. The link within the article is worth a link in its own right, but that apart, this article is worth reading because of the author’s horror at how little we know, and how little we care about how little we know.
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  2. “Let’s look at the numbers, shall we? The author has written 179 books, which have been translated into 43 languages. Twenty-two of them have been adapted for television, and two of those adaptations have received Golden Globe nominations. Steel releases seven new novels a year—her latest, Blessing in Disguise, is out this week—and she’s at work on five to six new titles at all times. In 1989 Steel was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having a book on the New York Times best-seller list for the most consecutive weeks of any author—381, to be exact. To pull it off, she works 20 to 22 hours a day. (A couple times a month, when she feels the crunch, she spends a full 24 hours at her desk.)”
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    A staggering read, for many reasons. Tyler Cowen often asks guests on his podcasts about their “production function”. Danielle Steele’s production function is positively scary. Honestly, I envy people who can willingly work so hard because they want to.
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  3. “Since then, liver cells, heart cells, lung cells — in the words of Charles Weitz, “just about every tissue we’ve looked at” — have turned out to beat their own time, in addition to taking cues from the suprachiasmatic nucleus. “Almost every cell in our body has a circadian clock,” said Satchin Panda, a clock researcher at the Salk Institute. “It helps every cell figure out when to use energy, when to rest, when to repair DNA, or to replicate DNA.” Even hair cells, for instance, divide at a particular time each evening, Panda has found. Give cancer patients radiation therapy in the evening rather than in the morning and they might lose less hair.”
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    A fascinating article on the many, many clocks in our body – and why some parts of our bodies seem to not have these clocks – with disastrous consequences.
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  4. “The key signal that tornadoes were coming in the US is a phenomenon known as the Madden-Julian oscillation. Similar to El Niño, it’s a periodic swing in temperature and moisture. But unlike El Niño, the MJO originates over the Indian Ocean rather than the Pacific Ocean, it varies on a week-to-week scale rather than over the course of years, and the pattern moves eastward rather than staying put.”
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    An article that helps us understand the weather a bit better – but if anything, I think it tells us how little we know about the weather! This one is about why the USA saw so many tornadoes recently.
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  5. “My guess is that writers could contribute more at the margin by blogging than by composing books. But perhaps blogging is a more difficult skill.”
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    I had linked a while ago to a lovely essay by Andy Matuschak about books – Arnold Kling reviews that essay, and gives us his thoughts about books, blogs and podcasts – and also about scarcity, opportunity costs and substitutes.

ROW: Links for 19th June, 2019

This week, here’s a selection of five articles that help you understand issues in America a little bit better.

 

  1. “The old consensus that the US needed to help address the “root causes” of migration, by investing in the Northern Triangle countries and making it more appealing for people to stay, was never supposed to be an immediate solution to anything. Of course, Trump’s view of migration makes it less likely that anyone will be able to start work on long-term solutions that might bear fruit down the road. It is almost certainly, in the meantime, going to get worse before it gets better.”
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    Vox gives us a clearer picture on the migration crisis at the southern US border. Yes it is bad, yes, there is a crisis, and yes, it likely will get much worse before it gets a little better, for a variety of reasons. All of which are explained in this piece.
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  2. “Of course, if it hadn’t been for Roe, there also wouldn’t have been more than 50 million abortions since 1973; whether that’s a good or bad thing will be left as an exercise for the reader. But many abortions would have been performed anyway, because before the court took the issue away from voters, polls showed public opinion steadily trending in favor of legalized abortion, and the procedure was already legal in several states.”
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    Are you familiar with Roe v Wade? If you aren’t, read up about it first. Then read up about what Alabama is up to today. And finally read this article. And also consider following Megan McArdle (the author of this piece)
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  3. “Rather, regardless of what any deal achieves, the two nations appear to have entered a protracted era of competing for technological advantage, in areas ranging from aerospace and telecommunications to artificial intelligence, all with big military as well as commercial implications. Managing tensions over the issue is an increasingly important part of the U.S.-China relationship, for both sides.”
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    The Christian Science Monitor on what the trade war, or the new cold war (or whatever else it is that you want to call it) really is all about.
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  4. “This resonates with my own view. A large, established enterprise can be thought of as a cultural institution, with particular rules, norms, systems, processes, and institutional knowledge ingrained throughout the firm. In a stable environment, this corporate culture is a valuable asset. But as the business environment evolves, a firm’s culture can inhibit its ability to adapt. Cultural assets can depreciate, and one of the most difficult tasks for top management is to know when and how to replace elements of a culture that otherwise had served to keep the enterprise sturdy and reliable.”
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    Arnold Kling reviews a book that has appeared on these pages before, but the reason I put this article up here is because it helps you understand an important point about America today: it’s reviling of the corporate culture is very real – and Tyler Cowen says perhaps misplaced. Useful to think about how one should think about what made America great, and how perhaps it is changing – for the better or otherwise is your opinion entirely.
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  5. “Before I left, I asked the black waiter, Darick Thomas, how he felt about my hat. “I don’t care. At all. Really. At all! I look at a hat and that doesn’t tell me who the person is,” he said. “I’m not against Trump. He says some smart things; he says some dumb things.” Darick didn’t vote. “Voting is the illusion of choice for the masses,” he explained.”
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    What happens if you were a MAGA hat in a famously liberal restaurant in LA? This is, of course, at best an anecdote – but an enjoyable one, nonetheless.

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