Links for 22nd February, 2019

  1. “We seem somehow bored with thinking. We want to instantly know. There’s this epidemic of listicles. Why think about what constitutes a great work of art when you can skim “The 20 Most Expensive Paintings in History?”I’m very guided by this desire to counter that in myself because I am, like everybody else, a product of my time and my culture. I remember, there’s a really beautiful commencement address that Adrienne Rich gave in 1977 in which she said that an education is not something that you get but something that you claim.

    I think that’s very much true of knowledge itself. The reason we’re so increasingly intolerant of long articles and why we skim them, why we skip forward even in a short video that reduces a 300-page book into a three-minute animation — even in that we skip forward — is that we’ve been infected with this kind of pathological impatience that makes us want to have the knowledge but not do the work of claiming it.”
    Have you heard of Maria Popova? This interview helps you understand who she is, and her importance in combating what I linked to a couple of days ago – David Perell’s article about the Never Ending Now.

  2. “Thanks to government backing, the state-owned company building the bridge is unlikely to default or go bankrupt. But bridges like Chishi leave local governments and developers struggling with debt, and those who live below nonplused.“If you don’t build roads, there can’t be prosperity,” said Huang Sanliang, a 56-year-old farmer who lives under the bridge. “But this is an expressway, not a second- or third-grade road. One of those might be better for us here.””
    The New York Times on bridges in China – and how there might be one too many of them. Economists have worried for many years now about how China’s economy will slowdown in the years to come, and also about how China’s economy has masked it’s imminent slowdown by building bridges, roads and entire cities when the immediate need is not apparent.
  3. “Turns out the reason was likely the same as the one behind every one of my life choices: it involved the least effort. As Frankie Huang, a writer and strategist based in Shanghai, told me over email, numbers are far easier to type for purposes like websites’ names, as compared to pinyin, the Romanised system for Chinese characters.”
    …speaking of China, Mithila Phadka explains why the Chinese prefer using numbers evreywhere possible – even preferring to use numbers rather than text for URL’s. 12306.cn is preferred to ChinaRail.com, for example.
  4. “In Study the Great Nation, you can catch up on the latest state media reports on Mr. Xi’s decisions, savor a quote of the day from Mr. Xi or brush up on “Xi Jinping Thought.” You can quiz yourself on Mr. Xi’s policies and pronouncements, or take in a television show called “Xi Time,” which is … well, you get the picture.Doing each of these activities can reward users with “study points,” which can be redeemed for gifts in future versions of the app.”
    I worry that China won’t be the only country doing this for very long – far too many leaders in far too many countries are likely to be tempted to be, um, inspired.
  5. “This conclusion, if it withstands open-minded analysis in India, does not mean that India lacks ways to punish Pakistan and motivate it to demobilize groups that threaten to perpetrate terrorism in India. Rather, it suggests that more symmetrical and covert operations would yield a better ratio of risk to effectiveness for India. There are many ways to make Pakistani military leaders conclude that the cohesion, security, and progress of their own country will be further jeopardized if they fail to act vigorously to prevent terrorism against India. Limited, precision air strikes are not India’s best option now or for the foreseeable future.”
    This is from 2015 – but as of that point, this rather well researched article points out that India may not be able to carry out precision air strikes against Pakistan – because of the threat of escalation, because of the technology available with Pakistan today, and because other ground based options may be more operationally feasible.
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Links for 18th February, 2019

  1. “That’s a tenet of progressivism: that progress is inevitable. So if you get something designated as progress, then your party, which was responsible for it, will get the credit for it, will always get to attack the other party for opposing it, and will find a continual source of votes in future elections by defending it. And that assumes that people will passively accept this narrowing of the range of political controversy and enjoy the individual relationship that each person has with this huge government that sends checks in the mail.”
    A rather old interview (from 2012), but the article I linked to yesterday about dole outs in India induced some additional research that helped me land up on this article – and it makes some interesting points, none of which is more interesting than the one quoted above.
  2. “The case of these surviving princes in our socialist republic is, in some ways, reflective of the countless ironies that make up Indian democracy. India remains, in many ways, a marriage of awkward histories and feudal legacies with the idealism of liberal thought and constitutional values. They do not sit easily with each other always, and sometimes jostle with force to make their presence felt. And yet the enterprise moves forward, one way or another: which perhaps explains why, even as we celebrate a Dalit president, newspapers descend into a frenzy at the advent of babies to freshly adopted maharajas; how even as a “chaiwallah” rises against the odds to become prime minister, there are princes and rajas to whom his government still owes a royal pension.”
    Manu S. Pillai on the wonder that is India today – its many contradictions and confusions. This one happens to be about how we still pay out pensions to princes and zamorins.
  3. “In short, what happened since September 2018 was the trifecta of trade tariffs, inadequate fiscal firepower from the Ministry of Finance (MoF), and a consistently hawkish PBOC. The 10% tariff on $250 billion of Chinese exports weakened domestic demand more than fiscal support was able to offset, which was reflected in both slower growth and lower inflation. And as inflation fell, the PBOC chose not to adjust the nominal interest rate, so the real interest rate effectively rose as a result. This confluence of factors put significant downward pressure on economic growth.”
    The article contains some forecasts as well – make what you will of them. But the analysis of why China did not use either fiscal or monetary tools is worth reading.
  4. “One story I’ve found myself revisiting over and over again is Asimov’s ‘Franchise,’ published as a short story in the August 1955 edition of If magazine. In it, a future America (2008), decides to reduce voting to a statistical model that extrapolates the outcomes of all elections based on a set of questions answered by one, extremely representative person.”
    The Verge has put together a list of books you might want to read to understand AI better. I am delighted to say that I haven’t read a single one of these, and therefore have a lot of reading to do.
  5. “The supporters are known as ‘Umans’ and control the team using the free United Managers’ app – a start-up which began working with the club in 2017.Before the game Umans can decide on the starting line-up, substitutes, the formation, set-pieces and communicate with staff and players.They vote using coins that they receive by using the app, or they can purchase a premium subscription. The more a Uman plays the game, the more weight their vote is worth.”
    What a fascinating experiment. A football club that is run, on the fly, by the fans. With the advent of technology, what else might be run this way in the future? With what consequences?

Links for 7th February, 2019

  1. “Using a series of network theory algorithms, Jen and Freire found that China’s influence on the world is now as sizable as the combined influence of the US and EU. The shift occurred following the financial crisis in 2008, which saw the US’s impact on average global GDP shrink from just over 40 per cent between 1989-98 to half that between 2009-18”
    FT Alphaville reports on analysis that shows just how big, and therefore important, China is in the global economy. Even more importantly, not all parts of the world will be equally affected by the Chinese slowdown/recession. Europe, it turns out, will likely be the worst hit.
  2. ““It would be kind of boring if everything was the same,” she said through a thicket of pink and green strobe lights at the bar, which sits in an upper-level parking lot. “That’s why this place is so valuable to people like us.””
    My apologies for the double-double quotes, but that excerpt encapsulates for me the dilemma underlying Singapore’s very existence. I loved the ten days or so I spent there, but maybe, just maybe, Singapore is too perfect? On the other hand, what a nice problem to have.
  3. “We became free of colonial rule in August 1947; and adopted a republican Constitution in January 1950. Seven decades later, we may be more democratic than when the British left these shores. But we are certainly less democratic than what the framers of our Constitution hoped us to be. Indeed, the faultlines I have identified here have persisted regardless of who is in power, at the Centre or in the states. They need to be addressed, and remedied, if we are to be more worthy of the ideals bequeathed us by the founders of our Republic.”
    Religious division, social inequality, environmental degradation and the degradation of public institutions are the faultlines that Ramchandra Guha speaks of – an article worth pondering upon.
  4. “All of this used to be obvious enough, but in the age of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez it has to be explained all over again. Why does socialism never work? Because, as Margaret Thatcher explained, “eventually you run out of other people’s money.””
    Bret Stephens from the NYT lays out the reasons why socialism tends to not work – ever.
  5. “It seems clear that more people are receiving income and tax from activities that are outside traditional jobs. But other than ride-sharing jobs, just how to characterize these jobs remains murky, and the question of what rules and regulations might apply to such income-earning activities remains murky, too.”
    Care to guess which country we’re talking about before you click on this link?

Links for 6th February, 2019

  1. “Drawing about 250 cubic kilometres (sic) per year – more than a fourth of the global total – India is the world’s largest user of groundwater. More than 60 percent of India’s irrigated agriculture and 85 percent of drinking water supplies are dependent on groundwater, according to World Bank estimates”
    The Madras Courier writes on India’s impending – some would dispute the use of that word – water crisis. We simply don’t take it seriously enough, and if you want a good application of the importance of property rights, the power of pricing, and the difficulty of formulating effective policy from the top down, this is a good read.
  2. “…as Lardy suggests, in the absence of an extraordinary course reversal in government policies, as the role of the state impinges on private dynamism, growth in China will likely slow substantially over the medium term. Even with a major policy shift that provides greater scope for (domestic and foreign) private activity, a substantial pickup in growth would surprise us more than a continued decline.”
    The excellent Money and Banking blog reports on the bearish case for China in the medium to long term, on the basis of a close examination of it’s macroeconomic performance and policies of the past thirty years or so. One thing to try and understand about China is whether there is a recession underway or not in China (almost certainly, in my opinion). The second thing to try and figure out is why. That’s what this is about.
  3. “Russia sold twice as much weaponry to African countries in 2017 as it did in 2012, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Between 2013 and 2017, Russia supplied 39 per cent of Africa’s imported arms — compared with 17 per cent from China and 11 per cent from the US. ”
    In retrospect, hardly surprising – although I must admit I didn’t know much about this. Also, reading this article gave me my word for the day: Francafrique. It’s a term worth Googling.
  4. “Anyone considering starting a marketplace business should be aware of the types of marketplaces and the potential network effects that they could benefit from. Those who are already in the thick of building a marketplace or market network should create products and features that enhance and accelerate those network effects that can propel their success forward.”
    Any microeconomics student in India today knows about competing for market share. How many, I wonder, know about competing to build the market itself? This rather long article focuses on building out your thinking about building a market – and the nuances involved in thinking along these lines.
  5. “If all the past US intelligence estimates could be declassified, I suspect readers would find a wealth of accurate predictions, particularly with regard to technical developments in the WMD programs, but far fewer when it came to prognosticating what the North Korean leadership would do. That’s the point of pursuing face-to-face diplomacy with Pyongyang, to get a clearer picture of what is possible and what isn’t as well as to learn more about what makes the North Koreans tick.”
    Or put another way, predicting production is easy. Predicting personalities – not so much. A good read to understand the problems of trying to figure out what North Korea is up to – and teasing out the predictability (or lack thereof) of the human aspect.

Links for 5th February, 2019

  1. “If there is one number that can make the edifice of budgetary arithmetic collapse and impair the growth prospects, it is the movement of crude oil prices. If for nothing else, but simply reduce the vulnerability of the fisc, this should be done. For, it is the “resource deficit” of the country which is the single biggest threat to sustained growth of 9%”
    How might a new age budget look like? Haseeb Drabu takes a look at the ways – five of them. You’ll be reading this by the time the budget has come out, of course, but it still makes sense to read this in order to think about how the budget needs to be structured.
  2. “The 0.9 per cent year-on-year (YoY) growth in the adjusted net profit of 385 companies, which have released their results for the third quarter (Q3) of the current financial year so far, does not inspire much confidence. If financials and energy companies are removed from the sample, net profit has grown 6.4 per cent in Q3 — the worst performance in five quarters.”
    I’d recommend that you read this article to either get a sense of how to judge the macroeconomic environment (partially!) on the basis of stock market performance, or even better, if you are new to finance, read this with an Investopedia tab open alongside.
  3. “Passenger vehicle sales in China fell for the first time last year since the early 1990s due to a cut to government tax breaks and wider economic sluggishness. Hyundai, which was once the third-largest automaker in China together with Kia, is now sorting out overcapacity as its sales in China have not picked up much since being hit by the anti-Korean consumer backlash in 2017.”
    The FT provides additional information on the slowdown in China – and the link on the anti-Korean backlash is also worth reading.
  4. “From the start of 2012 to the end of 2016, China produced nearly three times as much cement as the US did in the entire 20th century.Much of that investment has gone to waste. A recent study by China’s Southwestern University of Finance and Economics estimates that more than one in five Chinese homes in urban areas, or about 65m apartments, are empty. And if demography is destiny, China’s prospects are bleak. Between 1980 and 2012, China added about 380m people to its working-age population. But that number has been shrinking for the past five years and is expected to fall by a third, or about 220m people, in the next three decades.”
    More grist to the China recession mill, from the FT. The numbers are truly breathtaking – especially that quote about cement!
  5. “China’s fertility rate has officially fallen to 1.6 children per woman, but even that number is disputed. Yi Fuxian, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has written that China’s government has obscured the actual fertility rate to disguise the disastrous ramifications of the “one child” policy. According to his calculations, the fertility rate averaged 1.18 between 2010 and 2018.”
    The NYT picks up from where the FT left off, and tells us about the impending population crisis in China – that there may soon be too few  people in China, not too many.

Why 1978 and 1991 will likely be the most important years of the 20th century

If you had to pick just one year from the 21st century and say that this was the year that mattered the most, which year would you pick? Some might pick 1939 and the start of WWII. Others, for the same reason, might pick 1945, as the year it finally ended. Others more in tune with the long run forces of history might pick 1914 because that’s when the whole thing really started.

 

But that’s answering the question from a European perspective. Closer to home, you might want to pick 1947, and our neighbours to the east might pick 1949 for broadly similar reasons. But as an economist from these parts, my choice would by 1978 from a broader perspective, or 1991 from a purely Indian one.

 

Because 1978 was the year in which Deng Xiaoping famously said “Let some people get rich first” and kickstarted the process of market reform in China. Xiaogang is a village that almost nobody outside of China has heard of, but if you’re interested in the question of how nations get richer over time, you should take the time out and click on that link. There’s a lot else that Chinese economic history has to teach us, but we’ll get to it over time.

 

Let’s move on to the other date that we think is important from the 20th century: 1991.

 

“A moment comes,which comes but rarely in history,when we step out from the old to new,when an age ends,and when the soul of a nation,long suppressed,finds utterance.” Famous words, uttered by a famous politician, and possibly the most famous speech by an Indian politician. We’d argue that these apply in almost equal measure to the year 1991, because that is when the entrepreneurial spirit of India, long suppressed, finally found utterance.

 

It is when business stopped being a bad word in Indian parlance, and getting (and staying!) rich was seen not as a dubious achievement but an everyday event. Indians going to movie houses post 1991 admired the Mercedes that Amir Khan drove to Goa in Dil Chahta Hai, and not the smoudering angst that Amitabh Bachchan harboured against the system in Deewar. Aspirations were a good thing, and it was ok to say that publicly after 1991.

 

The Liberalized Exchange Rate Management System (LERMS), the New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1991  and the other economic policies of that era were remarkable, and are rightly being celebrated today as the cornerstones of the remarkable change that has been wrought in India since. And we’ll talk about the impact that these policies had in the posts to follow.

 

But they are, in a sense, merely the tools that allowed P Chidambaram, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, PV Narasimha Rao and above all, Manmohan Singh to say what Deng Xiaoping had said all those many years ago in China.

 

1991 was about letting Indians get rich.