Improving the Quality of Social Science Research in India

Gulzar Natarajan points us towards an excellent paper written by Jacob Greenspon and Dani Rodrik, on who is writing papers in top tier journals today.

Developing country representation has risen fastest at journals rated 100th or lower, while it has barely increased in journals rated 25th or higher.

Click to access a_note_on_the_global_distribution_of_authorship_102521.pdf

Take a look at the table below, and note how developing country authorship has barely budged from 3.5% to 4.4% across the two time periods the authors have chosen to work with.

What is the problem being addressed here? The fact that there isn’t enough representation in the very top tier journals of authors from developing nations.

How might this problem be resolved? In one of two ways: either the current top tier journals figure out a way to have more representation from developing countries, or developing countries start on the (rather long) journey of creating journals that will replace the ones currently at the top.

In his blogpost, Gulzar Natarajan points out nine ways in which both of these solutions might be implemented:

  1. Hire more local Principal Investigators, both for its own sake, but also because of the large positive externalities they will generate
  2. Develop academic consortium(s) such as NBER in developing countries. Gulzar Natarajan uses the example of India, but this could of course be done in many other countries as well
  3. Give more personalized, contextualized lectures in Indian universities
  4. More mentorships
  5. More referees from India in top tier publications, at least for “India” papers. (Note again that Gulzar Natarajan is writing this for an Indian audience, the same applies for other countries)
  6. Create and share data repositories.
  7. Build out better conferences.
  8. Build out more university level tie-ups on an international basis
  9. Build out better Institutional Review Board certifications for local Indian universities.

The author is kind enough to mention the place at which I currently work (the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics) as an Institute which may be able to play a role in furthering this initiative.

We’ve tried to do work on some of the initiatives he has outlined, including building out on mentorships, trying to build out better (and more) university level tie-ups, and one of the few silver linings to the last eighteen months has been the fact that it has never been easier to get professors from the world over to “come” and speak via video conference. But much more – much, much more! – remains to be done.

In an ideal world, each university in India would have a faculty member whose sole full time job it would be to figure out how each university is working on each of these nine points, with some sort of a coordinating agency working with (and across) each participating university. This is, of course, easier said than done.

Its necessity, if you ask me, is indisputable.

Six Big Economic Ideas

About five years ago, The Economist published a series of essays, based around six big ideas in economics. Each essay is really well written, and I would strongly recommend that you read them. In no particular order, they’re about the Stolper Samuelson theorem from international trade theory, Minsky’s work on business cycles, Akerlof’s paper on information asymmetry, Keynes and the idea of the fiscal stimulus, Nash and early developments in game theory and finally the Mundell-Fleming model.

I got reminded of these essays when I wrote about Robert Mundell’s passing. And that, in turn, reminded me that I had wanted to see which ideas would make my list of six big ideas in economics. God knows if I’ll ever get around to writing these essays up – I know I would like to – but for what it’s worth, today is just about the list of ideas.

My criteria for selecting them is the following:

  1. The idea should be genuinely big. Other economists may disagree about whether it should make the cut or not, and that’s fine (in fact, that’s kind of the point. Maybe they’ll write their own lists!), but there should be no disagreement about the yuuugeness of the idea.
  2. It should be easy enough to explain in a single essay. Which in turn means it should be relatively simple, and not dependent on other big ideas for it to make sense. “Mr. Keynes and the Classics” is out, for example.
  3. It should be interesting, and applicable to the real world. Which, sadly, isn’t always a guarantee in academia.

For what it’s worth, here is my list of six big ideas in economics:

  1. Elinor Ostrom and her work on Common Pool Resources: there’s always a part of me that wonders if this is an idea that was underrated by economists and fairly rated by the rest of the world all along. Even the Wikipedia article notes that fieldwork played an important role in the development of her theories. Note that this isn’t (at all!) a criticism of Ostrom – but yes, it could be construed as a criticism of the rest of us economists. Maybe we just don’t look at the world often enough?
    Ostrom certainly did, and her conclusions have helped us economists understand how the world has been working so far, and how it might be made to work better in the future.
  2. Ronald Coase and The Theory of the Firm: Most people would be aware of the Coase theorem, and there is a case to be made for going with that paper rather than this one. But I remain fascinated with The Theory of the Firm, not least because of further developments in this field (Alchian and Demsetz, for one, and Hart and Holmstrom for another. There are many others, of course). In addition, how the theory has held up, and will hold up, because of the advent of modern communication, monitoring and signaling tools is a fascinating research question.
  3. Herbert Simon and Satisficing: “The Truth Lies Somewhere in the Middle” has become one of my favorite ways to simplify complex issues. Herbert Simon’s take on it was as follows: “decision makers can satisfice either by finding optimum solutions for a simplified world, or by finding satisfactory solutions for a more realistic world. Neither approach, in general, dominates the other, and both have continued to co-exist in the world of management science.” And the scissor analogy remains one of the most beautiful explanations I have ever come across, of anything.
  4. Dani Rodrik and premature deindustrialization: This idea is relatively speaking more recent, and in some ways needs to be updated already. But if you leave aside the specifics and think about the major point that is being made: poor countries in the 21st century will not take the same path of development as did the poor countries of the 20th century, it is certainly a very powerful and all-too-relevant field of study. Recommended pairing: How Asia Works, by Joe Studwell.
  5. Partha Dasgupta and the inclusion of nature in GDP: I’ve phrased the idea very poorly, I am sure, and I have not finished reading the report – barely started, if anything. Plus, perhaps I am suffering from recency bias, who is to say? But I remain convinced that we will see a better, more realistic way to measure our economic wealth this century – and if we do, Sir Partha Dasgupta and his work will have led the charge.
  6. Ed Glaeser and the importance of urbanization: Cities and urbanization will define our lives in this century, current pandemic notwithstanding. And while there is a long list of economists who have been working in this area for a very long time, my favorite book about what I think will be the most important topic of study in economics this century has been written by Ed Glaeser. It is a love letter to the idea of the city, and I think more people should read it to understand why urbanization, when done well, is a phenomenon to be celebrated, and not an idea to abjure.

I hope, in all sincerity, that you strongly disagree with my list, and come up with your own!

Alberto Alesina: In Memoriam

Alberto Alesina passed away a couple of days ago, while on a hike with his wife. This is his Wikipedia page, while here is his Harvard faculty page.

He is famous for a variety of reasons, but macroeconomics students of a particular vintage might remember him for advocating austerity in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis (remember when that was the biggest problem our world had seen?). Here is one paper he co-authored during that time.

There are many reasons to be a fan of Alesina’s work, as Larry Summers points out in this fine essay written in his honour. I think it a bit of a stretch to say that he invented the academic field of political economy, or even revived it, but he certainly did more to bring in front and centre than most other economists. In fact, for the last two years, he was my pick for getting the Nobel Prize, and it would certainly have been a well deserved honour.

I haven’t read all books written by him, but did read (and enjoyed) The Size of Nations, particularly because it helped me think through related aspects of the problem (Geoffrey West and Bob Mundell and their works come to mind – but that is another topic altogether). Here is a short review of that book by David Friedman, if you are interested in learning more.

A Fine Theorem (a blog you should subscribe to anyway) has a post written in his honor (along with O.E. Williamson’s, who also passed away recently) that is worth reading.

I’ll be walking through some of his work with the BSc students at the Institute, in order to familiarize them with it, and will be repeating the exercise in honour of O.E. Williamson on Thursday. This post is to help me get my thoughts in order before the talk – but I figured some of you might also enjoy learning more about Alesina’s work.

My favorite paper written by him is “Distributive Politics and Economic Growth” written with Dani Rodrik. That’ll be the focal point of my talk today – but I will address what little I know of his body of work as well.

Links for 5th June, 2019

  1. “But I think Guo is here engaging in a strategy that is common for those who want to nudge the Chinese system in a more market-oriented direction: they tend to describe things are being more competitive and market-driven than they actually are, so that marginal change in that direction seems unremarkable and logical. If you pound the table and call China’s state-owned enterprises a core interest of the nation, it becomes quite difficult to change them. If you say, China is mostly a market economy already, then gradually reducing the role of SOEs over time seems pretty unthreatening.”
    Andrew Batson’s blog is entirely worth following (and for a variety of reasons!). In fact, the second link today will also be from his blog. But for the moment, let’s focus on how China might respond to America’s push against China’s State Owned Enterprises (SOE’s).
  2. “Local governments discovered they could borrow basically without limit to fund infrastructure projects, and despite many predictions of doom, those debts have not yet collapsed. The lesson China has learned is that debt is free and that Western criticisms of excessive infrastructure investment are nonsense, so there is never any downside to borrowing to build more infrastructure. China’s infrastructure-building complex, facing diminishing returns domestically, is now applying that lesson to the whole world.”
    Andrew Batson has a rather more optimistic take on the Belt and Road Initiative. Not as bad, as he mentions, as Brahma Chellaney makes it out to be. On the other hand, I still do think that Batson is far too optimistic about it – as usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle!
  3. “The strategy we have in mind would comprise three mutually reinforcing components: an increase in the skill level and productivity of existing jobs, by providing extension services to improve management or cooperative programs to advance technology; an increase in the number of good jobs by supporting the expansion of existing, local firms or attracting investment by outsiders; and active labor-market policies or workforce-development programs to help workers, especially from at-risk groups, master the skills required to obtain good jobs.”
    Dani Rodrik writes about how to create “good jobs”, and lots of them. I don’t think what he suggests will likely work, especially in a country like India, for a variety of reasons – but the biggest is that the kind of top-down, bureaucratic approach he suggests simply hasn’t worked in the past.
  4. “The overall trend was an incredible intensification of output. Splitters, one of the most skilled positions, provide a good example. The economist John Commons wrote that in 1884, “five splitters in a certain gang would get out 800 cattle in 10 hours, or 16 per hour for each man, the wages being 45 cents. In 1894 the speed had been increased so that four splitters got out 1,200 in 10 hours, or 30 per hour for each man – an increase of nearly 100% in 10 years.” Even as the pace increased, the process of de-skilling ensured that wages were constantly moving downward, forcing employees to work harder for less money.”
    An extremely readable extract from a book called The Red Meat Republic, this article in the Guardian speaks to how America’s beef industry came to be what it is. A great read for students of Industrial Organization, labor economics, development, pricing, transport economics – and more besides.
  5. “China has an industrial policy whose goal is to be competitive in these [branded goods] and other areas. Tariffs will limit profits for these companies and prevent Chinese products from achieving full economies of scale. So this preemptive tariff strike will hurt the Chinese economy in the future, even if it doesn’t yet show up in the numbers.”
    Tyler Cowen often forces himself to write the viewpoint on the other side – or at least, that’s how I interpret this article. I’m sharing it partly because it is worth reading (that’s a given, right?), but more so because that trait is worth emulating: force yourself to argue from the other side’s viewpoint. Whether in writing, or just as a thought exercise.

Links for 26th April, 2019

  1. “The world economy desperately needs a plan for “peaceful coexistence” between the United States and China. Both sides need to accept the other’s right to develop under its own terms. The US must not try to reshape the Chinese economy in its image of a capitalist market economy, and China must recognize America’s concerns regarding employment and technology leakages, and accept the occasional limits on access to US markets implied by these concerns.”
    Dani Rodrik explains the need for, as he puts it, peaceful coexistence – between China and the USA. My money is on this not happening: history, current affairs and game theory are my reasons for being less than optimistic.
  2. “Yes, there was arsenic in Bangladesh’s wells, and it may have posed a health threat. But in areas where people were encouraged to switch away from the wells, child mortality jumped by a horrifying 45 percent — and adult mortality increased too. It turns out that the alternatives to the wells, for most people in Bangladesh, were all worse — surface water contaminated with waterborne diseases, or extended storage of water in the home, which is also a major disease risk.”
    Unintended consequences is one of the most underrated phrases in economics.
  3. “Only one of Murdoch’s adult children would win the ultimate prize of running the world’s most powerful media empire, but all four of them would ultimately have an equal say in the direction of its future: Murdoch had structured both of his companies, 21st Century Fox and News Corp, so that the Murdoch Family Trust held a controlling interest in them. He held four of the trust’s eight votes, while each of his adult children had only one. He could never be outvoted. But he had also stipulated that once he was gone, his votes would disappear and all the decision-making power would revert to the children. This meant that his death could set off a power struggle that would dwarf anything the family had seen while he was alive and very possibly reorder the political landscape across the English-speaking world.”
    A very long, but very entertaining and informative read about the Murdoch family – its rise, its stumbles and its influence on the world today. Be warned, this is only the first part – but the entire thing is a great read.
  4. “There has been a lot of churn in the Sensex over the decades. Corporate power in India seems to be more fragile than usually understood. Only a handful of companies such as Tata Motors, Hindustan Unilever, Mahindra & Mahindra, ITC, and Larsen & Toubro have managed to hold their place in the index. Many of the older industrial houses such as the Thapar group, the Walchand group and the Kirloskar group have slipped out of the benchmark index. Even the real estate and infrastructure giants who had a strong presence in the Sensex a decade ago — Jaiprakash Associates, Reliance Infrastructure and DLF, for example — are no longer in the index.”
    Niranjan Rajadhakshya writes in Livemint about the churn in the Sensex. Worth reading for the chart alone that appears midway through the article.
  5. “The government has tried to change ideas about death through directives and incentives. In 2016, officials issued guidelines for encouraging more burials within nature, rather than delineating plots for tombs and memorials. In a revised law on funeral management in September, the central government called on local governments to provide financial support for public cemeteries, which would be cheaper for residents.”
    An interesting read about the burial problem in China, and what they’re doing about it.

Links for 11th April, 2019

  1. “Who has the upper hand in bargaining for wages and employment benefits? Who dominates markets and who must submit to market forces? Who can move across borders and who is stuck at home? Who can evade taxation and who cannot? Who gets to set the agenda of trade negotiations and who is excluded? Who can vote and who is effectively disenfranchised? We argue that addressing such asymmetries makes sense not only from a distributional standpoint, but also for improving overall economic performance. Economists have a powerful theoretical apparatus that allows them to think about such matters.”
    Dani Rodrik makes the case for rewriting economics, rather than tinkering with it at the margins, in order to really tackle the problems that the world faces today. An article worth reading – I’d linked to their manifesto earlier.
  2. “In San Lucar, selfish behavior is unacceptable. But in New York, a city with 8 million people, selfish behavior is the norm. It’s a dog-eat-dog mentality. Policemen are everywhere and sirens are the sound of the city. During rush hour on 5th Avenue, pedestrians fight like soldiers on a battlefield. They step over homeless people, weave through strangers, and J-Walk through red lights.Why are people so cooperative in San Lucar, but so selfish in New York?”
    If you are a student of game theory, you already know that the answer is game theory. But the article is worth reading because it should prompt you to wonder if there is a deeper answer than the one provided – and Adam Smith might be a good place to begin.
  3. “First, declining growth is a key, albeit low-frequency, cause of today’s social and economic distress. Second, the unfortunate consequences of the ICT revolution are not inherent properties of technological change. Rather, as Rajan notes, they reflect a “failure of the state and markets to modulate markets.” Though Rajan does not emphasize it, this second point gives us cause for hope. It means that ICT need not doom us to a jobless future; enlightened policymaking still has a role to play.”
    Angus Deaton reviews Raghuram Rajan’s latest book, and leaves us with a sense of appreciation for the book (and in my case, a desire to read it), but also with a deep sense of foreboding about where we may end up as a society.
  4. “That leads to a broader point: “tech” is not simply another category, like railroads or telecom. Tech is a means, not an end, but Senator Warren’s approach presumes the latter. That is why she proposes the same set of rules for the sale of toasters and the sale of apps, and everything in between. The truth is that Amazon is a retailer; Apple a combination of hardware maker and platform makers. Google is a search and advertising company, and Facebook a publishing and advertising company. They all have different value chains and different ways of impacting competition, both fairly and unfairly, and to fail to appreciate just how different they are is a great way to make bad laws that not only fail to fix problems but also create entirely new ones.”
    Ben Thompson on how to think about tech (and in a very long article, this excerpt really matters): tech is the means to an end, and therein lies all the difference in the world.
  5. “You may never have heard of Islamestan, in Chinese Turkestan, or its one-time “king”, Bertram Sheldrake. Islamestan is long gone, swallowed up in the historical shifts of a turbu­lent region, but for a brief and unlikely moment, an English pickle-factory heir ruled, with his wife, Sybil, over the newly independent Muslim country, to the far west of China.”
    Stories don’t get much better than this, and that’s putting it mildly.

Links for 19th March, 2019

  1. “Why do two people need a scrap of paper except to reassure them there’s concrete proof of their relationship?”
    … is a question worth asking in many respects, not just relationships. But some articles don’t really need to be subjected to analysis. A truly beautiful read, by Priya Ramani.
  2. “The episode is symptomatic of a fundamental European problem: unlike in China, macroeconomic policy, industrial policy and foreign and security policy are run independently of each other. The Huawei 5G bid shows that the EU is not well prepared to deal with a connection between security and industrial policy. Nor have the Europeans paid much attention to the impact of their fiscal rules — not least on defence and security policies. China, by contrast, has an integrated approach to economic and foreign policy.”
    Wolfgang Manchau on China and Germany, and who will have the upper hand going forward. Also an interesting way to think about what works better – top down approaches, or decentralized decision making. I usually find myself in favor of decentralization, but this article made me think about that a bit.
  3. “Second, growth in India has been unequalising because the top 10 per cent have benefitted disproportionally more from it than the bottom 90. In addition, growth has been unequalising across regions and ethnicities. In these circumstances, arguments for direct transfers are in vogue to compensate for this failure, not to address it.”
    Rathin Roy in an excellent article explains why we spend far too little on far too many things (and when I say we, I mean the government). Two things: this, theory suggests, is inevitable. Two, the column doesn’t mention – probably because of lack of space – the political compulsions that make this all but inevitable. But it is a great read!
  4. “Economists and commentators who have written on UBI for India have made the case for doing away with many subsidies and exemptions. The problem is that doing so may not be politically feasible. How does any politician sell the taking away of food subsidies to the masses of the country? Or how does any politician justify the introduction of tax on agricultural income or the introduction of estate duty or doing away of subsidies on urea and other fertilizers?”
    And while on that topic, Vivek Kaul in ThinkPragati reviews a book about Universal Basic Income by Guy Standing. I have not read the book, but the quote above jumped out at me. In my opinion, the problem with implementing UBI in India is not an economic one, but a political one.
  5. “Olive trees follow a pattern known as alternate bearing, with bad years routinely followed by good. This year, the EU expects Europe’s overall olive basket to be saved by a surge from its biggest producer, Spain.A trend there towards super intensive plantations may partly mitigate climate change impacts, according to Valentini – but at a cost to traditional farming and biodiversity. Fast-growing, high-density olive plantations might be more drought-resistant but water resources could also be limited by these plantations, he said”
    Will future generations understand the phrase “like taking coals to Newcastle”? Italy – and I cannot believe I am typing this out – will import olives this year. Whatever will the next Mario Puzo do?

Links for 15th March, 2019

  1. “Nellie’s tree is said to be the most romantic in the UK. Nearly a century ago, Vic Stead would walk to a nearby village to visit a woman he was courting, called Nellie. One day, he came across three beech saplings and grafted one between the other two to form the letter ‘N’ in an attempt to woo her. They went on to marry and have children, and the tree is a popular site for proposals today”
    The Guardian comes up with  a lovely photo essay about the ‘European Tree of the Year’. Do not miss the tree that stands in the middle of a highway that connects the Netherlands to Belgium as well.
  2. “At the moment, global CO₂ emissions are about 37 billion metric tons per year, and we’re on track to raise temperatures by 3 degrees Celsius by 2100. To have a shot at maintaining a climate suitable for humans, the world’s nations most likely have to reduce CO₂ emissions drastically from the current level — to perhaps 15 billion or 20 billion metric tons per year by 2030; then, through some kind of unprecedented political and industrial effort, we need to bring carbon emissions to zero by around 2050. In this context, Climeworks’s effort to collect 1,000 metric tons of CO₂ on a rooftop near Zurich might seem like bailing out the ocean one bucket at a time.”
    Direct air capture of carbon, which is what the article is about, isn’t really going to ‘solve’ climate change anytime soon. But the article is worth reading because it speaks about a variety of economic issues, including climate change – there’s public goods, pricing, subsidies, micro-payments, the creation of markets, and much else.
  3. “Many of the dominant policy ideas of the last few decades are supported neither by sound economics nor by good evidence. Neoliberalism – or market fundamentalism, market fetishism, etc. — is a perversion of mainstream economics, rather than an application thereof. And contemporary economics research is rife with new ideas for creating a more inclusive society. But it is up to us economists to convince their audience about the merits of these claims.”
    Dani Rodrik, and ten others aim to recast economics as being for ‘inclusive prosperity‘. Ten policy briefs to begin with, and more to come later. The idea isn’t to form another think tank, as the post mentions, but to promote more academic research along these ten briefs.
  4. “This Letter quantitatively evaluates the beneficial impact a negative Fed policy rate could have had during the recovery from the Great Recession. While it’s difficult to capture all the complexities of the economy in a model, this analysis suggests that negative rates could have mitigated the depth of the recession and sped up the recovery, though they would have had little effect on economic activity beyond 2014. The analysis also shows that the interest rate does not have to fall too deeply into negative territory to accomplish meaningful economic improvements.”
    Would negative interest rates have helped generate a quicker recovery in the United States? This letter suggests that this may well have been the case. Forget the model that was used – that’s a rabbit hole in its own right – but take a look at this article for a very readable introduction to the world of negative interest rates.
  5. “‘NIRC’ – it’s a uniquely Singaporean economic abbreviation that stands for net investment returns contribution.
    It’s a mouthful, but in the coming weeks the term is likely to be on the lips of many of the Lion City’s lawmakers as they debate the national budget Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat will unveil on Monday. The NIRC is the amount of Singapore government revenue that comes from interest earned on its outsize reserves.”
    Everything about Singapore is worth reading, and I really do mean that. Reading this article will introduce you to one of Singapore’s lesser known features – Singapore’s government runs a pretty large fund, it is pretty profitable (presumably), and there’s debate about what to do with the proceeds.

Links for 14th March, 2019

  1. “It is an example of the paradox of India’s state capacity that it can execute well-defined tasks like elections, census, disaster relief etc with unparalleled proficiency and do the simplest things like running mid-day meal kitchens in the most appalling manner.”
    The always excellent Gulzar Natarajan on the paradox that is Indian bureaucracy. Given the remarkable efficiency with which we run our elections – and read the article to find out just how efficient it really is – why not other stuff in India? I do not have a clue. Will headline converge to core, or will core converge to headline?
  2. “While a Chinese depreciation would be a negative to shock to the world, China’s apparent willingness to use fiscal tools to restart its economy should be helpful to the world, at least directionally.*”
    The asterisk is at least as important as the excerpt, because the nature of the fiscal stimulus will matter more than the extent of it in the long run – but an update on what is fast becoming a mini-series – the state of China’s economy.
  3. “A key problem is that there are no interpretations of these concepts that are at once simple, intuitive, correct, and foolproof. Instead, correct use and interpretation of these statistics requires an attention to detail which seems to tax the patience of working scientists. This high cognitive demand has led to an epidemic of shortcut definitions and interpretations that are simply wrong, sometimes disastrously so – and yet these misinterpretations dominate much of the scientific literature.”
    I don’t know if I’ve fully understood p-values, and I don’t know if I do a good job of teaching them – to the extent that I understand them myself. And occasionally reading, and re-reading this blog post is therefore a useful thing to do. Assuming it is correct in the first place!
  4. “…boosting an intermediate range of labor-intensive, low-skilled economic activities. Tourism and non-traditional agriculture are the prime examples of such labor-absorbing sectors. Public employment (in construction and service delivery), long scorned by development experts, is another area that may require attention. But government efforts can go much further.”
    Buried in this article are a whole range of papers waiting to be written – but that’s for academicians to salivate over. The article is a wonderful summary of what good jobs are, why they are difficult to come by today, and what can be done to make sure that they do come by.
  5. “I suppose it’s worth trying to measure economic growth, but don’t take the findings too seriously.”
    Words to live by, and I mean that. Trying to measure economic growth is, ultimately, an un-solvable problem. Conversely, any estimate that we have is always going to be off the mark. Think through the implications (and the implications of the implications!)