India: Links for 19th August, 2019

CCS is organizing a conference around the theme “Legal Foundations of a Free Society”, and it is being hosted by the Gokhale Institute. One of the speakers is Shruti Rajagopalan, whose writing I have long admired. Here are five pieces by Shruti that I thoroughly enjoyed reading:

  1. The implementation of laws matters as much as their framing (as any parent will tell you!)
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  2. “Deshmukh, a former RBI governor who had argued against bank nationalization immediately after independence, was also contesting the election, this time supported by the Swatantra Party and Jan Sangh. Giri won with Gandhi’s support, and his legacy is often regarded as that of a rubber-stamp loyalist who damaged the independence of the President’s office.”
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    A little bit of trivia that I was completely unaware of, and makes me think of many counterfactuals – but the article is about how the nationalization of banks came to be.
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  3. Shruti explains (rather acerbically and entirely appropriately so) why the budget is a spectacle we’d all do well to ignore completely.
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  4. “First, we need to create more positions for judges, especially in the lower levels of the judiciary, as caseloads have exploded over the years. India has only 12-15 judges per million people compared to the US’s 110 per million. The immediate goal is to reach the Law Commission’s 50-judges-per-million recommendation. A good start is to double the number of judges across the board in the lower judiciary.”
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    On some much needed reforms to the Indian judiciary.
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  5. A paper by her on a favorite theme (and bugbear) of mine: the complete lack of true decentralization in India.

 

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EC101: Links for 1st August, 2019

Heard of cantons?

Here’s an interesting question to ask: when one thinks of an organization, how decentralized should it be? Should all decision making flow from the very top, with lower levels of hierarchy being essentially automatons with no autonomy at all? Or should it be the other way around – little fiefdoms that are only nominally a part of a larger whole?

When you are early to check in at a hotel, should the clerk have the ability to decide whether you should be checked in, or should she be inflexible about rules that have been set at the very top?

Can one think of nations as one thinks of organizations? If yes, then what about the ability to tax and spend at the governmental level? Should that rest with the centre, or the states? Today’s five articles help us start to learn about this particular problem, keeping India front and centre:

  1. Here’s the World Bank with it’s view on decentralization in India.
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  2. “The effectiveness of decentralization requires the calibration of the administrative, political and fiscal dimensions. Without political decentralization, participatory decision-making is not possible. Administrative decentralization is necessary to implement political decisions, and an important precondition for fiscal decentralization. Efficiency in the delivery of public services depends on administrative efficiency and accountability. To assess rural local government finance in India, it is useful to compare the system with current thinking on a well-functioning intergovernmental fiscal system.”
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    Again from the World Bank, this time the rather more difficult issue of separating out decentralization and what it means in an administrative sense, and in a fiscal sense.
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  3. The results of a UNDP survey about decentralization in India. I found the slide on challenges about decentralization to be the most thought provoking.
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  4. “Vertical imbalance essentially arises due to the fiscal asymmetry in powers of taxation vested with the different levels of government in relation to their  expenditure responsibilities prescribed by the constitution. Our Federal Structure has three levels of Governments: Central Government, State Governments and the elected Local Bodies. In India the Central government has far greater or larger domain where it may tax e.g., income taxes personal or corporate, taxing consumption of goods and services (CGST), taxing foreign transactions (exports/imports) and capturing natural resources rents, e.g.,
    Spectrum Auction. In contrast, post-GST, the State governments may only tax the consumption of goods and services (SGST) and agricultural incomes, while the local or the third tier has even more limited power to tax which is largely confined to property tax”
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    My apologies for the poor alignment of the text – pasting from a PDF is an act of sorcery that I am very far from mastering. The PDF itself is well worth reading for a student of fiscal federalism in India – Dr. Kelkar on the subject in a working paper.
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  5. And finally, if you have made it this far, a rather long (but fascinating) read from the RBI on the experience of fiscal decentralization from other nations – especially pertinent for India in terms of how to think about this rather thorny issue in the years to come.

RoW: Links for 3rd July, 2019

 

Five articles to help you understand China today a little bit better (well, one is on North Korea, axshually)

  1. “There is truth in this linguistic yarn; Chinese does deserve its reputation for heartbreaking difficulty. Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed. Whatever the reason they started, every single person who has undertaken to study Chinese sooner or later asks themselves “Why in the world am I doing this?” Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all that tedious struggle. Those who merely say “I’ve come this far — I can’t stop now” will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective that it takes.”
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    A long, but fun read on how and why Chinese (both kinds) is so difficult to learn – and do think about what this might tell us about China.
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  2. “But that is the wrong way to approach the challenge. In the near term (1-4 years), the US certainly could inflict a lot of damage on China through tariffs, bans on technology purchases, and other trade-war policies. But it would also inflict a lot of damage on itself; and in the end, the Chinese would suffer less. Whereas the Chinese government can buy up Chinese-made products that previously would have been sold to the US, thereby preventing mass unemployment and social turmoil, the US government could scarcely do the same for American workers displaced by the loss of the Chinese market.”
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    Brad DeLong argues against the anti-China line that almost everyone in America seems to toe to these days (Biden almost excepted)
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  3. “Total food production figures, however, are not the end of the story. The important question is who gets access to food, rather than just how much is harvested. Theoretically, North Korea could produce 10 million tons of food, but if all of it ends up in Pyongyang, there would still be massive shortages in the countryside. Here is where markets matter. The WFP assessments are based on the assumption that most food consumed in North Korea is still handed out by the government through the public distribution system (PDS); they do not take account of the role of markets in the food distribution system.”
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    38North on how bad the food situation is in North Korea. Markets matter!
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  4. “This is a useful reminder that decentralization is not an immutable feature of the Chinese system, or something that happened automatically just because China is a very large country. Clearly Gu saw that in the 1970s the Chinese system was too centralized to be efficient, and that it needed to be more decentralized. (Jae-Ho Chung’s book Centrifugal Empire: Central-Local Relations in China also argues that the Maoist emphasis on local autonomy in the 1970s was largely rhetorical, with most localities compelled to follow the same political campaigns and economic priorities.)”
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    For a variety of reasons, decentralization really matters – here’s how China learnt this lesson.
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  5. “At the heart of China’s Going Out policy is a media offensive launched in March 2018, an initiative coordinated by the broadcast group Voice of China and carefully monitored by Communist Party censors. In addition, the state-run news agency Xinhua was expanded and now claims to be the largest news wire in the world.”
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    A fascinating read on how China is reshaping the media narrative in Africa.

Links for 7th June, 2019

  1. “In 1982, Deming’s book Quality, Productivity, and Competitive Position was published by the MIT Center for Advanced Engineering, and was renamed Out of the Crisis in 1986. In it, he offers a theory of management based on his famous 14 Points for Management. Management’s failure to plan for the future brings about loss of market, which brings about loss of jobs. Management must be judged not only by the quarterly dividend, but also by innovative plans to stay in business, protect investment, ensure future dividends, and provide more jobs through improved products and services. “Long-term commitment to new learning and new philosophy is required of any management that seeks transformation. The timid and the fainthearted, and the people that expect quick results, are doomed to disappointment.””
    I cam across this link via Amit Paranjape on Twitter. I was familiar with Deming’s role in Japan, but hadn’t read the book referenced here, in this excerpt. Duly added to the list.
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  2. “While the Constitution provides for setting up of SFCs at regular intervals, this has
    not been adhered to by the states. The paper reviews the reports of the latest SFCs of 25 states in India. This involves examining the status of constitution of SFCs, their functioning and the approach adopted by them in carrying out their task and the principles adopted by them in allocating resources to local governments both vertically and horizontally. It also quantifies the devolution recommended by the SFCs in order to get a comparative picture of funds devolved by them across states. It is observed that there is huge variation in the recommended per capita devolution across States. We do not find any relation between the recommended per capita devolution and per capita income of States, but per capita devolution is in general very low across states in India. Is it that the state governments arbitrarily reject the recommendations or are the SFCs themselves to be blamed for non-acceptance of their recommendations? The paper also examines the quality of SFC
    reports from the point of view of their implementability and finds that at times state governments are constrained to implement these recommendations on the grounds of poor quality of SFC reports.”
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    Financial decentralization (well, decentralization in general) has never really worked in India. Financial decentralization in particular is an important, under-rated topic in economics. This paper is not a good place to learn about these topics, but it is good analysis of how State Financial Commissions haven’t really worked at all in India.
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  3. “What is Luminary’s problem? The answer is that their strategy is not well thought out. They give all of the appearances of starting with the notion ‘Netflix for Podcasts’ and then jumping to the later Netflix model to start that (where Netflix spends $$ on its own content) rather than where Netflix started which was streaming older ad-free content.Where should they have started? They should have started with an idea — “we are going to bring expensive to produce audio content to the Internet” — and then asked who their customers would be, what technology choices they would make, what is the core of their business and who precisely will they compete against?”
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    Worth reading for three reasons. One, it helps you understand what podcasts really are, and how they started. Second, because this article helps you understand how to evaluate business models. Third, because Joshua Gans is worth following in any case.
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  4. “This very short sketch of the well-known effects of the first globalization allows us to remind ourselves of both its positive and negative sides: huge technological progress as against exploitation, increased incomes for many vs. grinding poverty and exclusion for others, European mastery of the world vs. a colonial status of Africa and much of Asia.In what ways should it inform our thinking about the current globalization?”
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    An important question to ask, and one that is succinctly answered in this op-ed. A good article to read to get a sense of global economic history, and what inequality means in that context.
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  5. “I haven’t studied philosophy, but from the outside it mostly seems to revolve around three basic issues:Reality (ontology)

    Values (ethics and aesthetics)

    Knowledge (epistemology)

    Here are three basic questions, one from each field:

    A. Why is there something rather than nothing?

    B. Is it better that there is something rather than nothing?

    C. Can we answer questions #1 and #2? If so, how?”
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    A lovely, and slightly unusual post from Scott Sumner – he does return to typical topics towards the end. But enjoyable, to help you understand how to think about philosophy, economics and therefore monetary theory. And try coming up with your “three questions”!

Links for 17th May, 2019

  1. “Despite the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments, except in a few states, there has been little progress at decentralization—to both rural and urban local bodies. Most state governments have been reluctant to devolve the functions, funds and functionaries for delivering public services at the local level. The functions assigned are unclear, funds uncertain and inadequate, and decision-making functionaries are mostly drawn from the state bureaucracy. Local bodies do not even have powers to determine the base and rate structure of the taxes assigned to them. The states have not cared to create institutions and systems mandated in the Constitution, including the appointment of the State Finance Commissions, and even when they are appointed, states have not found it obligatory to place their reports in the legislature. In fact, the local bodies are not clear about delivering local public goods, with the prominent agenda of implementing central schemes obscuring their functions.”
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    M. Govinda Rao pulls no punches in pointing out how and why decentralization hasn’t (and likely will not) taken place in India. This is a conversation more people need to be having in India – and in particular, to aid meaningful urbanization.
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  2. “I love this paper because it is ruthless. The authors know exactly what they are doing, and they are clearly enjoying every second of it. They explain that given what we now know about polygenicity, the highest-effect-size depression genes require samples of about 34,000 people to detect, and so any study with fewer than 34,000 people that says anything about specific genes is almost definitely a false positive; they go on to show that the median sample size for previous studies in this area was 345.”
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    Slate Star Codex helps us understand the importance of learning (and applying!) statistics. The website is more than worth following, by the way.
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  3. “Sucking the life out of a mango is one of those primal pleasures that makes life feel worthwhile. The process is both elaborate and rewarding. The foreplay that loosens up the pulp inside, the careful incision at the top that allows access without a juice overrun, and then the sustained act of sucking every bit juice from the helpless peel. Senses detach themselves from the body and attach themselves to the mango, and even mobile phones stop ringing. The world momentarily rests in our mouths as we slurp, suck and slaver at the rapidly disappearing pulp. The mango is manhandled vigorously till only the gutli remains which is scraped off till it has nothing left to confess. As is evident, there is no elegant way to eat this kind of mango, no delicate and dignified method that approximates any form of refinement, which is just as well, for the only way to enjoy a mango is messily.”
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    An excellent column about an excellent fruit – there isn’t that much more to say! I completely agree with the bit about serving aamras front and center, rather than as an afterthought, by the way.
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  4. “Welcome to the 4th Annual Top Economics Blogs list. For the 2019 edition, we’ve added many newcomers, as well as favorites which continue to provide quality insight year after year. Like lists in previous years (2018, 2017, 2016), the new 2019 list features a broad range of quality blogs in practically every economic discipline. Whether you are interested in general economics or prefer more specific topics such as finance, healthcare economics, or environmental economics; there is something here for you. You will also find blogs which focus on microeconomics, macroeconomics, and the economics of specific geographical regions.Whether you are a student, economics professional, or just someone with a general interest in how economic issues affect the world around you, you’re certain to find the perfect blog for your specific needs.”
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    The most comprehensive answer to that most perennial of questions: what should I read?
    Bonus! If you’re wondering how to keep up with all of this, this might help.
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  5. “India should do the same with our state capitals. The Union government can create fiscal and other incentives to encourage state governments to shift their capitals to brown- or green-field locations. Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai, Jaipur or Lucknow, for instance, will continue to thrive even if the state government offices move out. Their respective states will benefit from a new urban engine powered by government.”
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    I have been sceptical about the feasibility of doing something like this – my reading of urbanization has always been that it more of an organic process – cities grow (or not) of their own accord, and rarely as a planned endeavor. But maybe I’m wrong?