Afghanistan Today

After Poland and Germany, let’s pick an Asian country to understand better for the month of March. And given the recent deal that has been signed, about which more below, let’s begin with Afghanistan.

As always, begin with the basics. The gift that is Wikipedia, on Afghanistan:

“Afghanistan is a unitary presidential Islamic republic. The country has high levels of terrorism, poverty, child malnutrition, and corruption. It is a member of the United Nations, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Group of 77, the Economic Cooperation Organization, and the Non-Aligned Movement. Afghanistan’s economy is the world’s 96th largest, with a gross domestic product (GDP) of $72.9 billion by purchasing power parity; the country fares much worse in terms of per-capita GDP (PPP), ranking 169th out of 186 countries as of 2018.”

And from the same article…

The country has three rail links: one, a 75-kilometer (47 mi) line from Mazar-i-Sharif to the Uzbekistan border; a 10-kilometer (6.2 mi) long line from Toraghundi to the Turkmenistan border (where it continues as part of Turkmen Railways); and a short link from Aqina across the Turkmen border to Kerki, which is planned to be extended further across Afghanistan. These lines are used for freight only and there is no passenger service.

Now, as opposed to how I structured the essays on Poland and Germany, I intent to begin with the now and work my way backwards. This is primarily because of what Afghanistan is in the news for:

The joint declaration is a symbolic commitment to the Afghanistan government that the US is not abandoning it. The Taliban have got what they wanted: troops withdrawal, removal of sanctions, release of prisoners. This has also strengthened Pakistan, Taliban’s benefactor, and the Pakistan Army and the ISI’s influence appears to be on the rise. It has made it unambiguous that it wants an Islamic regime.

The Afghan government has been completely sidelined during the talks between the US and Taliban. The future for the people of Afghanistan is uncertain, and will depend on how Taliban honours its commitments and whether it goes back to the mediaeval practices of its 1996-2001 regime.

Doesn’t bode well for India, obviously, but doesn’t bode well for the United States of America either, says Pranay Kotasthane.

And the New York Times says a complete withdrawal of troops, even over the period currently specified, may not be a great idea. Ongoing support is, according to that newspaper, necessary:

More important than troops, potentially, is the willingness of the international community to continue to finance the Afghan government after a peace deal.

“The real key to whether Afghanistan avoids falling into an even longer civil war is the degree to which the United States and NATO are willing to fund and train the Afghan security forces over the long term,” Mr. Stavridis said. “When Vietnam collapsed and the helicopters were lifting off the roof of the U.S. Embassy, it was the result of funding being stopped.”

But it’s not just military funding! Afghanistan needs a lot of the world’s support in the years to come. Water, for example, will be a contentious issue in the years to come, and that’s putting it mildly.

Afghanistan doesn’t face a water shortage – it’s unable to get water to where it’s needed. The nation loses about two thirds of its water to Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and other neighbors because doesn’t harness its rivers. The government estimates that more than $2 billion is needed to rehabilitate the country’s most important irrigation systems.

And water, of course, is just one of many issues. Health, education, reforming agriculture, roads – it’s an endless list, and it will need all kinds of ongoing and sustained help.

So, amid all of this, what should India be doing?

Meanwhile, India’s interests in Afghanistan haven’t changed. India hopes to build up Afghanistan’s state capacity so that Pakistan’s desires of extending control can be thwarted. Given this core interest in a changed political situation, what’s needed in the long-term in the security domain is to build the strength of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). Without a strong ANDSF — which comprises the army, police, air force, and special security forces — peace and stability in Afghanistan will remain elusive. India’s aim should be to help the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and ANDSF claim monopoly over the legitimate use of physical force.

But, the article presciently warns us of the same what/how problem we first encountered in studying the Indian budget:

In short, the budget might itself not be the biggest issue. The US has pumped nearly $3.6bn on average every year for the last 19 years solely on reconstruction of the ANDSF, a support that is likely to continue even if the US withdraws its soldiers. The bigger problems are insufficient processes to plan and execute budgets resulting in unused funds and lack of infrastructure leading to pay shortfalls.

Now, to unpack all of this, we need to study the following: the Soviet invasion and its aftermath, American involvement in the region, the rise of the Taliban, leading up to Operation Enduring Freedom, 2002. That’s next Wednesday!

A (surprising) profile, a surprising result,a Maharaja(h) in the Yorkshire Dales, Driverless Cars and (non)ergodicity

Can you guess what this article is about, who has written it, and when?

The dirty little secret on Wall Street is that the men responsible for its current reputation were not exceptionally bad. They were just ordinary people placed in unusual circumstances.

“Knowing somebody” to “get the job done” is older than you thought, is applicable in more places than you’d expect, and last across a longer time horizon than you’d have expected. Well, I don’t know about you, but each of these was true in my case.

The main empirical analysis of this article compares a snapshot of the location of mission stations in Africa in 1903 to the precise locations of projects funded by the World Bank in 1995–2014. The unit of analysis is derived from a grid of 55km×55km square cells covering the African mainland and Madagascar. The results imply that the presence of (at least) one mission station increases the probability that an area is allocated a development project by approximately 50 percent.

A rather macabre excerpt, but to me a revealing one. On “The Maharajah of the Yorkshire Dales

The first ethnically Indian minister in Britain was Parmjit Dhanda. He too found a rural seat, out in the West Country, in Gloucestershire. People were almost always polite and pleasant to him, but one morning he came out and found a severed pig’s head on the bonnet of his car.

The year was 2010.

 

Vox explains the current state of affairs when it comes to driverless cars, and how long that might take (short answer? A little bit longer, but no idea exactly how long. Sorry.)

There are two core statistics useful for evaluating how advanced a self-driving car program is. One is how many miles it has driven. That’s a proxy for how much training data the company has, and how much investment it has poured into getting its cars on the road.

The other is disengagements — moments when a human driver has to take over because the computer couldn’t handle a situation — per mile driven. Most companies don’t share these statistics, but the state of California requires that they be reported, and so California’s statistics are the best peek into how various companies are doing.

On both fronts, Google’s sister company Waymo is the clear leader. Waymo just announced 20 million miles driven overall, most of those not in California. In 2018, Waymo drove 1.2 million miles in California, with 0.09 disengagements every 1,000 miles. Coming in second is General Motors’ Cruise, with about half a million miles and 0.19 disengagements per 1,000 miles. (Cruise argues that since it tests its cars on San Francisco’s difficult streets, these numbers are even more impressive than they look.)

A topic that more students of economics should know about: (non)-ergodicity.

First is a very micro level concern: behavioural biases. The whole idea of endowment effects and loses aversion make sense in a world dominated by non-ergodic processes. We hate losing what we have because it decreases our ability to make future gains. Mathematics tells us we should avoid being on one of the many losing trajectories in a non-ergodic process.

India: Links for 7th October, 2019

  1. This was a fascinating read. I was aware of the flu and its impact on India, but had no clue about the extent, the severity and the multiple what-might-have-beens. For example:
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    “y 1918, Gandhi was being seen in intellectual circles as a future leader of the nation, but he lacked grass-roots support. That spring, in his native state of Gujarat, he had organised two of his first satyagrahas, but these were followed by thousands of people, not hundreds of thousands. When the flu returned that autumn, he was struck down, as were other leading members of the independence movement who shared his ashram, notably Gangabehn Majmundar, the formidable spinning teacher, and Shankarlal Parikh, who had helped organise one of those early satyagrahas. Gandhi was too feverish to speak or read. He could not shake a sense of doom. “All interest in living had ceased,” he wrote later, in his autobiography.”
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  2. Professor Jayanth Varma is less than impressed with benchmarking for loans, and the rules associated with them:
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    “In the next few years, India needs to work on creating both a better banking system and better financial markets. One of the pre-requisites for this is that regulators should step back from excessive micro-management. For example, the RBI Master Directions require the interest rate under external benchmark to be reset at least once in three months while elementary finance theory tells us that if the floating rate benchmark is a 6-Months Treasury Bill yield, it should reset only once in six months. Either banks will refrain from using the six month benchmark (eroding liquidity in that benchmark) or they will end up with a highly exotic and hard to value floating rate loan resetting every three months to a six month rate. Neither is a good outcome.”
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  3. “The Socioeconomic High-resolution Rural-Urban Geographic Platform for India (SHRUG) is a geographic platform that facilitates data sharing between researchers working on India. It is an open access repository currently comprising dozens of datasets covering India’s 500,000 villages and 8000 towns using a set of a common geographic identifiers that span 25 years.”
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  4. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi, through “Make in India”, has the right idea when he says he wants to make India a global or regional manufacturing hub. But this cannot be accomplished by keeping an inefficient domestic industry shielded behind import barriers forever. Until something is done to change that, the industry will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis, and no lessons will have been learned.”
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    Rupa Subramanya and Vivek Dehejia in Livemint on what ails the automobile industry, and how to correct it.
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  5. Speaking of which
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    “For a car financed to the extent of Rs 6 lakhs and driven for 1500 km every month the effective cost of ownership/operations, with a driver is probably in the region of Rs 28 per kilometre. Shared mobility wins hands down against this arithmetic of ownership costs.”

Links for 24th May, 2019

  1. “A few months ago, as I was reading Constance Reid’s excellent biography of Hilbert, I figured out if not the answer to this question, at least something that made me feel better about it. She writes:
    Hilbert had no patience with mathematical lectures which filled the students with facts but did not teach them how to frame a problem and solve it. He often used to tell them that “a perfect formulation of a problem is already half its solution.”
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    A very short, but oh-so-readable essay from Paul Graham. Please read it for a variety of reasons, but mostly to understand that reading is a long term activity with a lot (a lot!) of positive payoffs in the long run.
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  2. “When the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) measures economic output, it categorizes spending with the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA). Some of this spending, which is counted as C, I, and G, is spent on imported goods.1 As such, the value of imports must be subtracted to ensure that only spending on domestic goods is measured in GDP. For example, $30,000 spent on an imported car is counted as a personal consumption expenditure (C), but then the $30,000 is subtracted as an import (M) to ensure that only the value of domestic production is counted (Table 3). As such, the imports variable (M) functions as an accounting variable rather than an expenditure variable. To be clear, the purchase of domestic goods and services increases GDP because it increases domestic production, but the purchase of imported goods and services has no direct impact on GDP.”
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    From within the link to the Noah Smith article yesterday, a good, short explainer of GDP, and why imports don’t “reduce” from GDP.
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  3. “In economics, there is no free lunch. While TV channels feel that they are saving money by not paying the experts, what they get in return is a total mess and not some meaningful, coherent programming, in which people can take away some learning at the end.”
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    Vivek Kaul explains why people on the news shout so much. Incentives – it’s all, always, about incentives!
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  4. “In a 2009 summary paper of their respective decision-making sub-fields, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein spell out the conditions required for expertise to exist. They discover that in order for expert intuition to work, the practitioner needs to inhabit a domain where:The environment is regular. That is, the situation must be sufficiently predictable, with observable causal cues.
    There must be ample opportunities to learn causal cues from the environment.”
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    An interesting article about whether ideas from one domain should be used in another, and under what circumstances.
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  5. “Whether the East Asian Model will take hold in East Africa and beyond is not a given. But it also isn’t a stretch to see how the African “Lion economies” could accelerate their transformation by embracing the formula that successively produced the Asian Tigers and China.In his seminal Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen equated personal freedom with economic development. But to reach that objective requires traversing through the phase of “development as imitation” of successful models that came before.”
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    Can Africa achieve in this century what Asia did in the previous one, following the same playbook? This is going to be the most important question for this century, and this article helps you understand how to think about it. One useful way to start thinking about it, at any rate.

Links for 20th May, 2019

  1. “The debate could have been depoliticized if the CSO was more sensitive to criticisms, and had made proactive disclosures on the error estimates of different sub-sectors of GDP, with explanations for why output estimates for some sectors were more reliable than that of others. In fact, the first national account estimates presented by Mahalanobis after India’s independence carefully noted the data gaps and limitations of the estimates, as well as the error margins associated with each sectoral estimate. Providing such error estimates would also have drawn wider attention to data gaps, and could have helped MoSPI garner the requisite resources to fill those gaps.”
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    An article entirely worth reading if you are interested in India’s statistical organizations – from independence until today, the tale has been one of slow and painful deterioration.
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  2. “In short, Indian agriculture has undergone a phenomenal change over the last decade that it is no more dependent on just foodgrain or one sector. In fact, it has emerged as a versatile sector that still provides employment to over 50 per cent of the country’s population (per 2011 census) and keeps the economy ticking in rural areas despite the vagaries of weather.”
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    A useful place to get a good summary of Indian agriculture over the last decade or so. But I would argue that the key point is that there are far too many people employed in this sector – and that is the real problem.
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  3. “The four main factors they identify are as follows. First, there are historical institutions such as slavery and colonial rule. Second, the impact of cultural norms linked to religion, trust, family ties and beliefs. Third, there are geographical factors such as the terrain, temperature shocks and the frequency of floods. Fourth, historical accidents, such as the way national boundaries are drawn, also have an impact. These four factors together play an important role in the development trajectory of a country through time. The question is, what can be done to overcome these constraints in case they are a barrier to development? Can anything be done at all?”
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    Using cricket to learn about development economics. Or is it the other way around? Exactly the kind of article the world sees far too little of!
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  4. “The state legislators who are passing these bills know they will be challenged in court. They also know they will probably lose. But their sights appear to be set higher than their state jurisdictions: With a solidly conservative majority on the Supreme Court, anti-abortion advocates are eager to seed the challenge that could one day take down Roe v. Wade, the 1973 opinion that legalized abortion up to the point of fetal viability. At the very least, they hope the Supreme Court will undercut Roe and subsequent decisions that reaffirmed abortion rights, the idea being that each legal challenge makes it a little harder to obtain an abortion in the United States.”
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    Have you heard of Roe vs. Wade? Might you be curious to learn about what exactly culture has to do with economics, as we discussed in the link above? A useful, if unfortunate example is this article.
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  5. “What concerns health practitioners is the high transmissibility of the bug. “We studied the fungus in January, 2017, when we found it had colonized the skin of a patient who was referred to the Trauma Care ICU from another hospital. But within four days, it (bug) had spread to all the other patients admitted in the unit. All nine of them,” said professor Arunaloke Chakrabarti from Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh.”
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    Just in case your Monday wasn’t depressing enough. Be afraid – be very afraid.

Links for 16th April, 2019

  1. ““Wow, they really train you over there,” our father said. In the weeks since her release, he had become a champion government booster, missing no opportunity to point out to Lulu how nicely the roads had been paved since she’d left, how grand the malls were that had been built. “There are so many opportunities for young people now,” he said. It was a new tic of his, and it grated. Earlier that day, as we strolled the neighborhood, he’d taken the chance to point out a set of recently upgraded public toilets across the way. “They even installed a little room where the sanitation workers can rest,” he said. “It has heating and everything. You see what good care they take of all the workers now?””
    A tale of what happens if you happen to against the authorities in our big neighbor to the east. Sobering reading.
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  2. “Friends and relatives in other parts of the developed world tell me that many of these services and speed are unique to India. While we were busy cribbing in India, a huge shift happened in the last 10-15 years in services—both public and private—that we’ve failed to notice. A mix of technology, cheap labour and super competitive firms have unleashed this service boom in the private sector. Technology, political will (across parties and governments) and the failure of the human government interface in public services has driven the public service boom. Just on the services metric, India will soon plunge ahead of most of the developed world. Take a moment and reflect on how far we’ve come in just a decade.”
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    Meanwhile, Monika Halan points out how much things have improved here, in India.
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  3. “And it reinforced a change in mind-set that already was bubbling up from Chinese urban planners—one that then got ratified in a startling way. In 2016 the Communist Party Central Committee and the State Council, the highest organs of the state, issued a decree: From now on Chinese cities were to preserve farmland and their own heritage; have smaller, unfenced blocks and narrower, pedestrian-friendly streets; develop around public transit; and so on. In 2017 the guidelines were translated into a manual for Chinese planners called Emerald Cities. Calthorpe Associates wrote most of it.”
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    There is much to excerpt from this article about how urbanization is changing, taking root and improving (mostly) the world over. A great bird’s eye view to urbanization in various parts of the world today.
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  4. “A brief description of Lambda School for the uninitiated: A live, fully online school that trains people to become software engineers, data scientists and designers which is free until you get a job. Instead, students pay a percentage of their income each year after they’re employed, the maximum of which is capped at $30k.”
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    Rahul Ramchandani explains what Lambda School is, in case you haven’t heard of it before. Also a good article to learn about Bloom’s 2 sigma problem.
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  5. “But remember: gravity was considered creepy occult pseudoscience by its early enemies. It subjected the earth and the heavens to the same law, which shocked 17th century sensibilities the same way trying to link consciousness and matter would today. It postulated that objects could act on each other through invisible forces at a distance, which was equally outside the contemporaneous Overton Window. Newton’s exceptional genius, his exceptional ability to think outside all relevant boxes, and his exceptionally egregious mistakes are all the same phenomenon (plus or minus a little mercury).”
    In praise of having bad ideas, and how one bad idea (or even a few of ’em), shouldn’t really define a person for you.