Links for 1st May, 2019

  1. “As McKinsey points out, governments, businesses and individuals will all have to embrace change and figure out the best ways to move towards digitisation — including on such basics as land records and business transparency (which could improve access to bank credit). There are also many aspects of this wave of digitisation that are not to the good—including the impact of toxic social media, the loss of privacy, and so on. The rules for this new world will have to be framed carefully to prevent business capture as well as political misuse, and to protect citizens from predatory action. What is required is to minimise the costs as much as to maximise the benefits. Still, the over-riding message is clear: The prospects of digitisation are so overwhelmingly advantageous, if not also inevitable, that those who become laggards in adapting to the new reality are the ones that will be left behind.”
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    T N Ninan (author of the excellent The Turn of the Tortoise) writes about the potential of “digital” India while reviewing a McKinsey report about the same topic. The scope, details and aspects of such a topic simply cannot be dealt with in a single post – but with that in mind, this is worth reading.
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  2. “The Right to Education Act in 2009 guaranteed access to free primary education for all children in India ages 6-14. This paper investigates whether national trends in educational data changed around the time of this law using household surveys and administrative data. We document four trends: (1) School-going increases after the passage of RTE, (2) Test scores decline dramatically after 2010, (3) School infrastructure appears to be improving both before and after RTE, and (4) The number of students who have to repeat a grade falls precipitously after RTE is enacted, in line with the official provisions of the law.”
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    That is the abstract of this paper. Also, have you read this book? Also, have you listened to this podcast? Also, keep an eye out for this Sunday’s video.
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  3. “China’s TFP surged in the 1980s following the agricultural and ownership reforms, in the 1990s following the state enterprise reforms and the creation of a modern housing market, and in the 2000s as China prepared for and was then able to exploit WTO membership.The key takeaway is that China’s one-party system deservedly has won plaudits when it has been most ambitious with regard to economic reforms and experimentation with market mechanisms. But this is not the case, for example, before the 1980s and again since 2012, when reforms were suppressed or stifled and inputs were boosted, but without any improvements.”
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    An interview that remains interesting throughout if you are a student of economics, or China and especially the intersection set. Troubling times ahead for the Chinese economy, it would seem – and on account of a variety of short term reasons, and one very important long term one – TFP.
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  4. “That was when he saw the light. Two small, black, rectangular boxes were stacked next to an outlet on the far side of the guest room, both facing the bed. From afar, they looked like phone chargers. But when Vest got closer, he realized they were cameras, and they were recording.”
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    Airbnb, technology, privacy and customer relations. A great way to learn that There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.
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  5. “In 1960, 13.4% of the population age 20-74 was obese (as measured by having a Body Mass Index above 30). In 2016, 40% of the population was obese.
    In 1970, 37.1% of those age 18 and older were cigarette smokers. By 2017, this has fallen to 14.1%.”
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    Just two out of many, many interesting tidbits about America today, and America back then.
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Links for 26th March, 2019

  1. “The rising cost of textbooks, then, is a sign of one of the greatest paradoxes of higher education: As everything from tuition to housing to books gets more expensive, the people who are tasked with making sure students receive a good education are being forced to do more work for less money. The result is a world where students and professors alike struggle to get by.”
    Full of interesting snippets, this article helps you understand how expensive education can be abroad. Not just the cost of tuition though, which is large enough as it is – but the cost of textbooks. Just buying your textbooks for the academic year can set you back by around INR 40,000/-.
  2. “What is the traditional lecture? It is a model of learning in which a teacher possesses the knowledge on a given topic and disseminates it to students. This model dates to the beginning of education, when it was the only way of sharing information. In fact, you occasionally still see the person presenting the lecture called a reader, because way back before the internet and even the printing press, a teacher would literally read from a book so students could copy it all down.”
    Classroom lectures are unbelievably boring. There exist a million alternatives that can do a better job, and this article lays out some of them. But at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, the idea that we can teach the same way we did throughout the twentieth is just wrong.
  3. “Whichever way one looks at it, the very public unravelling of the enterprise is reminiscent of the past, the saga of Air India and Kingfisher Airlines. There is no denying poor governance –particularly in a business with high cash flows. Equally, the sequels illustrate how vegetating policy and misplaced notions of what constitutes strategic interest left the sector episodically chasing its tail. Consider this: Passenger traffic rose from 68.4 million in 2009-09 to 103.7 million in 2013-14, and to 183.9 million in 2017-18. Clearly there is no dearth of demand and of growth in traffic. Yet three airlines have crashed into the red in the period.Can India afford three Mayday calls in less than a decade in a critical sector?”
    A breezy read about an extremely serious topic. The excerpt above is a sobering read: passenger traffic in India has about tripled over the last ten years. The last ten years have also seen three airlines go under. Something, somewhere, is really and truly wrong.
  4. “Incuriosity is not merely ignorance. Ignorance is a universal trait, people just differ in what they are ignorant about. But Americans are unique in not caring to learn from other countries even when those countries do things better. American liberals spent the second Bush administration talking about how health care worked better in most other developed countries, but displayed no interest in how they could implement universal health care so that the US could have what everyone else had, even when some of these countries, namely France and Israel, had only enacted reforms recently and had a population of mostly privately-insured workers. In contrast, they reinvented the wheel domestically, coming up with the basic details of Obamacare relying on the work on domestic thinktanks alone. The same indifference to global best practices occurs in education, housing policy, and other matters even among wonks who believe the US to be behind.”
    Word for the day: incuriosity. A state of the world in not only do you not know, but do not wish to know. But that apart, the entire post – although a little long – is worth reading to learn more about the specifics of what ails subway construction in the USA.
  5. “Structurally, it is impossible because Kim Jong-un has a very detailed network of surveilling the leaders around him. If you are of high rank, then all the high-ranking officials have to live in the same apartment. They can’t choose where to live. They have to live collectively. You are not allowed to have private time with your friends around you, so the control system of North Korean society is really unimaginable.”
    An interview with a North Korean defector who now lives in South Korea about Kim Jong Un. It is difficult for any of us to understand the extraordinary life of ordinary South Koreans

Links for 27th February, 2019

  1. “The time for masking such equity-type investments as loans has passed. Real estate in India is facing a glut, with $110 billion worth of unsold homes across the top eight markets, including Mumbai. That’s almost four years of sales, according to property analytics firm Liases Foras. Back in 2009, when apartment inventory was equal to about one year of sales, only 25 percent of construction funding came from shadow financiers. Banks controlled 75 percent.The tables have now turned: Housing-finance firms and other nonbank lenders, more adventurous than conventional banks, account for 55 percent of advances to builders. Lenders pocketing 2 percent to 3 percent of the loan value as upfront fees in exchange for not collecting on the principal for years has allowed a buildup of poor-quality debt. Moratoriums have delayed builder bankruptcies, and prevented timely detection of the problem.”
    This is a problem just waiting to become a full blown crisis in India – not the real estate sector per se, but the financing of the real estate sector in India. Read this article to find out how and why it has become as big a problem as it has.
  2. “Like all great work, it was the foundation for other huge contributions – work by other great economists such as Oliver Hart, Bengt Holmstrom, Paul Milgrom and many others can easily be traced to this paper. The paper’s starting point – that coordination within firms is not accomplished ‘by fiat’ (Demsetz famously remarks “This is delusion”), and that one should instead examine how incentive structures within firms create efficiencies relative to other forms of organisation – became the starting point for nearly the entire field of the economics of organisation ever since.”
    I have linked to this piece earlier, I think in January. But since I am currently teaching a course in Industrial Organization at Gokhale Institute, I found myself reading this piece all over again. Demsetz really was a giant in this field – and his analysis of why firms exist, and how they coordinate and incentivize activity within the firm is truly illuminating.
  3. “So, the UN forecasting model inputs three things: fertility rates, migration rates, and death rates. It doesn’t take into account the expansion of education for females or the speed of urbanization (which are in some ways linked). The UN says they’re already baked into the numbers. But when I went and interviewed [the demographer] Wolfgang Lutz in Vienna, which was one of the first things we did, he walked me through his projections, and I walked out of the room gobsmacked. All he was doing was adding one new variable to the forecast: the level of improvement in female education. And he comes up with a much lower number for global population in 2100, somewhere between 8 billion and 9 billion.”
    Population “crises” are over-rated in any case (people are a resource!) – but even the forecasts for how many people there will be on the planet in the next thirty to eighty years are likely to be wrong. The world is changing right in front of our eyes. The problem of the (near) future isn’t one of too many people – it’s one of too few.
  4. “Instead, the signatories objected to the election of a student union president of Tibetan descent, who “was found to hold the political belief that Tibet should be free”.”
    Based on what you have read above, which country are we talking about? Not only might the answer surprise you, but it will also help you think about geopolitics, international finance and the benefits of diversification.
  5. “Most developed countries of today addressed many of their basic plumbing challenges largely through public production. China is clearly an example of the latter. It appears to have perfected the use of industrial policy to co-ordinate private enterprise even into some of the most difficult areas for private engagement. This is the case of industrial policy to both address a critical plumbing issue as well as catalysing a market. And this is what makes its achievement exceptional.”
    Law, innovation, state led industrial policy and judicial pendency, all in one lovely article by Gulzar Natarajan. Gokhale Institute recently released a report on judicial pendency in India – China has an interesting way of tackling this problem.

Links for 12th February, 2019

  1. “Each of these imbalances is important and needs to be rectified. One has to do with the differing levels of per-capita consumption of basic public goods and services. The other has to do with the differing levels of stock of infrastructure leading the differential growth accelerating potential development. These are two distinct  policy goals and following Tinbergen Principle warrants two distinct policy instruments. Eliminating the Planning Commission and replacing this with NITI Aayog merely as a think tank leaves us with only one instrument; namely Finance Commission. This approach if not reviewed can lead to a serious problem of increasing regional and sub-regional inequities.
    Who better than Dr. Vijay Kelkar to tell us more about Niti Aayog 2.0? You might want to look up the Tinbergen Principle if you do not know about it already. (Via Mostly Economics)
  2. “Last year, at the end of the summer melting season, the team drew lines on the stakes marking the height of the ice, as researchers have done here for decades. Now, looking at a stake nearly a year later, Nikolay Kasatkin, one of the institute researchers, and Dr. Shahgedanova saw that more of the wood was visible. With the end of melting still a couple of months off, parts of the Tuyuksu were already about three feet thinner.”
    The NYT does excellent work tracking climate change, and this article is only the latest in a long string of articles entirely worth reading. Best viewed on a desktop.
  3. “ICICI directors shouldn’t get a free pass from regulators. Otherwise, they’ll just show up at other boards, perpetuating a culture of CEO worship that’s at odds with their role as stewards of public shareholders. Indian investors deserve better.”
    Andy Mukherjee doesn’t mince words while talking about the lack of oversight at the board level in ICICI Bank. What might the situation be like at other banks in India?
  4. “It can be easy to think of a calendar as a scientific given, or a reflection of the laws of the universe. In fact, as these holidays remind us, there are as many ways to track time as there are cultures and languages. Each calendar reveals something about how the people who created it relate to the world around them while also preserving rich cultural identities and memories.”
    A nice read from the NYT about the way different cultures track time – as it turns out, there are many ways to measure it – the lunar and the solar calendars happen to be just two of them.
  5. “India’s first education policy was framed in 1968 based on the famed Kothari Commission report, the second in 1986 and the third—a revision of the 1986 policy—in 1992.The official cited above said it’s not as if the previous policies were implemented quickly. In fact, making eight years of education compulsory was part of the 1968 policy but it was implemented only in 2009 through the Right to Education Act.”
    A depressing read, particularly for me, but the state of India’s NEP today mirrors much of India’s inaction on this in the past.