Notes from a paper about behavioral sciences and public policy

The title of the paper is “Overcoming behavioural failings: Insights for public administrators and policy makers“. The authors are Gulzar Natarajan and Dr. TV Somanathan. I found the points in the paper applicable in my own life, and suspect most of you will as well.

  1. Most modern advances in what is referred to as “new public management” focuses, they say, in institutions, processes and protocols. “Missing is the individual”.
  2. They focus on two areas: personal and professional. My notes today are form the first half of this paper, that is, the personal:
    1. Read and digest basic management principles from any one ‘standard’ text. Keep referring to this book throughout.
    2. Do not lick upwards and kick downwards.
    3. Classify work into three categories – the important, unimportant, and the rest. Be assiduous in following-up the important, ruthless with ignoring the unimportant and letting the system take care of it, and use judgement to delegate and intervene only when essential in case of the rest. Be prepared to accept reasonable or satisfactory quality in unimportant matters but seek excellence in important matters.
    4. Learn that you are part of a team, and work accordingly.

      (What this means in practice is that it is the institutional work that matters, not your own personal glory or legacy.)
    5. Writing is a skill which can be learnt and improved. Devote time and attention to improving your writing. Do write and re-write important drafts on policy matters until they convey exactly what you want them to convey. Think of possible ways your writing might be misinterpreted and change the wording accordingly to avoid ambiguity.

      (Write!)
    6. Be as courteous as possible as consistently as possible in your personal and professional life. Courtesy is twice blessed: It helps those who meet you, and enhances your professional effectiveness.
    7. To the extent that any decision is an exercise of judgement, benefitting one party or favouring one viewpoint, it is perfectly reasonable and fair for democratically elected governments and hierarchical superiors to make their informed choices even if contrary to the views expressed by us. As long as the due process has been followed, and there is no illegality, it is our duty to respect the decision and act on it. We need to move on with doing our work.

      (I am not sure I agree with this point. Or at least, I remain conflicted about how to think about it.)
    8. Never stop learning!
    9. Set up ways for feedback to reach you as quickly as possible, as anonymously as possible and as often as possible.
    10. Internships matter.

      They make the recommendation for IAS officers, but it is oh-so-true for academia! That is, more people in academia should step out of their cocoons and see how the real world works.
    11. Build out your network. Nurture it, grow it, tend to it.

      I am really, really bad at this!

Growth. Just, only, simply Growth.

Anybody who has been subjected to an introductory econ class by me has inevitably been through this:

I’ve been talking about Gapminder in my classes for over a decade now, and have written about it on these pages a number of times. I’m still to come even remotely close to being bored: it is simply that good. But today, I want to point out a feature of this graph that is a nice way to get started on thinking about economic growth.

As I always say when I introduce Gapminder to students for the first time, this is what Hans Rosling1 used to call the “Health and Wealth” chart – for obvious reasons. This is the crucial bit though: there is no country that is towards the top left of this chart, and there is no country that is towards the bottom right.

Rich countries – that is, countries with high GDP per capita – have better health outcomes. Poor countries – that is, countries with lower GDP per capita – have worse health outcomes. Yes, we are measuring health through only one parameter, and yes we can never be sure in what direction the causality runs2 – all that I’ll happily concede. But still, richer countries have better health outcomes. I’m, as they say, willing to die on this hill.

Growth matters.


Growth, or GDP per capita, or material well-being – I’ll conflate these terms and give textbook authors a heart attack in the process – they aren’t an end in and of itself. They’re the means to achieving ends: health, education being just two of them.

And yes, growth comes at a cost, and there are problems with growth – many, many problems. But still.

Growth matters.


And as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Lant Pritchett is a bhakt when it comes to worshipping growth:

Broad-based growth, defined as the process that raises median income, is far and away the most important source of poverty reduction. There is no instance of a country achieving a headcount poverty rate below 1/3 of its population (at moderate poverty line of $5.50) without achieving the median consumption of that of Mexico. This is not to say that there do not exist anti-poverty programs that are cost-effective and hence should be expanded, or, conversely, that there are anti-poverty programs that are not cost-effective (or even have zero impact on poverty) and should be cut back or eliminated. Analyses of these types of programs would enable a more efficient use of resources devoted to poverty reduction. But large and sustained improvements in global poverty will almost certainly have to focus on how to raise the productivity of the typical person in a poor country, which is a key source of national income growth.

https://econofact.org/poverty-reduction-and-economic-growth

Pritchett’s fervent defense of the idea of worshipping growth stems from two places. One, as a worthy idea in and of itself, but more so because he thinks that development economists have lost their way a little bit:

The only solution to world poverty is vast increases in the productivity per person which would be the result of sustained economic growth that is broadly shared and increases in national development. This is going to require the answers to many complex and interesting questions, and research into those questions is, to my mind, the domain of development scholarship. And, when national development is achieved the kinky development agenda is (nearly) completely solved through general social progress.

https://www.ideasforindia.in/topics/poverty-inequality/getting-kinky-with-chickens.html

(By the way, this article carries my all-time-favorite title ever.)

He is saying, in plain simple English, that growth is what matters. Everything else that is currently going on in development economics is secondary.

Growth matters.


And as one might anticipate by now, Gulzar Natarajan agrees:

I am strongly inclined to argue that foreign aid should be confined to either development of pure physical infrastructure or for R&D or for state capacity building and should avoid advocating or supporting specific social development programs in areas like health, education, nutrition, agriculture etc. As I will try to explain, there is something about social development programs that demands that these societies struggle hard on their own to make difficult collective social and political choices.

https://gulzar05.blogspot.com/2020/09/leave-poverty-alleviation-to-developing.html

And this excerpt too:

If Kenya needs to fix its school education system, its stakeholders need to grapple with the real reasons why children are not attending schools, why teachers are not accountable, why the quality of instruction is so poor, and prioritise resource allocation and make political choices accordingly. There is a path dependency associated with reaching the destination. Technical solutions are a diversion from the real task.
For example, take the issue of teachers accountability to the parents. A biometric attendance solution is a good innovation but in a complex system can at best offer the illusion accountability and that too for a short-time, while also postponing the imperative to undertake the reforms like making the school and teachers accountable to the local community.

https://gulzar05.blogspot.com/2020/09/leave-poverty-alleviation-to-developing.html

What he is really saying is that Goodhart’s law is a real problem, and we should cut to the chase and focus on the real, underlying problem, rather than chase relatively easily measurable metrics.

That is, getting teachers to punch in on time is no guarantee that they’ll teach well, much like getting students to attend classes is no guarantee that they’ll learn well. But making attendance mandatory, and measuring it, gives us the satisfaction of Having Done Something.

But the point of getting education “right” is to make people more productive. The point of getting education “right” is not to have teachers (or students) turn up on time!

And the point of helping folks become more productive is, as always the fact that:

Growth matters.3

  1. legend. Absolute legend.[]
  2. it runs both ways, but you get to say that only after many years of kadi tapasya[]
  3. In the post coming up on Monday, I’ll review a book that helps us understand why[]

The Solow Model in Action

One of the most useful models to know when you are thinking about the long term growth prospect of any nation is the Solow model. Or as Marginal Revolution University refers to it in what I think is the best video available about the topic online: The Super Simple Solow Model.

Anybody can (and everybody should) see all the videos in that series. What I’m going to attempt to do in today’s post is try and explain to you how to think about the Solow model, and also speak a little about why it (the Solow model) matters.

I’d written a series of short posts about the Solow Model about four years ago: if you (like me) prefer reading to viewing, here they are, in order:

  1. The difference between the long run and the short run
  2. How to think about long term growth
  3. What does capital mean in the context of economics?
  4. Small economies, big economies
  5. The importance of institutions
  6. Understanding depreciation

Now, today’s essay is not so much about the model, but about how to use the model to think about the real non-ivory-tower world.

I often say in classes that economic models are like photographs taken by smartphone cameras. They are abstractions of reality. They can’t possibly capture all the nuances, hues, details and features of whatever it is that you are photographing. And looking at the photograph gives you an idea of what it might have been like to actually be there – but you cannot possibly ever experience it yourself.

Similarly, a model is an abstraction of reality. It cannot possibly capture all that you need to know about the real world. And using a model as a crutch to get to grips with reality is like seeing a photograph and imagining yourself there. As a thought experiment, it’s fun. As a way to reach policy decisions, it is fraught with risk. 1


Noah Smith came up with an excellent post recently about the Global South, which triggered this essay. His essay is a must read, and in a loosely chronological sense, it speaks about the history of convergence in the world. More to the point, it helps one understand the point I was trying to make above:

Economists generally agreed that instead of unconditional convergence, countries showed “conditional convergence” — that poor countries could only reach parity with rich ones if they had broadly similar institutions and levels of human capital . The subtext was that poor countries just didn’t have what it took to become rich. On the political left, this was of course taken as evidence that developing countries were being held down by neocolonialism, or at least that the capitalist global economic system didn’t have what it took to lift nations out of poverty.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/checking-in-on-the-global-south)

But the story soon gets better:

Since the mid-1990s, developing countries began to converge toward levels of income of advanced countries. This process accelerated and became strongest in the 2000s…[This] is not driven by advanced nations lowering their growth performance but rather by developing countries raising theirs…Essentially, the entire distribution of growth amongst rich countries has remained stable over time; in contrast, the entire distribution of poor country growth has shifted up.

https://www.cgdev.org/sites/default/files/new-era-unconditional-convergence.pdf

And today, as Noah points out, the world is a much, much better place than it was about seventy years ago. Nations, particularly those in South East Asia, that would simply not have been thought about as having rapid growth prospects are today all but developed nation status (he mentions Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam and Bangladesh in particular) – and a great way to understand my little series about the Solow model and the MRU video is by reading this essay and reflecting on it.


But the basic point of the Solow model is this: growth matters. It is, in fact, the only thing that matters:

Broad-based growth, defined as the process that raises median income, is far and away the most important source of poverty reduction. There is no instance of a country achieving a headcount poverty rate below 1/3 of its population (at moderate poverty line of $5.50) without achieving the median consumption of that of Mexico. This is not to say that there do not exist anti-poverty programs that are cost-effective and hence should be expanded, or, conversely, that there are anti-poverty programs that are not cost-effective (or even have zero impact on poverty) and should be cut back or eliminated. Analyses of these types of programs would enable a more efficient use of resources devoted to poverty reduction. But large and sustained improvements in global poverty will almost certainly have to focus on how to raise the productivity of the typical person in a poor country, which is a key source of national income growth.

https://econofact.org/poverty-reduction-and-economic-growth

I came across this quote in an essay by Gulzar Natarajan, and the rest of the essay is worth reading in its entirety – but I’ll resist talking about it today – maybe tomorrow!


  1. Let me be clear: I am not criticizing modeling as an endeavor. I am simply stating that it has its limitations.[]

Two Very Different Takes

Ajay Shah had what I thought was a pretty good piece in the Business Standard the other day (h/t Murali Neelakantan). While the headline of the piece was “Price controls for vaccines?1, it was essentially about the best way to ensure delivery of the vaccine to every nook and cranny of India.

The great Indian vaccination story has begun. Private health care firms will be required for reaching the masses. A basic tenet of economic policy is that price controls work poorly. If price limits are brought in, this will limit private outreach to cities.

https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/price-controls-for-vaccines-121030700896_1.html

And to make his point, he used the example of demat securities settlement.2

In the event, non-interference prevailed: The price charged by DPs was left to market prices. Competition developed, and the prices charged to customers crashed. Competition ate away the profit rate in the easy urban sites and DPs got the incentive to go forth into the great Indian hinterland, looking for more business. This generated outreach.

https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/price-controls-for-vaccines-121030700896_1.html

Ajay Shah makes the point that this is how markets can work when allowed to, and uses this analogy to make the argument that governments should not cap the prices of vaccines (and their delivery).

So far, from an economists point of view, so good. Markets work when allowed to, and all is well with the world. But Gulzar Natarajan has a different point of view:

This is deceptive and an extremely misleading story. In fact it is shocking that this comparison could even be made. As I shall explain in brief, this extrapolation from the world of demat shares settlement to that of administration of vaccines is all logic with little understanding of the differences between the respective markets.

https://gulzar05.blogspot.com/2021/03/markets-are-not-solution-to-vaccine.html

He raises the following points:

  1. The tendency of those in rural areas to defer medical visits because of poverty/affordability concerns
  2. Share markets are about the luxury of choice. Vaccination isn’t.
  3. Vaccinations lead to large positive externalities3
  4. Market allocation in the face of deep inequality is problematic
  5. Private health clinics may not follow all follow-up protocols.4
  6. Effective markets need strong state capacity. Without it, price gouging, sub-standard medical equipment, fake vaccines are all more than possible.

Read the whole post, please, as usual. Towards the end, he makes the point that it is not about one or the other:

None of this is to say private market should not be part of the vaccine drive. A low enough price should be fixed and vaccines administered privately too. But coverage of the vast majority of Indians in remote and rural areas will have to be through the public system, as has always been the case with all other vaccines.

https://gulzar05.blogspot.com/2021/03/markets-are-not-solution-to-vaccine.html

None of this is meant to be a criticism of either Ajay Shah or Gulzar Natarajan, of course. The point of this post, instead, is to show you three things:

  1. “How might the author be wrong?” is a useful way to read everything.5
  2. The truth lies somewhere in the middle is a thumb-rule that fits almost everything. Especially Indian things. While there are disagreements that I have with Gulzar Natarajan’s piece, he is making the point that ignoring government (or public) delivery of vaccines is fraught with risk – and I agree.
  3. The guy who writes these posts (me, that is) himself didn’t focus enough on pts. 1 and 2 when reading Ajay Shah’s op-ed. Note to self: work harder!
  1. This will be behind a paywall, sorry[]
  2. Don’t worry if you don’t know what this means. Run a simple Google search and plunge right in to the first three articles. You’ll get a reasonably clear idea.[]
  3. I’m quoting him, ok?![]
  4. Of course, neither may public hospitals![]
  5. It’s also a useful way to attend classes[]

On Productivity

I really liked Patrick OShaugnessy’s reply to a question that Kunal Shah asked on Twitter recently:

It’s not just mediocre team members at a start-up, of course, it’s everywhere. As Gulzar Natarajan pointed out in a blogpost a while ago, it is also a problem with bureaucrats in government:

Are meetings organised most effectively – in terms of their periodicity, whether clear and brief agendas are communicated in advance, what gets discussed, and how the minutes are recorded? How are the meeting outcomes followed-up? How are failures to comply addressed?

http://gulzar05.blogspot.com/2021/01/management-productivity-improvements.html

The answer, by the way, is usually no, except for what gets discussed and are the minutes recorded. That part is done scrupulously, but the rest of it, not at all. Meetings are not periodic, clear and brief agendas are not sent beforehand, and worst of all, meeting outcomes are not followed up, and there is no clear understanding of what happens if failure to comply is observed.

In fact, I’d add one point to Gulzar Natarajan’s list, the meetings never end with a clear plan of action, who is responsible, and when and how a follow-up is to happen.

Here’s a point that people often miss out on they call a meeting: meetings are expensive. A meeting that lasts for an hour and involves ten people has cost the organization ten hours of work. The meeting had better have been worth the work that could have been done otherwise.*

In fact, the entire blogpost ought to be read by everybody involved in any kind of administrative set-up. Often, people in an organization have no clue about what the organizational objective is, whether work-allocation is effective or not (both in terms of the quantum of work that a person does, but also whether this person is truly equipped to do the work allocated to them), and how monitoring is done.

Human resource management is, quite simply, an alien concept.

The last paragraph from his post is worth pondering over:

While waiting for such a leader is not an institutional solution, it’s a pointer to prioritising the adoption of basic management practices. This is about the adoption of very simple and basic work, people, and situations management techniques, and not the sort of stuff one learns from management schools. Unfortunately, it’s not an area that receives any attention in conventional academic research and management consulting.

http://gulzar05.blogspot.com/2021/01/management-productivity-improvements.html

And if any student reading this is wondering where to get started in this regard, here’s a good place.

* Narrator: It never is

Notes on “Re-aligning global value chains” Part II

Yesterday, we took a look at how China makes it difficult for supply chains to move away from that country. That happens through a combination of mind-boggling scale and efficiency, coupled with astute moves up the ladder in terms of no longer dealing with just cheap manufacturing. Think robotics, app development, advanced and skilled manufacturing units. After that, the gravity model takes over, and well, good luck moving out of China.

Today, we ask the following question: let’s assume that all that is somehow put to the side, and a country is looking to move out of China. What are the chances this firm will come to India?

Again, we’ll use Gulzar Natarajan’s excellent article as the basis of our discussion, and foray into other parts of the internet. Let’s begin:

First, a quote from within Gulzar Natarajan’s post:

“Nomura Group Study found that in 2019, out of the fifty-six companies which shifted their production out of China, only three of these invested in India; while 26 went to Vietnam, 11 to Taiwan, and 08 to Thailand. In April 2020, Nikkei noted that out of the 1,000 firms which were planning to leave China and invest in Asian countries, only 300 of them were seriously thinking of investing in India.”

300 out of 1000 isn’t great, you might think, but it’s not bad, surely. Well, read again: it’s “seriously thinking”, not actually relocated. If you want to take a look at action, not thoughts, it is 3 out of 56. About 5%.

Why?

Let’s begin with this tweet:

And here’s (to my mind) the most interesting quote from within the editorial:

“The situation is far worse when it comes to comparisons with China in the EoDB. It takes double the time to start a business in India as compared to China, around six times as much to register property and double the time—and also in terms of the value of the contract—to enforce a contract. And, this is without even looking at the policy flip-flops that this newspaper catalogues diligently.”

The real measure of success when it comes to the Ease of Doing Business ranking is not how far we’ve come, but far we have to go. And it’s going to be a long haul.

This article, which I got from reading Gulzar Natarajan’s post, is instructive in this regard.

Sample this:

““Navigating labour laws is a total mine-field because interpretation is left to the courts and the officers and can be done in more than one way and removing an incompetent worker is not easy,” Gopal said. “I can get a divorce faster than removing a factory worker for non-performance.” In Karnataka, an employer would have to give three warning letters, a show-cause notice, have two inquiries — one external and one internal, and then terminate an employee only if the charges are proved to be serious. “Theft is considered serious but if an employee is lazy and doesn’t perform, that may not be taken as serious,” Gopal says. “In one’s own company, one cannot hire and fire.””

This article is just about furniture, but there are similar problems in every single sector in India.

To which, usually, there are two responses:

  1. Yes, but we have to start somewhere, don’t we?
  2. Yes, but we’re so much better than we were before!

Yes, sure, in response to both of these statements. But keep in mind that firms who are looking to move here are not going to ask if we’re better than we were before. They’re going to ask if we’re better than our competition today. Are we better than Vietnam, for example? What about Bangladesh? And if the answer is no, why should firms come here?

For our domestic market isn’t (yet) a good enough answer, unfortunately.

Our domestic consumption wasn’t large enough or lucrative enough for firms to locate themselves here before the pandemic – it’s obviously reduced since then.

And bureaucracy (not to mention bureaucracy-speak!) has gone up:

“On Sunday, for instance, the home ministry issued a clarification intended perhaps to limit the numbers of those who would be allowed to travel to their villages to a category called ‘genuine’ stranded migrants. The letter from the Centre to chief secretaries in the state administrations reads: “The facilitation envisaged in the aforesaid orders is meant for such distressed persons, but does not extend to those categories of persons, who are otherwise residing normally at places, other than the native places for purposes of work, etc. and who wish to visit their native places in normal course.”

I think I am reasonably good at English, but I still don’t know what this means. Even if I were to understand it, I do not know how I would go about implementing it! And that’s me, a guy who teaches using the English language for a living, and writes a blog in the English language. What chance does a manufacturer have? What chance does a non-Indian manufacturer have?

Government, in plain simple terms, has to get out of the way. Unfortunately, we seem to be heading in the opposite direction.

R Jagannathan writes in the Livemint:

“Companies compete, while governments can only enable. Governments cannot create global champions, though mercantilist countries like Japan, South Korea and China did do so at one point. What governments can do is create an enabling policy and regulatory environment that fosters economic growth and lets companies scale up. Airtel and Reliance Jio did not emerge as India’s two big telecom survivors because the government anointed them as winners. Nor did TCS, Infosys and Wipro become global outsourcing giants because of the government. They became global biggies because the policy environment for their growth was positive both in India and abroad.”

I might wish to disagree with parts of that excerpt (Studwell alert!), but I am in complete agreement with the broad message:

“The government holds the lock but not the keys to Atmanirbhar Bharat. As long as the lock is well oiled, companies will find the keys on their own.”

As of now, though, the lock is far too rusty, far too old and far too much like a pre-1991 model.

Notes on “Re-aligning global value chains”

There is a danger that this may well end up becoming a habit, I publishing notes on an article written by Gulzar Natarajan, but well, it’ll be a worthwhile habit.

Here’s the one sentence take-away: “Good luck trying to move these chains away from China. Especially India.”

Ok, two sentences. My blog, my rules.

The article begins on a fairly upbeat note, if you think that a re-balancing of these chains away from China is a good idea. Japan has been mulling on this idea for a while, and the trend has only accelerated since the pandemic struck.

It goes on to speak about how the USA, and ‘like-minded’ nations such as Australia, India and Japan have also been considering walking down this path.

But then we enter into problematic territory:

  1. The pandemic has only accelerated this trend, as we already mentioned.
  2. Good luck.

Gulzar Natarajan pulls an extensive quote by Tim Cook from Inc. A part of it is quoted below:

“And the part that’s the most unknown is there’s almost two million application developers in China that write apps for the iOS App Store. These are some of the most innovative mobile apps in the world, and the entrepreneurs that run them are some of the most inspiring and entrepreneurial in the world. Those are sold not only here but exported around the world… China has moved into very advanced manufacturing, so you find in China the intersection of craftsman kind of skill, and sophisticated robotics and the computer science world.”

Tim Ferris had a useful insight that is relevant in this context. I’m paraphrasing here, but my takeaway is that it is perhaps better to be very good at a few things than be perfect at one and abysmal at everything else.

China is very good at a few things, and that makes it difficult to shift away from that country. It’s not enough, any longer, to be very good at cheap manufacturing. Not if you want to compete with China, because they’re still very good at that – and so much more.

And speaking of being very good at manufacturing:

“She is just one of dozens of workers we see at sewing machines and assembly tables at this umbrella factory. The factory tells us each worker will sew 40 umbrellas an hour, 1,600 a week. By year’s end, that’s 80,000 umbrellas a year from each worker like Chang. More than half those umbrellas will be sold in the United States. The factory chairman Lu Xinmiao reveals to us one of their biggest clients is Costco.”

And, from the same article…

“The head of the factory, Zhejiang Qingyi Knitting Company, tells us that if they could, they would hire 200 more workers today. He tells us that there is now more competition for workers. Some estimate it will take another 45 million workers from rural China within the next five years just to keep up with the demand for product. Here in Datang, Lu Xinmiao has given his employees 20 percent raises to make sure they stay. Cheng now makes 2,500 yuan a month, equal to $357.”

The article I quoted from speaks about umbrellas. Gulzar Natarajan speaks about coffins and bras.

Sample this, from The Economist:

“In this “Town of Underwear”, as the local government likes to call it, there are thousands of similar factories. Gurao produces 350m bras and 430m vests and pairs of knickers a year for sale at home and abroad. Undies account for 80% of its industrial output.”

But we can go on and on – specialized manufacturing that is still relatively cheap, especially when you take into account scale and (at least adjusted for the price that you’re paying) quality, means that China is still – even now! – a world beater in the manufacture of almost anything.

And the days of the bottom of the “manufacturing smile” are long since past for China as a whole:

“China now ranks second only to the United States in terms of start-up investment. From 2014 through 2016, China provided just under 20 percent of the world’s venture capital.”

That is from a McKinsey report titled Asia’s Future is Now. Left unsaid in the title is the fact that this is so because China would want it to be so.

In tomorrow’s essay, we’ll take a (big picture only) overview of how much of this cheap manufacturing shift away from China – to the extent that it happens at all – will actually come to India.

Notes on “India’s Footwear Industry: A Reality Check”

Gulzar Natarajan has an excellent, excellent blogpost up on this blog, Urbanomics, titled “India’s Footwear Industry: A Reality Check“. In what follows, I make notes for myself about the post in terms of what it reminds me of, what I did not understand, and additional links or resources I learnt about while reading the post.

  • “The footwear industry makes 2 billion pairs, of which 286 million pairs were exported last year. It employs 2-4 million people, the vast majority as informal and contract labour and/or hired through manpower agencies and at very low salaries in the range of Rs 6000-10000.”
    ..
    ..
    Reading more about this helped me land up on a website called worldfootwear.com, and I learnt of the existence of the 2019 World Footwear Yearbook. In 2018, the world manufactured 24.2 billion pairs of footwear, and the industry grows at about 3% a year in normal circumstances – give or take a few points.
    ..
    ..
    90% of all shoes manufactured in the world come from Asia. That makes sense, as Asia is responsible for 54% of the world’s demand for footwear on an annual basis.
    ..
    ..
    China alone was responsible in the year 2018 for about 70% of the world’s exports.
    ..
    ..
    All of these snippets come from this page.
    ..
    ..
  • “As a summary, the current state of the Indian footwear industry is characterised by small scale, very low productivity, low automation, stagnant growth, and pervasive informality.”
    ..
    ..
    One of the reasons I liked reading this blogpost so much is because while I get to learn a lot about the footwear industry in India, I also get to reflect on how so much of what is true for the footwear industry is also true of other industries in India. The inability to break out of the small scale (about which much more below), the low levels of automation and the pervasive informality are to be seen in almost all industries in India. There is, perhaps, a sociological point to be made about whether the causality runs from the inability to scale to informality or the other way around (or indeed, both!), but we’ll save that for another day.
    ..
    ..
  • “The highest value market segment is the mainstream global branded manufacturing in non-leather footwear. But this is a segment that has proved elusive even to the Chinese manufacturers, especially in the global market. It may well be outside the reach of Indian manufacturers, unless some particular brand breaks out due to a combination of exceptional entrepreneurship and even more exceptional good fortune.”
    ..
    ..
    As you will learn later on in this blogpost, Gulzar Natarajn seems to be as big a fan of “How Asia Works” as I am, and perhaps a bigger one. One of my favorite questions to ask in class as a consequence of reading that book is this one “Name one globally recognized brand from ASEAN nations”. This applies to India, and to a lesser extent to China as well – that’s basically the point that is being made here. Being a manufacturing and export powerhouse is not the same as building globally recognized brands.
    ..
    ..
    This brings to mind both the “manufacturing smile” as well as Peter Thiel’s distinction between technology and globalization. It also raises important questions about what paths India should choose between for the next two decades when it comes to manufacturing policy, but again, more on that later.
    ..
    ..
  • “The next best alternatives may be to increase their share of the Indian branded manufacturing segment and become large scale contract manufacturers for global brands. This is the playbook of the Chinese footwear industry.”
    ..
    ..
    Have you read Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight? Don’t know who Phil Knight is? Well, have you heard of Nike? Read especially the bits about his travels in Japan, in search of contract manufacturers.
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  • Gulzar Natarajan’s first recommendation when it comes to the footwear industry in India is to be a contract manufacturing hub. Easier said than done! (To be clear, that is not a criticism of the point he makes – it is a reinforcing of his message, and also a reminder to readers that India is not quite ready to this just yet, for a variety of reasons).
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    One of these reasons is actually mentioned in a more recent post by the same author, regarding Vietnam’s recent agreement with Europe about tariffs on Vietnam’s exports.
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    What about India and the EU, you ask?
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    “Negotiations for a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the EU and India were launched in 2007 and suspended in 2013 due to a gap in the level of ambition between the EU and India.”
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  • The last bullet point was about India making for the world. Gulzar Natarajan goes on to point that we must also think about India making footwear for India.
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    “Any strategy to increase local branded manufacturing to capture this market has to focus on Make for India (and not Make in India for the world). This does not mean skimping on quality, but competing with the imported manufacturers by gradually improving productivity. This can be done only by efficiency gains to cut costs – improving labour productivity, local component manufacturing, greater automation (not full automation, but enough to enhance labour productivity), and economies of scale.”
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    He speaks about each of these four points: improving labor productivity, local component manufacturing, greater automation and economies of scale in his blogpost, click here to read those specific parts of the post.
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  • Gulzar Natarajan speaks about manufacturers having no incentive to train workers:
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    “In order to train the workers, the manufacturers have to incur the cost of trainings as well as bear their salaries. They have no incentive to bear this cost, even if a couple of months trainings can suffice.”
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    Well, maybe so. But this does remind me of an excellent excerpt from one of my favorite books to recommend to students about macroeconomics – Tim Harford’s “The Undercover Economist Strikes Back
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    The section on Ford and superior wages is especially worth reading. Perhaps I am missing an obvious point (which is all too possible), but I can’t help but wonder why Ford’s strategy cannot work in India – whether on footwear or elsewhere.
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  • “While capital investment subsidies are in general not a very desirable thing, some form of fiscal incentives may be necessary to encourage the smaller and medium sized manufacturers to increase their level of automation. Though targeting and tailoring these subsidies will be challenging, the government could consider a subsidy that is linked to some performance, either exports or on higher productivity growth.”
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    For those of you who have read the book, the reference is unmistakable. And for those of you who haven’t, I’ll say it again: How Asia Works is mandatory reading.
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  • “The Government of India already has specialised institutions on footwear design and leather research. There is a need to have them play a much more proactive role in supporting with supply of trained and quality designers. There may also be a need for an arrangement to access good quality designers at a reasonable cost. An incentive compatible subsidy mechanism may be required here too. This should be complemented with colour and fashion forecasting support.”
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    I actually find myself in disagreement here with Gulzar Natarajan. Reading this post made me aware of the Best Footwear Design and Development Institute (yes, it really exists), but isn’t this an example of government overreach? Facilitating a college like this is one thing, actually having government run it is quite another, no?
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    But the solution is in the quote above: incentive compatible subsidy mechanism. Another recommendation in this regard: please read In The Service of the Republic, by Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah. My notes on this book can be found here. Providing subsidies that are designed to keep incentives (preferably for both parties) in mind is a surprisingly powerful idea!
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  • “For sure, the industry will not collapse, but will meander along business as usual. There may even be the occasional mutant success. But there cannot be a sectoral exit out of the current low productivity and stagnation trap.”
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    It is oddly depressing to have Gulzar Natarajan be pessimistic about the growth prospects for this sector, particularly because it is so hard to disagree with him on this account.
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  • He is against tax breaks, particularly because of the inevitable equilibrium in terms of the lobbying that will take place.
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  • “The conventional wisdom in this regard blames poor quality of infrastructure, restrictive labour laws, difficulty in assembling large land parcels, high cost of capital, and pervasive red-tape. These are all, in general, factors of concern.”
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    My favorite book to recommend to students in this regard is Bhagwati and Panagariya’s book “Tryst with Destiny“. And of course, in terms of policy prescriptions, Gulzar Natarjan’s own book “Can India Grow?
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  • Gulzar Natarajan has an extended section on the “innate charactersitics of entrepreneurs“. It is too long to excerpt, but it did remind me of an excellent paper on why productivity in India is so very low. Worth reading, especially if you are a student of micro, IO or India.
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  • “The impact of reforms like GST, while certainly beneficial in the long-run, may have ended up squeezing the vast majority of the small manufacturers. For a start, for these small manufacturers, the compliance costs in terms of hiring accountants and IT requirements are a non-trivial share of their profits. Then there is the structure of the GST tariffs – 18% for the components and 5% for the final product. This means that the manufacturers capital gets locked up as receivables for a long time. For small manufacturers, these costs are prohibitive.”
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    This point is a little weird. Let me explain what I mean when I say “weird”. I think almost every economist is aware of this issue, and has spoken about it repeatedly. But the level of awareness otherwise is very, very low. Again, the GST is a great idea with poor implementation. The unique nature of India’s economy (a blend of formal and informal along the supply chain for many, many things) makes the implementation worse.
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  • And perhaps the coda to this excellent blog post, and for me the most important part:
    “It is important for the Government to play an important role if the footwear industry can move significantly forward. The market by itself is unlikely to have the incentives or the capacity to manage that.”
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    This is a classically Studwellian recommendation. The problem is that the “no but markets will work if you let them” brigade will never accept this line of reasoning. Additionally, there are far too many people in India (especially within government) who will interpret this to mean that government needs to actively participate in the actual ecosystem by getting into manufacturing and allied activities.
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    And hardly anybody will get what I think is the actual Studwellian message. Government needs to carefully design incentive compatible subsidy mechanisms and make it clear to producers that it (the government) carries a very, very big stick – and that it is not afraid to use it. And well, if push comes to shove, actually use it. Please, read How Asia Works!

Authoritarianism in times of the corona virus

An anonymous reader muses upon the following question, and asks that I do so as well:

“This pandemic also brings out a clear cut difference between an authoritarian state and democratic state. For Authoritarian states, it is much easier to control the pandemic for they have surveillance over every movement of their citizens, which can’t be in a democratic state
So, this might also lead to states assuming more power and control after the pandemic gets over”

First things first, let me tease out two separate aspects of this question:

  1. Is there a case to be made for a state to be authoritarian while tackling the crisis?
  2. If the answer to the first question is in the affirmative, might it be likely that said authority will want to remain in power after the crisis is over?

Let’s consider the evidence at hand in terms of authoritarian governments being better at tackling the crisis:

Danielle Pletka, writing in The Dispatch, begins and continues her essay arguing against the idea that authoritarian regimes will  do a better job in these times:

Dictatorships make you sick. Not spiritually, not morally (though both may apply), but actually sick. Consider the responses to coronavirus by China and Iran, two authoritarian regimes whose rank mismanagement and compulsion to cover-up have driven the world to a full-blown pandemic.

She also shows this figure:

and quotes from The Economist:

Using data from the International Disaster Database, maintained by researchers at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, we analysed all recorded epidemics since 1960, from an outbreak of smallpox in Nepal in 1963 to more recent threats such as Zika and Ebola. The results were highly dispersed but a distinct trend was apparent: for any given level of income, democracies appear to experience lower mortality rates for epidemic diseases than their non-democratic counterparts (see chart). In authoritarian countries with China’s level of income, for example, we found that past epidemics have killed about six people per 1m population. In democracies with similar incomes, they have killed just four per 1m.

The key takeaway is this:

Authoritarian regimes are much more likely to be concerned with their image, and with keeping bad news down, because that is important to the perpetuation of said regimes. A media clampdown, in fact, is all but guaranteed if you are in an authoritarian regime. And I hope I don’t speak for myself when I say that is the last thing one could want.

We cannot fully test the counterfactual and know whether conversely regime support would have further eroded under restrictive media policy. However, our matching (quasi)-experiment strongly suggests that the authorities failed to reap obvious benefits from this strategy. Indeed, later restrictions on access to and reporting from the epicenter and the arrest of several activists seem to confirm our finding that the benefits of openness and transparency are tenuous at best. For better of worse, media control is key ingredient of authoritarian resilience.

The Atlantic argues that public trust, transparency and collaboration are key at such times:

Yet good public-health practice doesn’t just require control. It also requires transparency, public trust, and collaboration—habits of mind that allow free societies to better respond to pandemics. Democracies’ ability to cope with COVID-19 will soon be tested; after a proliferation of cases in South Korea, Japan, and Italy in recent days, officials are weighing how to respond. But citizens of democratic nations can reasonably expect a higher level of candor and accountability from their governments.

For these reasons, I find myself arguing against the idea that an authoritarian government will necessarily be better.

In addition, it is worth noting that Taiwan and South Korea – to the best of my knowledge the countries that have dealt with the crisis the best – are anything but authoritarian regimes today.

A better way to think about this issue is to ask if a country has the state capacity. Read this article by Gulzar Natarajan, and this review of In the Service of the Republic by me (preferably the entire book) to get a better idea about state capacity.


Now, the second question:

If the answer to the first question is in the affirmative, might it be likely that said authority will want to remain in power after the crisis is over?

Hungary has already succumbed:

On Monday, Hungary’s parliament passed a controversial bill that gave Orban sweeping emergency powers for an indefinite period of time. Parliament is closed, future elections were called off, existing laws can be suspended and the prime minister is now entitled to rule by decree. Opposition lawmakers had tried to set a time limit on the legislation but failed. Orban’s commanding two-thirds parliamentary majority made his new powers a fait accompli.

And this Twitter thread makes for depressing reading:

 


 

Might some leaders, and some citizens (from countries the world over) wish for a more authoritarian regime in the hope that the corona virus is better tackled than at present?

Perhaps.

But it will almost certainly make a bad situation worse, and the regime will almost certainly outlive the crisis.

And so, to me, it is an unreservedly bad idea.

To be clear, I know for a fact that the anonymous reader does not want such a regime: they simply wanted to air the question – and so, dear anonymous reader, thank you for helping make my thinking about this clearer than it was before!