Links for 2nd May, 2019

  1. “I think that most capitalists don’t know how to divide the economic pie well and most socialists don’t know how to grow it well, yet we are now at a juncture in which either a) people of different ideological inclinations will work together to skillfully re-engineer the system so that the pie is both divided and grown well or b) we will have great conflict and some form of revolution that will hurt most everyone and will shrink the pie.”
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    Written from an America centric viewpoint, but the article is worth reading for the wealth of data it shares, as also for the viewpoint about the need to reform capitalism.
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  2. “The solution, Wishnatzki believes, is to make a robot that can pick strawberries. He and a business partner, Bob Pitzer, have been developing one for the past six years. With the latest iteration of their invention—known around the farm as Berry 5.1—they are getting close.”
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    Strawberry fields forever. The article is worth reading because it speaks about robots, unemployment, demographics, immigration and the inevitability of agriculture becoming ever more mechanized.
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  3. “He also had a warning to anyone who assumes it will be “business as usual” once America’s Trump fever breaks. The idea that the Trump presidency is some sort of accident, he says, is a fantasy.”
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    An interview with the outgoing French ambassador to America. Worth reading on trade, Israel, Iran and much else besides.
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  4. “The Scrabble career of Nigel Richards went from great to astounding this week, after he won the French-language Scrabble World Championships. A New Zealand native, Richards has won several English-language titles; his new victory follows weeks of studying a French dictionary.”He doesn’t speak French at all, he just learnt the words,” his friend (and former president of the New Zealand Scrabble Association) Liz Fagerlund tells the New Zealand Herald. “He won’t know what they mean, wouldn’t be able to carry out a conversation in French I wouldn’t think.”
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    Oddly depressing, for multiple reasons. Takes the romance out of Scrabble, for one, but also points to the inevitability of automation.
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  5. “What’s woefully underexplored by economists is what the prevalence of caste implies to the Indian economy. A basic premise of the free market model is the absence of entry barriers—not just for firms keen to enter markets for goods and services, but also for people pursuing career options. In theory, companies that are under the pressure of competition to perform would want to hire workers in a way that maximizes the productivity of their workforce; a caste bias would probably stymie the cause of corporate efficiency. None of it may be overtly or even consciously done, but the effects of such a tendency could add up. Caste, thus, would result in an inefficient allocation of human resources across the economy. ”
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    Worth reading if you are starting to learn economics, and aren’t quite sure what competition and barriers to entry mean – but also if you are a student of India today.
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Links for 30th April, 2019

  1. “On average that means each MP represented 1.85 million people. Now it is 2.4 million. There can’t be anything more absurd in the world.”
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    A very short takeaway from a very interesting article, about an issue that not too many people have thought about – remapping India’s parliament. This is going to be rather complicated.
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  2. “Bayes classifiers seem natural, and in many applications they are. But an interesting insight is that some classification problems may have hugely different costs of type I and II errors, in which case an NP classification approach may be entirely natural, not clumsy. (Consider, for example, deciding whether to convict someone of a crime that carries the death penalty. Many people would view the cost of a false declaration of “guilty” as much greater than the cost of a false “innocent”.) ”
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    Stats nerds only – but if you are one, a fairly interesting set of papers awaits you at the bottom of this link.
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  3. “At the end of the book, Fukuyama, when discussing the contemporary China, writes that “good enough” rule of law is often sufficient for fast economic growth. Moreover, technology is much more important than property rights. Fukuyama points out that in a Malthusian world, no property rights will provide you with an economic surplus; but technological development will (p. 249).”
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    Reading this article should hopefully encourage you to read a little bit more about Hayek, Mancur Olson (which I myself have just started to do, courtesy prodding from a friend), and Fukuyama himself.
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  4. “There is one key idea of the book. If you wish to have a functional political order that enables economic growth and gives people freedom from arbitrariness of the sovereign or from oppression by their peers, you need three components: (i) a strong state, (ii) rule of law, and (iii) accountability.”
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    Do not diss either the excerpt, or the post, or the book it reviews. The link is in fact the first one from the article linked to in 3 above – but the post is important enough to merit a separate link.
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  5. “Thus, I agree with McCloskey that truly “thinking like an economist” is a very rare outcome in a principles course, and unless you are comfortable as a teacher with setting a goal that involves near-universal failure, it’s not a useful goal for instructors. But it also seems true to me that the series of topics in a conventional principles of economics course, and how they build on each other, does for many students combine to form a comprehensible narrative by the end of the class. The students are not thinking like economists. But they have some respect and understanding for how economist think.”
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    Gokhale Institute this August embarks upon an attempt to disprove this lovely article. Wish us luck.

Links for 11th April, 2019

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

Links for 19th February, 2019

  1. “…granted, most supply has moved to Facebook and other social networks; it is no longer possible to build a viable web business with display ads. At the same time, the web is still as open as can be, which means there is room for new business models like subscriptions, a model that has only gotten started and is already producing far better content than the old mass market media model every (sic) did”
    The always excellent Stratechery blog on Spotify moving into the podcasting business. Read this to understand how pricing works in the world of the internet, and how an ad-based business is going to be difficult to sustain.
  2. “Goodhart’s law states that once a social or economic measure is turned into a target for policy, it will lose any information content that had qualified it to play such a role in the first place.”
    A current favorite of mine as an example: students must attend at least 75% of all classes in a semester assumes that a student will auto-magically learn once in class – for that is the reason behind the 75% attendance requirement. Do read, though. I’m sure you can think of a million different applications.
  3. “The constitution ensured that the Senate could protect the people against themselves, and simultaneously ensured that the Framers armored the Senate against the people. Should America be too Democratic, and grant too much power to the House, Madison worried that government would have a propensity “to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factitious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.””
    As an Indian, I enjoyed reading this as a reminder of the thinking behind the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha. And which is why I’d recommend you read it too!
  4. “What these results suggest is the headline inflation – expected to be in the 3% handle in the near future – will eventually start converging, over a 12-month period, towards core inflation which is currently running above 5%. If this were to come to pass, space for any monetary policy easing cycle – notwithstanding a one-off cute in February or April this year – would virtually evaporate.”
    Expect there to be an intense discussion about the differences between headline (overall) and core (overall minus fuel and food) inflation. This article is a decent analysis of the link between the two in the past, and today.
  5. “Consider Ms. Nishimasa’s daily routine. The preschool her two youngest children attend requires the family to keep daily journals recording their temperatures and what they eat twice a day, along with descriptions of their moods, sleeping hours and playtime. On top of that, her 8-year-old son’s elementary school and after-school tutoring class require that a parent personally signs off on every homework assignment.”
    A fascinating read from the NYT, to help us better understand the culture that is Japan.

Links for 15th February, 2019

  1. “This sounds boring, you might conclude. It sounds like work, and it sounds like life. Perhaps we should get used to it again, and use it to our benefit. Perhaps in an incessant, up-the-ante world, we could do with a little less excitement.”
    And also…
    “In a much-read story in The Times, “The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting,” Claire Cain Miller cited a recent study that found that regardless of class, income or race, parents believed that “children who were bored after school should be enrolled in extracurricular activities, and that parents who were busy should stop their task and draw with their children if asked.”
    An article written in praise of boredom, and I couldn’t agree more. Every now and then, it makes sense to get a little (or plenty) bored.
  2. “Back in November, Instacart changed how it paid its delivery workers, saying that it would provide them with an “earnings estimate, and a minimum $10 payment for their work. The controversy arose when it became clear that part of that $10 minimum payment was coming from tips that customers left for their Shoppers, allowing the company to pay less towards that minimum payment. Faced with lower weekly earnings, Shoppers complained, and the company said that it would keep tips separate from that minimum payment.Amazon and DoorDash have similar policies, and despite that outcry at Instacart, they have indicated that they’re sticking with them.”
    Not only a PR disaster, which it is. But also a great way to work through your understanding of elasticities of supply and demand.
  3. “More to the point, having big aircraft puts downward pressure on ticket prices. Carriers typically like to fill up at least four-fifths of their seats to maximize the revenue on each flight. The bigger the aircraft, the more discounting and promotions sales teams need to do to hit this target — one reason that the trend elsewhere in the industry has been away from the A380 and Boeing 747.”
    And if the second link above whetted your appetite about using concepts of elasticity in the world outside – then this article about large airplanes, availability of alternatives and changing partnerships will be quite useful.
  4. “The economy of favours that he describes in long, carefully researched chapters on the genesis of the Genco Pura Olive Oil company was familiar, too, because that was how much of New Delhi and north India’s business clans worked and still work, stepping in to dispense justice, protection, retribution where the government either failed or was absent.”
    There is always a rule of law in society – that may well be a definition of society. That law need not always come from government – where governments are weak, other institutions will step in to form, change and enforce the law. That’s the Godfather, and that’s why it is such a great read.
  5. “A welfare state makes sense if it means the state providing education and health care for all. Alternatively, handouts are affordable in a lower-middle income economy if you divert money from the less deserving, or if the promised benefits are not open-ended so that you don’t get a runaway bill. Without any of these, the old question begs an answer: Should you give a man fish, or teach him how to fish? Lurking hidden in the new bout of welfarism seems to be an admission that the state can’t deliver for the poor anything other than cash.”
    The earlier part of the article points out statistics that show how much India has grown over the past decade and a half. But competitive politics and botched policies mean that we’re once again in dole-out season. The more things change…