The Via Negativas of Public Policy

I learnt of the phrase by reading Taleb:

[I]n practice it is the negative that’s used by the pros, those selected by evolution: chess grandmasters usually win by not losing; people become rich by not going bust (particularly when others do); religions are mostly about interdicts; the learning of life is about what to avoid.

https://fs.blog/2014/01/a-wonderfully-simple-heuristic-to-recgonize-charlatans/

And it is wonderful advice of course, always worth keeping in mind: sometimes the best way to learn is by cutting out the bad parts, rather than trying to add in new good ones. There is merit to both, of course – cutting out the bad and adding in the good. But maybe cutting out the bad ideas first is a, er, good idea?

Losing fat before adding muscle is one way to think about it.1


And so also with public policy! Pranay Kotasthane, co-author of Anticipating the Unintended, has a lovely video out on this topic:

Definitely worth a watch, and while I am tempted to list out the eight, I won’t – for at the margin, some of you might be tempted to not watch the video 🙂

But I’ll militate against the spirit of this post, and add one of my own to the list that you’re about to learn: time.

I think a student of public policy ought to avoid short-termism. Fancy pants speak that simply means don’t just think about the short term benefits, but also worry about the long term consequences.

Unfortunately (public policy is hard!) policies have a way of sticking around for long after they’ve outlived their usefulness, but that’s a story for another day.

For the moment, please watch the video 🙂

  1. I’m good at spouting theory, not so good at the practice![]

On The Optimal Incentivization of Bureaucracy

Incentives matter. That is how I (and every other economics professor lucky enough to teach principles of economics) begin my classes every year.

Consider these sentences:

The central tasks of a modern state can be placed in three broad categories — maintaining the rule of law, providing public goods to citizens and using fiscal tools to redistribute income.


An efficient bureaucracy is essential for a successful state.


The efficacy of a bureaucracy is dependent on the incentives or disincentives that individual civil servants face when they take decisions.

https://www.idfcinstitute.org/knowledge/publications/working-and-briefing-papers/bureaucratic-indecision-and-risk-aversion-in-india/

Bureaucrats, policymakers, students of public policy and us professors should read this excellent paper. But if you are a student of economics, just beginning your journey in the Dark Arts, you should definitely read this paper.

Why? Three main reasons:

  1. It is a wonderful way to understand why incentives matter
  2. It helps you understand why government offices (and their cousins) function the way they do
  3. Trying to understand the Indian economy without understanding this aspect of it is an impossible task.

The paper is titled “Bureaucratic Indecision and Risk Aversion in India”, and is freely available here. The authors are Sneha P, Neha Sinha, Avanti Durani, Ayush Patel and Ashwin Varghese. It is an extremely accessible paper, in the sense that there are hardly any pre-requisites for you to read it in its entirety, and if you take notes, the paper is guaranteed to leave you with a ton of reading material. All those are the cherries on top: the biggest advantage is that you get a much better understanding of why the Indian bureaucracy is the way it is, and what could be done about it.

Here are my quick reflections after having read the paper:

  1. If you are a student reading this paper, you might enjoy encountering prospect theory at the outset. Again, it is a great way to connect the dots between what you learn in a classroom and its real life application. (There’s further reading, if you are so inclined)
  2. The second section is (to me) the meat of the paper. The title is “The Causes of Bureaucratic Risk Aversion”, and the authors list out 12 in all. These are grouped under three separate headings. As a mnemonic for myself, I think of them as Structure, Culture and Nurture
    1. Structure is Organizational Design: whether through over-monitoring, not enough discretion being given, an overload of bureaucratic responsibilities, the typical bureaucrat simply doesn’t get the time, the bandwidth or the incentive to not be risk averse. In plain simple English, the authors are saying this: if you or I had been a bureaucrat, we would have done exactly the same things that our bureaucrats have been doing for years. And this is so because like our bureaucrats, we too would have responded rationally to the operating structure we are a part of. It is not the bureaucrats that need to be changed, in other words, it is the organization design of bureaucracy that needs to change. Or that is my understanding of the first half of this section.
      But when it comes to structure, the latter half of this section speaks about the way candidates are selected, about how they are trained and mentored and about how they are (under)paid. Each of these are important to understand, and I especially liked how benchmarking and comparisons were made using examples from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Speaking of which, please read Gulzar Natarajan on entrepreneurship as a desirable trait in a bureaucrat, and please see this website from Malaysia.
    2. Culture is Institutional Norms and Culture: Please (pretty please!) read the whole section. It is an eye-opener. Plus, it is full of delightful nuggets. For example, I learnt by reading this section that the Official Secrets Act doesn’t define what a secret is, but forbids government employees from revealing them.
      The authors say that accountability to process, rather than outcomes is a problem. Now that gives me a delightful problem to mull over for a long time to come. How to reconcile this point (which is, I think, fair and valid) with this post (which also, I think, is fair and valid? Thoughts and suggestions welcome!
      Shleifer and Vishny (1993) and Becker and Stigler (1974) are two papers cited in the last part of this section, and as a student, they are absolute must-reads.
    3. Finally, Nurture is Political Pressure: This section is about your political boss (or bosses, in some unfortunate cases). Anybody from the corporate world will immediately draw the link between this and the dreaded “dotted line manager”. Similar problem, and similar outcomes.
  3. What can (and should) change is what this concluding section is about.
    1. I loved the idea of linking public sector salaries to private sector wage levels (although as statistician I can’t help but think about how that might actually work in India)
    2. The Committees timeline is wonderful for students, in the sense that gives you a quick way to understand what has happened in this space since independence, and the enthu-cutlets can dramatically expand their “To Read” list.

As additional reading, should you have the appetite for it, here is what I would recommend:

  1. All posts tagged “Bureaucracy” from Gulzar Natarajan’s excellent, excellent blog.
  2. An old, tangential but delightful read: English August
  3. Ch06 of this year’s Economic Survey

Asking And Answering Important Questions

Shruti Rajagopalan asked a very important question on Twitter earlier this week:

I’m writing this post on Sunday evening, which is when Shruti asked this question (and you, of course, are reading it today) but so far, there haven’t been any encouraging responses to her query, save for this one:
That would be this report, and I don’t think it was recommending large purchase orders or calling out Prime Minister Modi’s incoherent vaccine policy. This is the entire paragraph on vaccination:

Vaccines: The Committee recommended that a vaccine should pass all phases of clinical trials before it is made public. Further, it recommended that the whole population should be vaccinated. In this regard, the Committee suggested that: (i) the cost of the vaccine should be subsidised for weaker sections of society, (ii) the cold-storage system across the country should be upgraded, and (iii) vaccines should be administered as per the World Health Organization’s strategic allocation approach or a multi-tiered risk-based approach.

https://www.prsindia.org/sites/default/files/parliament_or_policy_pdfs/Report%20summary%20COVID.pdf

Long story short, the answer to Shruti’s question is: nobody. None of us were prescient enough in 2020, and that is a failure on our part.


What Shruti is really asking for is this: who is India’s Alex Tabbarok?

Why do I say this? Because Professor Tabarrok was recommending/demanding large purchase orders…

We don’t want to find ourselves with a working vaccine but too little manufacturing capacity. From an economic point of view, it would make sense to install enough capacity so that everyone in the U.S. who wanted could be vaccinated within a month. Normally, new vaccines cannot be produced so quickly and in sufficient supply. Each step of the manufacturing process must be verified and tested, and inputs to the process may face their own supply chain bottlenecks. Just as shortages of swabs and reagents delayed the rollout of testing, shortages of glass vials, bioreactors or adjuvants (a substance that increases immune stimulation) may delay vaccines. For want of a vial, the vaccine could be lost. To stand a reasonable chance of having a substantial supply of vaccines in 2021, we need to plan for capacity and reinforce supply chains now.

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/04/opinion/coronavirus-vaccine.html

…on the 4th of May. That is the 4th of May 2020.

He had a post praising the idea of advance market commitments (AMC’s) out in February. Again, 2020.


And while the first excerpt up above was a plan for the USA alone, he and his collaborators expanded upon this plan, outlining what a globally coordinated plan may have looked like:

I’ve been working with Michael Kremer, Susan Athey, Chris Snyder and others to design incentives to speed vaccines and other health technologies. AcceleratingHT is our website and now features a detailed set of slides which explain the calculations behind our global plan. The global plan is similar in style to the US plan although on a larger scale. The key idea is that the global economy is losing $350 billion a month so speed pays. One way to speed a vaccine is to invest in capacity for 15-20 vaccine candidates before any candidates are approved, so that the moment a candidate is approved we can begin production (one can store doses in advance of approval). Most of the capacity will be wasted but that is a price worth paying. As Larry Summer says if you will die of starvation if you don’t get a pizza in two hours, order 5 pizzas. Human challenge trials are another way to speed the process.
A global plan is ideal since there are significant benefits to coordination. If each country invests in vaccines independently they will each choose the vaccine candidates most likely to succeed but that means all our eggs are a few baskets. There are over 100 vaccine candidates and they have different scientific and production risks so you want to choose the 15-20 which maximize the probability of success for the portfolio as a whole. To do that efficiently you need countries to agree that ‘I will invest in lots of capacity (more than I need) in candidate X if you invest in lots of capacity (more than you need) for candidate Y’, even knowing that the probability that X succeeds may be less than that of Y.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2020/05/acceleratinght.html

The website AcceleratingHT provides many more instances that reinforce my point, and as a student, reading the material there is genuinely useful.


A while ago, I wrote a post for students who want to work in the field of public policy. Alex Tabbarok’s work this past year is a great example of what that advice might look like in practice.

I do not know who India’s Alex Tabbarok is in 2021 – there may not even be one. But as a student, the correct question to ask is this:

What do I need to do to acquire the ability to be ahead of the curve when the next crisis comes around?

Here is my list in response to that question:

  1. Read, and write. Everyday, read and write. If you are a student of the humanities (and if you think about it, who isn’t?), you should be reading and writing everyday. It compounds, trust me.Don’t be afraid
  2. Learn the art of working backwards from the solution you want to get to. In this specific case, if you want the world to be vaccinated by the end of 2021 (let’s say), then begin by asking yourself what needs to be done to get there, but in reverse.
    7 billion vaccines will be needed – which are the manufacturers that are most likely to supply them – what do they need to get the job done – how can we get them what we need – what are the regulatory, financial, supply-chain-related hurdles they will face – how can these be removed – and so on…
    My point here is not the specifics of the exercise, whether in the case of vaccines today or something else tomorrow. My point is to learn and apply the art of working backwards from where you want to eventually be. I don’t know what you’re supposed to call this in consultant/management speak, but for starters, read about the game 21 flags in The Art of Strategy.
  3. Learn the art of being unafraid to ask big picture questions. Whenever you get that feeling of “Surely somebody somewhere must have thought to ask this question already?” – especially if you have been serious about pt. 1 above – ask the question. Repeatedly, furiously and publicly.
  4. Consume as much content as you can about crisis management from the past. (I’m working on this for my own self, and recommendations are welcome)
  5. Do not be afraid of putting out your potential solution out there. Your worst case scenario is that it is a wrong solution. As a society, we’re still better off rejecting wrong solutions than waiting for the perfect one. For rejecting a solution as being the wrong one forces us to learn more about the problem at hand.
  6. Most difficult of all: once you have offered a solution, remember that your job is to solve the original problem. Your job is to not defend your solution at all costs. This is hard.

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!

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[]

Notes on In Service of the Republic, by Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah

A book that I have recommended unhesitatingly to students who ask me about how to go about learning public policy is “In The Service of the Republic” by Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah.

In this Monday post, I plan to write my observations from having read the book.

The book is divided into six sections:

  1. Foundations
  2. Diagnosing the Indian Experience
  3. The Science
  4. The Art
  5. The Public Policy Process
  6. Applying These Ideas: Some Examples

Part V and VI are the meat of the book, and that’s a good thing! If you are a student reading this book, it will be really helpful to have many, many examples of what the actual applications of the theoretical parts are.

What follows below are my highlights from having read the book, divided into four sections, with some commentary below each excerpt. The book is, it goes without saying, much much richer – and you should definitely read it, especially if you are interested in the field of public policy!


The Big Introductory Idea

The first question in the field of public policy is: What objectives of public policy are appropriate?

And for whom? For the government, for the people in society, for the elected representatives or somebody else? These questions need to be asked (and answered), for that changes the answers to the question in quotation marks above!

While the state is often seen as benign or benevolent, almost like an uncle or a parent, we have to remember that at the heart of the state, there is violence. The state acquires a monopoly upon violence. States establish conditions where nobody is permitted to engage in violence, but the state is able to inflict violence.

If this definition of the state strikes you as unusual, you should read, at the very least, this Wikipedia article.

The big idea of liberal democracy is to limit state violence into a controlled, predictable and just form.

That’s the plan, at any rate.



 

 

 

On State Intervention and Market Failure

The free market tends to overproduce things which induce negative externalities and underproduce things that induce positive externalities.

The price mechanism matters!

Markets work, but nothing ever works perfectly. People can (and should!) always debate how perfectly markets work, but it is simply an unavoidable reality that they sometimes fail.

Now, when they fail, it is usually because of one of the following four reasons:

Market failures come in four kinds: Externalities, Asymmetric information, Market power and Public goods.

When such a market failure occurs, a state intervention may be necessary. Without one or more of these factors being present, it absolutely isn’t necessary. But even with their presence, we’re on thin ice when we recommend that the state intervene:

When faced with a proposed state intervention, our first question should be: What is the market failure that this seeks to address? When market failure is not present, we should be sceptical about state intervention.

The state can intervene in three ways:

In many fields, we see three pillars of intervention: production (e.g., government running schools), regulating (e.g., government regulating private schools) and financing (e.g., government paying kids to attend private schools).

But the state can also intervene when there isn’t a market failure:

Forcing companies to spend 2 per cent of their profit on ‘corporate social responsibility’ is a use of the coercive power of the state that is not connected with market failure. Companies are rational economic actors, and if there is a problem with non-compliance, monetary penalties would suffice. When the law threatens to put individuals in jail for violating the rule, this is an excessive use of force.

And, pleasingly enough as an economist, every now and then, externality problems can be solved by the market itself:

In Maharashtra, there are professional beekeepers now charging farmers anywhere from Rs 1000 to Rs 3000 for renting out boxes for a month. 2 This presence of a private market for pollination services shows that this contractual solution is a feasible one. Through these private contracts, we have solved the externality problem, without a requirement for state intervention.


———————————————————————————————————————

Management is Hard!

It’s hard for anybody, anywhere. It is much harder for government:

There is quite a management challenge in identifying the 0.1 billion poorest people, and accurately delivering Rs 100 to them every day.

It is made harder for the following reasons (each of which is discussed in detail in the book):

Public policy failures are born of: (1) The information constraint; (2) The knowledge constraint; (3) The resource constraint; (4) The administrative constraint; and (5) The voter rationality constraint.

And “democratic decision making” is often problematic (also see Garett Jones‘ book about this):

Direct democracy also suffers from majoritarianism, the idea that policy should be made based on the views of 51 per cent of the population. We must question the extent to which ‘the voice of the people’ is the oracle that must be followed. There is much more to liberal democracy than winning elections.

Incentives matter, and policies have unseen, unintended consequences. The entire book is about this, but the following was my favorite passage by far:

In 1902 in Hanoi, under French rule, there was a rat problem. A bounty was set—one cent per rat—which could be claimed by submitting a rat’s tail to the municipal office. But for each individual who caught a rat, it was optimal to amputate the tail of a rat, and set the rat free, so as to bolster the rat population and make it easier to catch rats in the future. In addition, on the outskirts of Hanoi, farms came up, dedicated to breeding rats. In 1906, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague that killed over 250 people.

Update: Aadisht sends in this, from Discworld:

Shortly before the Patrician came to power there was a terrible plague of rats. The city council countered it by offering twenty pence for every rat tail. This did, for a week or two, reduce the number of rats—and then people were suddenly queueing up with tails, the city treasury was being drained, and no one seemed to be doing much work. And there still seemed to be a lot of rats around. Lord Vetinari had listened carefully while the problem was explained, and had solved the thing with one memorable phrase which said a lot about him, about the folly of bounty offers, and about the natural instinct of Ankh-Morporkians in any situation involving money: “Tax the rat farms.”

The Tinbergen Rule is really and truly important, and not just in public policy:

Public choice theory predicts that public organizations will favour multiple objectives as this gives reduced accountability. Clarity of purpose is efficient for the principal and not the agent.


Thinking about how government functions:

The five pillars of checks and balances—data, intellectuals, media, legislature, judiciary—all work poorly upon state governments.

As it turns out, not only is management hard, but management at the state level is even harder.

Why is there such a dearth of research when it comes to public policy?

At present in India, there is no community which systematically looks for fully articulated solutions. Academic journals do not publish policy proposals, hence academic researchers are not keen to invent policy proposals.

Or to use the jargon of public policy, we are missing incentive compatibility.

As Isher Ahluwalia says, nothing gets done by writing it in a government committee report, but nothing ever got done without it being repeatedly written into multiple government committee reports.

Public policy proceeds along the margins, and then very slowly!

Don’t fix the pipes; fix the institutions that fix the pipes. Old saying in the field of drinking water

The public policy equivalent of give a man a fish versus teach a man to fish

 


All this apart, the authors of the book also outline the “full pipeline”  of the policy process:

Stage 1: Collect data

Stage 2: Descriptive and Causal Research

Stage 3: Inventing and Proposing New Policy Solutions

Stage 4: Competing Policy Proposals are debated

Stage 5: Internal Governmental Debates, and Choice

Stage 6: Translate Decisions into Legal Instruments

Stage 7: Construction of State Capacity, Enforcement

I would personally add a stage 8: Monitoring, Evaluation, Feedback Loops.

But that quibble apart, the book is quite an education for anybody who hopes to learn more about the art and the science of public policy. If you are such a person, this book is certainly for you.