Ashwini Deshpande interviewed by Scroll.in

We were lucky enough to get the chance to speak with Alex Thomas on Friday, and the video of the conversation should be up on YouTube soon enough. In a wonderful coincidence, Scroll.in published an interview with Ashwini Deshpande just a day later. It is a coincidence (to me) because Alex’s textbook is the first macro textbook that I read that speaks extensively about caste, gender and ecology.

Who is Ashwini Deshpande? An economist, currently with Ashoka University, Ashwini Deshpande has been working for a while on the economics of discrimination and affirmative action. The interview, conducted by Rohan Venkat, is a fun and instructive (and what a rare combination that is!) read on both the arc of Ashwini Deshpande’s career, and also on the work that she has done, and is currently doing.


Here’s an excerpt from a different source, before we get to the Scroll interview:

There’s a lovely new working paper by Ashwini Deshpande and Jitendra Singh on female labor force participation in India. We talked a little bit about this last time. Our last conversation was about the honor-income tradeoff, how there are all these things at home that are holding women back: public safety issues, child care issues.
They find something quite remarkable, which is that they don’t find much evidence of supply-side demographic characteristics, like household income, structure, motherhood or timing of childbirth, et cetera, to be very significant in the labor force participation. In fact, it has an effect on the level, but it’s not like the timing of the childbirth—you see this big drop-off and then they come back to the labor force and so on. They find that it’s mostly demand-driven, that actually female labor force participation is so low in India because the demand for women is very low.
There’s a second finding that they have. It’s bad news for India going into the immediate future, which is adverse economic shocks actually make this problem worse. Because a lot of the lack of demand or the fallen demand for female labor is because they’re getting displaced by the employment of male workers.
They find that when there’s an economic shock, like demonetization or current COVID constraints and things like that, you see women being driven out of the labor force.

https://www.discoursemagazine.com/culture-and-society/2021/09/16/ideas-of-india-female-friendships-and-fraternal-capital/

Why this excerpt? Well, as a young student, you often get to hear that economists are working on topic “x”, or feature “y” – and when you start to read the work itself, one tends to miss out on asking the big picture questions. This exceprt, I think, helps you focus on just that: the big picture question.

What is the big picture question, you ask? Simple: is women’s participation in the labor workforce so low because the supply is low? Or because demand for labor supplied by women is low? Or both? And how does one go about answering this question? So yes, the age at which women get married, how much education they receive, and cultural impediments to they working are all factors to be considered – but hey, maybe there just is a preference to hire males instead of females as well?

It goes without saying: read the paper, but this should help you read it better 🙂


The first part of the interview is about how Ashwini Deshpande got into this field of research, and is useful reading to understand the role of “luck” in the development of your research interests, and also to understand the resistance to change in terms of new research areas for economics twenty to thirty years ago.

There are a lot of interesting points in the interview, such as, for example, problems with recording women’s work better than is done right now (and what happens if it is not recorded correctly). There’s stuff in there about the lack of meaningful linkages between women’s education levels and the jobs that ought to become available as a consequence – and this could be because of (a lack of) sanitation, and increased mechanization on farms, among other things.

The interview is also useful reading because it introduces you to the so-called “Indian enigma“. (Please read “Where India Goes” if you haven’t already, and here’s an old review of the book on EFE.)

Here’s a chart from her paper that posits a different explanation (I’ve copied it from the Scroll interview, but it is from the paper as cited below):

UC: Upper Caste, SC-ST: Scheduled Castes, Schedules Tribes, OBC: Other Backward Classes. Credit: Ramachandran, Deshpande, The Impact of Caste: A Missing Link in the Literature on Stunting in India

We found that regions where the self-reported practice of untouchability was higher, the child height for upper caste children was unaffected, which means that, for example, Brahmin children were not shorter, compared to regions where untouchability was lower. But the average height of Dalit children was shorter in areas with higher practice of untouchability, compared to heights in areas with lower prevalence of untouchability.
That gives us a mechanism about how stigmatisation and social ostracism might affect child height. The fact that you have to be at the end of the queue in terms of receiving social services, maybe you get excluded actively. There’s a whole set of social and economic processes which either completely exclude these children or put them at the end of the queue.
What this suggests is that the greater prevalence of societal discrimination is associated with a worsening of the stunting problem.

https://thepoliticalfix.substack.com/p/interview-ashwini-deshpande-on-the

Now, you may agree, or you may disagree with her assessment – and that, of course, is more than absolutely fine. The idea, especially if you are a young student starting out on a voyage of discovery in the field of economics, isn’t to either form or change your opinion. It’s awesome to have opinions, and it’s awesome-r to have it change because of something you read or learn. But for the moment, to be informed about this body of work, and to go through it, would be a very good place to start.

As Ashwini Deshpande herself says in the interview:

Sometimes no number of facts can make people change their minds. Some people already have their minds made up. But such people are at the extremes. I believe a very large number of people believe in something because they don’t know better. They’ve just never been exposed to another way of thinking, another way of looking.
The idea is to expand that community of people. Reach out to the people who believe in something, maybe very strongly, but that’s only because that’s all they’ve ever heard. What CEDA is trying to do is to create an evidence base which is accessible. You can always produce evidence that is so obscure and so difficult to understand that nobody would want to engage with it.
But what we are trying to do at CEDA is, through pictures, through little data narratives, through short pieces, to summarise issues in a way that a lay person will find accessible. It’s like a ball that you set into motion, and hopefully it will spread to more and more people.
The more the number of institutions or portals that allow people access to data and debates in a democratic manner, the better.

https://thepoliticalfix.substack.com/p/interview-ashwini-deshpande-on-the

There are some great recommendations at the end of the interview, both to read and to view, and if you haven’t consumed them already, you have your work cut out for you.

If you are interested in reading more about Ashwini Deshpande, here is her CV, here is her faculty page, and here is her Twitter profile. A word of advice: do not click open her Twitter profile if you are feeling hungry. You can thank me later. 🙂

Links for Friday, 17th July, 2020

  1. David Perell writes a mid-year review. It is worth reading in full, and there were multiple excerpts that I wanted to include here.

Writing is nature’s way of showing you how sloppy your thinking usually is. My mind tends to skip between topics, and the quarantine has made it worse because my Twitter usage has increased. At its worst, I develop BuzzFeed Brain where I find myself skimming instead of reading, secretly hoping my next intellectual breakthrough is just a thumb-scroll away. Long-form writing, however, re-activates my focus muscle and that’s why I do it.

https://www.perell.com/blog/mid-year-review

2. Scroll on what Mumbai’s coastal road will look like. Next week’s episode on urbanization with Binoy will have this as a primary focus – keep an eye out for that one! The pictures are worth going through – full screen on a laptop/desktop recommended.

But the proposal reflects one of the many flaws that urban planners have found with the Mumbai coastal road project: it is expensive, beyond the city’s means and capacity and is likely to congest the city even further.
A group of architects and urban planners in Mumbai have attempted to highlight these problems through visual representations of the planned coastal road. Since 2016, the group – named the Bandra Collective – has created several animated GIFs that superimpose artists’ impressions of the coastal road on actual photographs of Mumbai’s landmark coastline.

https://amp.scroll.in/article/876929/what-will-mumbais-coastal-road-actually-look-like-an-eyesore-say-these-architectural-projections

3. Varun Grover raises some interesting questions in an article about caste in the Indian Express:

There are two main arguments against reservations — one, they bypass merit and two, they should be given on the basis of economic status alone because otherwise “rich Dalits are taking undue advantage of the policy”.
The broad logical observation here is that one can’t offer both these arguments together. If we are okay with poverty-based reservations then merit is not a genuine concern. That means we hate its bypassing only when a ‘lower-caste’ person gets ahead and not when a poor from our own caste does. That’s casteism 101.

https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/reservation-vinod-kambli-dalits-varun-grover-6501257/lite/

4. If you have kids at home, this is worth it – I and my daughter are working through it, and it is genuinely fun, and educational!

Welcome to Camp Google. Two engaging weeks of interactive activities and assignments which will make this extended summer memorable for kids at home.
Starting 1st July, 2020, we will share exciting and innovative assignments with your kids to help them explore skills such as painting, writing, storytelling, arts & crafts, coding and cooking. These assignments will also include internet safety tips which will teach you how to be responsible digital citizens while being safe online.

https://events.withgoogle.com/summercamp2020/#content

5. I haven’t read this just yet (I’m writing this on the 15th of July), but it was recommended by Grant Sanderson – and that’s good enough for me!

But Gödel’s shocking incompleteness theorems, published when he was just 25, crushed that dream. He proved that any set of axioms you could posit as a possible foundation for math will inevitably be incomplete; there will always be true facts about numbers that cannot be proved by those axioms. He also showed that no candidate set of axioms can ever prove its own consistency.

https://www.quantamagazine.org/how-godels-incompleteness-theorems-work-20200714

DNA, RNA, RT-PCR, Testing Methods, Supply Chains… and Politics

What is Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction?

Reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) is a laboratory technique combining reverse transcription of RNA into DNA (in this context called complementary DNA or cDNA) and amplification of specific DNA targets using polymerase chain reaction (PCR). It is primarily used to measure the amount of a specific RNA. This is achieved by monitoring the amplification reaction using fluorescence, a technique called real-time PCR or quantitative PCR (qPCR). Combined RT-PCR and qPCR are routinely used for analysis of gene expression and quantification of viral RNA in research and clinical settings.

Blah Blooh Bleeh Blah. Right?

Well, this is the test that will tell us if a person has got the corona virus or not. So listen up!

The corona virus is in the form of RNA:

Coronaviruses, so named because they look like halos (known as coronas) when viewed under the electron microscope, are a large family of RNA viruses. The typical generic coronavirus genome is a single strand of RNA, 32 kilobases long, and is the largest known RNA virus genome. Coronaviruses have the highest known frequency of recombination of any positive-strand RNA virus, promiscuously combining genetic information from different sources when a host is infected with multiple coronaviruses. In other words, these viruses mutate and change at a high rate, which can create havoc for both diagnostic detection as well as therapy (and vaccine) regimens.

But as best as I can tell, detecting the corona virus becomes pretty difficult unless it turns into DNA, which can be done by a process called Reverse Transcription.

With the newly formed DNA, replicate it – have it reproduce a lot, basically. That’s where PCR comes in. And with that (and a fluroscent dye that is added to make detection easier) you have a sample that you can check for the presence of the corona virus.

The first, PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, is a DNA amplification technique that is routinely used in the lab to turn tiny amounts of DNA into large enough quantities that they can be analyzed. Invented in the 1980s by Kary Mullis, the Nobel Prize-winning technique uses cycles of heating and cooling to make millions of copies of a very small amount of DNA. When combined with a fluorescent dye that glows in the presence of DNA, PCR can actually tell scientists how much DNA there is. That’s useful for detecting when a pathogen is present, either circulating in a host’s body or left behind on surfaces.

But if scientists want to detect a virus like SARS-CoV-2, they first have to turn its genome, which is made of single-stranded RNA, into DNA. They do that with a handy enzyme called reverse-transcriptase. Combine the two techniques and you’ve got RT-PCR.

So, here’s how it works, best as I can tell:

Coronavirus Detection Steps

 

That article I linked to from Wired has a more detailed explanation, including more detailed answers about the “how”, if you are interested. Please do read it fully!

Now, which kit to use to extract RNA from a snot sample, which dye to use, which PCR machine to use – all of these and more are variables. Think of it like a recipe – different steps, different ingredients, different cooking methods. Except, because this is so much more important than a recipe, the FDA wags a finger and establishes protocol.

That protocol doesn’t just tell you the steps, but it also tells you whether you are authorized to run the test at all or not. And that was, uh, problematic.

For consistency’s sake, the FDA opted to limit its initial emergency approval to just the CDC test, to ensure accurate surveillance across state, county, and city health departments. “The testing strategy the government picked was very limited. Even if the tests had worked, they wouldn’t have had that much capacity for a while,” says Joshua Sharfstein, a health policy researcher at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the coauthor of a recent journal article on how this testing system has gone awry. “They basically were saying, we’re going to use a test not only developed by CDC, but CDC has to wrap it up and send it to the lab, and it’s just going to be state labs doing it.”

The effect was that the nation’s labs could only run tests using the CDC’s kits. They couldn’t order their own primers and probes, even if they were identical to the ones inside the CDC kits. And when the CDC’s kits turned out to be flawed, there was no plan B.

By the way, if you want a full list of the various protocols that are listed by the WHO, they can be found here.

Back to the Wired article:

Another in-demand approach would look for antibodies to the virus in the blood of patients, a so-called serological test. That’d be useful, because in addition to identifying people with Covid-19, it could tell you if someone was once infected but then recovered. “The better your surveillance, the more cases you’re going to catch, but even with perfect surveillance you won’t catch everything,” says Martin Hibberd, an infectious disease researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who helped develop one of the first tests for the coronavirus SARS in the early 2000s. “Until we’ve got a full test of this type of assay, we don’t know how many cases we’ve missed.”

A serological test would also probably be cheaper than a PCR-based one, and more suited to automation and high-throughput testing. A researcher in Singapore is testing one now.

Here’s an early paper on the topic, if you are interested.

Serological assays are of critical importance to determine seroprevalence in a given
population, define previous exposure and identify highly reactive human donors for the generation of convalescent serum as therapeutic. Sensitive and specific identification of Coronavirus SARS-Cov-2 antibody titers will also support screening of health care workers to identify those who are already immune and can be deployed to care for infected patients minimizing the risk of viral spread to colleagues and other patients.

As far as I can tell, this method has not been deployed at all thus far, and that applies to India as well. Here’s a Wikipedia article about the different methods of detecting Covid-19 – it’s about more than that, the first section applies here. Here’s an article from Science about a potential breakthrough.

But whether you use any variant of the RT-PCR or the serological test, given the sheer number of kits required, there is going to be crazy high demandand a massive supply chain problem.

Along with, what else, politics, and bureaucracy:

 


The Wired article is based on reporting in the US, obviously, but there are important lessons to be learned here for all countries, including India.

Here are some links about where India stands in this regard:

 

I’ll be updating the blog at a higher frequency for the time being – certainly more than once a day. Also (duh) all posts will be about the coronavirus for the foreseeable future.

If you are receiving these posts by email, and would rather not, please do unsubscribe.

Thanks for reading!

 

On India’s Constitution, Part II

I fear I have taken on more than I can handle, by starting the process of teaching myself more about India’s Constitution.

I started in the previous month with what I thought would be a rather more simple question: how did the constitution start off? What were its founding principles, its aims, its intentions? Why were these the principles, aims and intentions?

Well, if this is indeed a rather more simple question, I fear many more Mondays in the months years to come will be devoted to the entire task I have set myself: to learn more about India’s constitution.

But hey, the one thing we have is time!

So allow me to indulge myself, and devote one more Monday to the topic we covered in January 2020: understand better the founding of the Indian constitution, before moving on to other topics related to it.

I’d recommend you begin by watching this video of a speech given by Rohinton Nariman in the year 2013. It is nearly fifty minutes long, but all of those fifty minutes are worth your time. In my case, I ended up watching it twice, and if only I had time, I would watch it again. It raises many, many questions that make me want to learn more – and that is a good thing.

Here are just five things that I wanted to learn more about:

  1. B.N. Rau and the travels that he undertook before writing the Constitution,
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  2. The city of Danzig and the freedom of movement
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  3. The (to me, frankly amazing) right to property and its understanding and implementation in an Indian context
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  4. Dr. Ambedkar’s opinion about having no axe to grind as a member of the constituent assembly. It is a great way to start thinking about public choice theory, if you ask me
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  5. And how difficult the United States of America and even more so, Australia, have made the process for amending the constitution.

And believe me, I have cherry picked these five, more or less at random. There’s so much more to think about!

Second, in the post I wrote in January, I spoke about wishing I could learn more about how the constituent assembly was formed. Reading this article helped me understand that the people who wrote the constitution (the members of the constituent assembly) also were the people who ratified it!

An even more important point to note is that the Constituent Assembly was deeply involved in the drafting the Constitution itself. It met over 11 sessions and 166 days between 1947 and 1950 to discuss the Constitution. In contrast, in the US, there was a very clear separation between the drafting of the Constitution (done by the Philadelphia convention – a central body with representation from each state), and the state-level ratification conventions, which voted on it later.

This separation meant that the ratifiers did not have their hands dirty in the document, with the exception of a small minority of members who were a common presence in both conventions. They had no emotional stake in the Constitution draft and could vote on it independently. It was up to the drafters of the Constitution to convince them of this document. This is what necessitated the “Federalist Papers” – a remarkable exercise in marketing the newly proposed law of the land.

No such marketing was required in India, given that the ratifiers were the drafters too.

Useful more for trivia buffs (and I enthusiastically plead guilty to the charge) than perhaps for the topic at hand, but an informative read nonetheless is this rather long article in Scroll. On the history of constitutionalism in India:

Knowing only too well that Englishmen only counted as knowledge what Englishmen declared to be so, when Rao wrote to Napier in March 1872 to decline the seat on the Viceregal Council, he appended the relevant sections from Bowring’s Eastern Experiences, adding that nothing could be more interesting than participating in the development of “something like a constitution” wherein “a Native Administration” might be brought under “a system of fundamental principles, derived from the advanced political wisdom of Europe” albeit “carefully adapted to the conditions of the Native society”.

I am somewhat ashamed to note that it took my reading of this article to know what I should have been aware of in any case, given that I teach at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics:

The most vocal was Rao’s sometime protégé and collaborator, Mahadev Ranade, whose essay, “A Constitution for Native States”, which was published in the Quarterly Journal of the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha, generated much debate and discussion. It eventually prompted a series of remarkable works detailing indigenous forms of constitutionalism.

The most prominent of these works was Kashinath Telang and Ranade’s Rise of the Maratha Power, which carefully explained how much Shivaji’s success owed to the ‘constitutional’ nature of his rule (and concomitantly, how much Maratha decline owed to Shivaji’s descendants departing from such constitutional rule).

And finally, two book recommendations, with the caveat that I myself have as yet not read either. They’re both by the same author, who is currently coordinating with the Hindustan Times to publish a series on the same topic that I am writing about on these pages:

The two books are India’s Founding Moment, and  The Indian Constitution (Oxford India Short Introductions Series). As I said, I haven’t read them myself, but did purchase them today. Why then do I recommend them? Well, one, the relevance to the topic is obvious, but also, this article from Livemint a long time ago really helped.

 

The Constitution is inevitably shaped by and shapes politics. How it does so is a question far too ambitious for my book. But something I do try to gently do, wherever I could, is suggest how certain legal decisions were shaped by the political circumstances as well as how our overemphasis on politics has prevented us from appreciating the legal significance of particular aspects of our Constitutional law.

The good news, for me, is that I get a month to try and read these two books before I tackle the subject of the Indian Constitution once again.

Once again, a tip of the hat by way of thanks to Murali Neelakantan for helpful recommendations, and a request to my readers to help out along similar lines.

India: Links for 9th December, 2019

Five rather eclectic links from a variety of issues pertaining to India. Also, my apologies about the delay in posting today! I’m traveling a fair bit, and there may be some delay in posts this week.

  1. Surjit Bhalla and Karan Bhasin present the other side of the story when it comes to the release (or lack of it) of the NSO consumption survey.
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  2. The Scroll sheds light on a little known issue today: austerity in marriages in India in the years gone past – enforced by the government!
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  3. Anupam Mannur and Pranay Kotasthane make the important, but not well known point that Bangalore needs more firms (and more people!) not less.
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  4. Via Mostly Economics, a lovely write-up about the fish traders of Madras.
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  5. 18000 birds died in Rajasthan recently. Here’s why.

Etc: Links for 8th November, 2019

  1. “Munch would have probably seen any marks from this period of the painting’s life as part of its artistic development. He wanted people to see how his works evolved and changed over their lifetime, and saw any damage they incurred along the way as a natural process, even leaving artworks unprotected outdoors and in his studio, stating ‘it does them good to fend for themselves’.”
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    I cannot for the life of me remember how I chanced upon this link – all that I remember is that it came out of an interesting Twitter thread. 10 factoids about The Scream.
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  2. “It’s called the “dinner party problem”: A table of four or fewer people may happily converse as one, but a party of five or more will splinter fairly quickly into separate conversations of two or three four people each. What is it about the number four?”
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    It really should be called the panel discussion problem. The conclusion to the short article deserves to be highlighted!
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    “It’s possible our brains evolved to manage only the conversations in which we have a chance of swaying the group to our side. Otherwise, what’s the point of talking?”
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  3. I’ll happily admit to the fact that the math is way beyond my capabilities – but it made for enjoyable viewing, if nothing else. The Mandelbulb, or the 3D version of the Mandelbrot set. This is via Navin Kabra, who should immediately be followed on Twitter.
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  4. “Are Indigenous and Western systems of knowledge categorically antithetical? Or do they offer multiple points of entry into knowledge of the world, past and present?”
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    A very interesting article in the Smithsonian on what is knowledge, and how is to be gleaned, understood and used.
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  5. A rather old, but nonetheless interesting article from Scroll on the Salim-Javed partnership breaking up.

RoW: Links for 30th October, 2019

  1. Who, exactly, are the Rohingyas? A short explainer from Wikipedia.
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  2. “With repatriation stalled, Bangladesh is now exploring relocation. The country has thus far been patient and welcoming, but its willingness to host such a large refugee population is wearing thin. Dhaka now plans to relocate about 100,000 Rohingya to a remote island at the mouth of the Meghna river in the Bay of Bengal. Known as Bhasan Char, or “Floating Island” in Bengali, the islet is made up of accumulated silt and is hard to reach—aid workers worry that anyone moved there would be vulnerable to floods, cyclones, and traffickers.”
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    A problem that the world would rather not acknowledge.
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  3. “Myanmar, which United Nations officials say should be tried on genocide charges over the orchestrated killings that began on Aug. 25, 2017, is keen to prove it is not a human rights pariah.Bangladesh, struggling with overpopulation and poverty, wants to reassure its citizens that scarce funds are not being diverted to refugees.

    But the charade at Nga Khu Ya, with its corroded buildings devoid of any Rohingya presence, proves the lie in the repatriation commitment. The place is so quiet that a dog snoozes at the main entrance, undisturbed.

    Even the repatriation center’s watchtowers are empty of soldiers. There is no one to watch.”
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    They, the Rohingyas, are to be sent back to Myanmar. Except not.
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  4. “One day in the 1980s, my maternal grandfather was sitting in a park in suburban London. An elderly British man came up to him and wagged a finger in his face. “Why are you here?” the man demanded. “Why are you in my country??”“Because we are the creditors,” responded my grandfather, who was born in India, worked all his life in colonial Kenya, and was now retired in London. “You took all our wealth, our diamonds. Now we have come to collect.” We are here, my grandfather was saying, because you were there.”
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    Suketu Mehta in fine form on this topic.
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  5. “I want you to think of free movement across borders as not just a matter of humanitarianism, not just a matter of good policy, but as an issue of civil rights, in the same tradition as those of Milk, and King, and Stanton, and indeed others yet to come.”
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    A short blog post on a longer essay, which argues about instituting immigration as a civil right.

Etc: Links for 13th September, 2019

  1. The filmy divide in India.
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  2. Man or woman?
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  3. “Bau once told Rahul Bhattacharya, in an encounter for the ages from the book Pundits from Pakistan, that the action was “all artificial”, part of a carefully created persona built to defeat batsmen. It wasn’t the bowler or the ball that beat batsmen, it was this persona. They say that about Shane Warne too, about how batsmen were dead just from the theatre of Warne at the top of his mark, but man, did it ring true with Bau.”
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    Osman Samiuddin on Abdul Qadir.
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  4. “When we seek Western fads at Indian levels of income, the economic cost of our perceived moral rectitude will be borne by the poor.”
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    On opportunity costs.
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  5. On food, history, India and Asia.