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.

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.

…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.

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.

The Evolution of Right to Property in India

Ever heard of the Stevenson Restriction Scheme?

My congratulations if you have, because even the most devoted aficionado of obscure trivia would be hard pressed to know of the plan to restrict output in Malaysian rubber plantations in the year 1922. The reason was because of a steep fall in demand for rubber, after the end of the First World War, and rubber plantation owners in Malaysia wanted to control output to ensure better prices.

Bad economics, sure, but as one might expect if one had a cynical bent of mind, the demand got passed, and output restrictions came into play. If you were a small plantation owner (and this was for that time in Malaysia a guarantee that you were not British), you could produce no more than 320 pounds per acre per year.

Where did this number come from? Well, large British owned plantations produced 400 pounds per acre per year, so if you made the seemingly reasonable assumption that smaller outfits would work with lower efficiency, say 80% of the British levels, you ended up with the 320 figure.

Except things didn’t go according to plan.

Incentives matter.

That’s one of the cornerstones of our lessons in economics here, and repeating it, ad infinitum, is one of my jobs.

One of the many reasons we say that incentives matter is because you are likely to do a much better job when you stand to gain more, or lose more, because of the quality of the job you do. If the money you get is directly linked to how well received your product/service is in the market, you are likely to do a better job.

Want a real life example of what I mean? Ask the next twenty people you meet if they have a BSNL/MTNL sim-card.

As Nicholas Nassim Taleb says, having skin in the game really, really matters.

Joe Studwell, in his book How Asia Works, tells us the story of the Stevenson Restriction Scheme, which is where I read about it first.

When the restrictions were announced, instead of being happy about perhaps getting higher prices as a consequence of restricted supply, there was near rebellion in British ruled Malaysia. Upon investigating the matter, an embarrassed government found out that Malay rubber plantation owners, in spite of working on far smaller farms with much lesser equipment, produced up to thrice as much as British plantation owners.

How? Well, they had skin in the game.

It was their plantation.

They had property rights.

Google tells us that the etymology of the word property comes from Latin, via Old French, and it means “one’s own”.

And if we, as students of economics are going to say that trade matters – and hell yes, it does – then we need to have something to trade, which means we need to own that which we sell, and which is why for economics to exist, property rights need to exist.

Except they don’t. Well, that’s wrong: they do, but they’re not fundamental, and it’s complicated.

Fundamental rights are those rights which are essential for intellectual, moral and spiritual development of individuals.

That’s the very first sentence from the Wikipedia article on Fundamental Rights in India.

There are, the article goes on to say, six fundamental rights:

  1. The Right to Equality
  2. The Right to Freedom
  3. The Right Against Exploitation
  4. The Right to Freedom of Religion
  5. Cultural and Educational Rights
  6. Right to Constitutional Remedies

Property rights, as it turns out, isn’t a fundamental right. It was, at one point of time, a fundamental right as per the Indian Constitution, but not as of today. As I said, its complicated.

LSE-trained socialist professor KT Shah sent a detailed note demanding abolition of all property rights, and provided no protection from takings. Shah wrote: “The Union of India shall be free and entitled to acquire any private property held by any private individual or corporation as may be authorized or permitted under the law.” At the other end of the spectrum was the liberal lawyer KM Munshi, a strong advocate of constitutional protection of property rights and limited government. Munshi suggested a Madisonian takings clause inspired by the American Bill of Rights, which placed significant restrictions on the ability of the government to take property. Somewhere in the middle were members like Ambedkar and Ayyar, who attempted to find a balance between individual rights guaranteed by the constitution against a passion of the government to pursue socialist welfare policies.

That excerpt is from the third essay in an eight part series written by Shruti Rajagopalan for Think Pragati, and all essays are worth repeated readings. Each of them deal with the evolution of property rights in India.

We had to choose, back then, if we wanted to have, or not have, the concept of property rights. If we had to have the concept of property rights, to what extent? Was it a fundamental right, or not? If it wasn’t to be a fundamental right, but was to be a right nonetheless, how should it be framed? The third essay in the series lays bare all of the debates that went into the making of Article 31 of the Constitution. Articles 12 to 35 make up part III of the Constitution. It is this section that speaks of our Fundamental Rights as Indian citizens, and so, in 1947, it was the case that the Right to Property was in fact a Fundamental Right.

But then came the First Amendment, which in effect changed our Fundamental Rights. Especially relevant to us, the following:

The Parliament of India noted that validity of agrarian reform measures passed by the State Legislatures had, in spite of the provisions of clauses (4) and (6) of article 31, formed the subject-matter of dilatory litigation, as a result of which the implementation of these important measures, affecting large numbers of people, had been held up. Accordingly, a new article 31A was introduced with retrospective effect to uphold such measures. Further, another new article 31B was introduced to validate 13 enactments relating to zamindari abolition.

If the Right to Property was fundamental, then you couldn’t take away the titles to land from those who owned them. How then to abolish zamindari and institutionalize meaningful land reform? And abolishing zamindari was seen as (and in my opinion largely was) a desirable thing.

By the way, without meaningful and reform, things simply don’t take off for a country is one of the fundamental lessons of How Asia Works:

Developing countries are not just little ships blown about on the developmental ocean by the winds of rich states. In agriculture they have a greater capacity to chart their own course than in any other sector of the economy because land policy is entirely a domestic affair. In this respect, land policy is the acid test of the government of a poor country. It measures the extent to which leaders are in touch with the bulk of their population – farmers – and the extent to which they are willing to shake up society to produce positive developmental outcomes. In short, land policy tells you how much the leaders know and care about their populations. On both counts, north-east Asian leaders scored far better than south-east Asian ones, and this goes a long way to explaining why their countries are richer.

These weren’t easy decisions to make. But, all that being said, there was some political maneuvering involved too:

The episode of the Provisional Parliament enacting the First Amendment deserves detailed analysis that has been overlooked by historians and legal scholars. First, it shows that there was a severe failure in terms of post-constitutional credible commitment. The Provisional Parliament was a little too eager to amend the takings provision and dilute the protection to the right to property. Political exigencies trumped constitutional principles. While this is expected to some extent by all legislatures, it is a shame that the provisional parliament, which was essentially the same individuals as constituent assembly in a different role, made this hasty move. It also goes to show that incentives matter. The members of the provisional parliament now faced different incentives in the post-constitutional world, where they had to contest elections. Populism must necessarily trump principle.

So, for reasons outlined above, the right to property was now Fundamental – except it really wasn’t, not quite.

Have you ever been on a diet, and resolved to not cheat, but ended up cheating just a little bit? And then thought to yourself, well, now that I’ve cheated, may as well cheat a little more – and found yourself an hour later with a recently emptied tub of ice-cream? Or savings that you resolved never to touch, except in case of emergencies, and then took out a little bit… you can see where I am going with this.

Well, so also with the Right to Property.

The First Amendment led, as Shruti Rajagopalan’s series informs us in painstaking but entertaining detail, away from the sacrosanct nature of Fundamental Rights. Then followed further modifications to laws pertaining to the right to property. If I understand the subject correctly, of particular concern were the twenty-fifth and the forty-fourth amendment.

Which brings us, ultimately, to Article 300A, which has replaced Article 31.

The most important thing to note about Article 300A? It is not a Fundamental Right. And it has created problems: cronyism and ineffectual land reform being just two of them.

Can India go back to having the Right to Property as a Fundamental Right? More than the legal hurdles, of which there would seem to be plenty, the biggest barrier is likely to be a lack of political appetite for such a reform.

The revival of the right to property has attracted relatively little attention in political and legal circles. Political rhetoric over property is much more muted than in earlier periods, partly because none of the leading parties have called for the redistribution of land or the nationalisation of key industries in recent years. Indeed, there has been some commentary calling for reversal of the Forty-Fourth Amendment, even though the right to property as it stood immediately before the Amendment was weaker than the right that has been constructed from Article 300A (and Article 14). The Amendment has even been the subject of public interest litigation: in Sanjiv Kumar Agarwal v. Union of India, the Supreme Court dismissed a petition for a declaration the Amendment’s repeal of the right to property was contrary to the basic structure. This was noted in the press, along with the Court’s recent declarations that property is a human right.

But assuming we can, should we? Niranjan Rajadhakshya says yes, and I wholeheartedly agree:

It is the poor who have the biggest reason to cheer a reinstated fundamental right to property. There are two reasons for this. First, the poor have neither the legal resources nor the political heft to fight laws or administrative orders that allow governments take over their land. Second, the poor do not have enough opportunities to make a living in formal jobs in case they are forcibly separated from their property. It is important to reiterate that the most resonant battles for property rights over the past decade have been fought by the poor rather than the rich. The showdown in Singur a few years ago is a useful case in point.

It is, to my mind, quite simple: economics means trade. Trade necessarily means ownership. And ownership necessarily means property rights. To the extent that one thinks trade is indispensable, property rights need to be fundamental.

And in India, they aren’t.

Ec101: Links for 21st November, 2019

  1. What is the Coase Theorem? Watch.
  2. Why does it matter? Listen.
  3. Where all is it applicable? Laugh.
  4. “Coasean solutions exist. But governments need to set up the relevant property rights and create an exchange, and then trust its prices to incentivize the appropriate action.”
    And here’s the first reason why  we learn about the Coase theorem today
  5. “Some also suggest that we create a market for the stubble. But how do you get it out in the first place? Indeed, that’s why it is burnt as the cheapest form of disposal.”
    And here’s the second!

India: Links for 19th August, 2019

CCS is organizing a conference around the theme “Legal Foundations of a Free Society”, and it is being hosted by the Gokhale Institute. One of the speakers is Shruti Rajagopalan, whose writing I have long admired. Here are five pieces by Shruti that I thoroughly enjoyed reading:

  1. The implementation of laws matters as much as their framing (as any parent will tell you!)
  2. “Deshmukh, a former RBI governor who had argued against bank nationalization immediately after independence, was also contesting the election, this time supported by the Swatantra Party and Jan Sangh. Giri won with Gandhi’s support, and his legacy is often regarded as that of a rubber-stamp loyalist who damaged the independence of the President’s office.”
    A little bit of trivia that I was completely unaware of, and makes me think of many counterfactuals – but the article is about how the nationalization of banks came to be.
  3. Shruti explains (rather acerbically and entirely appropriately so) why the budget is a spectacle we’d all do well to ignore completely.
  4. “First, we need to create more positions for judges, especially in the lower levels of the judiciary, as caseloads have exploded over the years. India has only 12-15 judges per million people compared to the US’s 110 per million. The immediate goal is to reach the Law Commission’s 50-judges-per-million recommendation. A good start is to double the number of judges across the board in the lower judiciary.”
    On some much needed reforms to the Indian judiciary.
  5. A paper by her on a favorite theme (and bugbear) of mine: the complete lack of true decentralization in India.


Links for 21st May, 2019

  1. “The latest edition of the World Cup will soon be upon us. Just ten teams this time, playing out their matches (including the warm-up games) in mainstream venues. No chance for an unheralded ground to get on the cricketing map – as Amstelveen and Edinburgh did in 1999. No chance for history to unfold in a far-off venue like Tunbridge Wells – which to this day has Indian tourists visiting every year, to hear about Kapil’s unbeaten 175.This time too, there will be much Geography to savour. Grounds, ends, winds and soils. Maybe even clouds on some days. Balls soaring towards the River Tone in Taunton. There will be schoolkids watching it all. Perhaps some among them will jot down names and trivia in the margins of their notebooks. Like this one schoolboy did close to three decades ago.”
    A useful example of how learning about one thing can have entirely unexpected (but very pleasant) consequences. In this case, cricket as a geography teacher.
  2. “Tech leaders across the industry are rethinking the role of their platforms’ incentives, in response to mounting criticism that technology platforms do more harm than good. Instagram is running a test where like counts are hidden to followers, but are viewable by the post’s account holder. Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri told BuzzFeed News that the test wasn’t about incentivizing specific behavior but “about creating a less pressurized environment where people feel comfortable expressing themselves” and focus less on like counts.”
    This article is mostly about Twitter, but the excerpt is about how tech companies are responding to the huge backlash they are currently facing. Is the response enough? You be the judge!
  3. “The Muslim world can easily find martyrs but what it urgently and desperately needs are statesmen, negotiators, advisors, scholars, and intellectuals who understand their times and peoples.”
    This is a part of the world (Afghanistan) I know very, very little about – and in particular, the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s – which is what most of this book seems to be about. I plan to read it, for this reason.
  4. “And that’s when I realized that they believe they will lose very little by associating themselves with Nath. They don’t expect anyone to boycott the film just because an actor accused of serial sexual predation is in it. The issue is not that the cost of the reshoot was too high, but that the costs imposed by society for not removing Nath from the film were too low.”
    This article is worth reading for many, many reasons – some of which are too complicated to go into here. But here are the main reasons: Shruti Rajagopalan is always worth reading, this is an economic analysis of an ostensibly non-economic issue (is there such a thing?), and well – more people in India (and elsewhere) need to read this!
  5. “You get your Raspberry Pi and hook it up to a monitor and a keyboard and a mouse, then you log on to it and … it’s just a Linux system, like the machine, and ready for work. A new computer is the blankest of canvases. You can fill it with files. You can make it into a web server. You can send and receive email, design a building, draw a picture, write 1,000 novels. You could have hundreds of users or one. It used to cost tens of thousands of dollars, and now it costs as much as a fancy bottle of wine.”
    A very long, but (to me at any rate) extremely readable article that is essentially an ode to technology.