Calling Bullshit: An Appreciation

This past Tuesday, I went on a long rant about exams in general, and exams especially in the year 2020. That rant was inspired by a Twitter thread put out by Prof. Carl Bergstrom.

Now, if you happen to share my views on examinations, I’m guessing you were already likely to be a fan of Prof. Bergstrom. Today, your fandom might just go up a couple of notches. Check out the first paragraph on my favorite discovery of 2020 so far – Calling Bullshit:

The world is awash in bullshit. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. Higher education rewards bullshit over analytic thought. Startup culture elevates bullshit to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bullshit — and take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with bullshit of the second order. The majority of administrative activity, whether in private business or the public sphere, seems to be little more than a sophisticated exercise in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit.

https://www.callingbullshit.org/

He and his collaborator on the project, Prof. Jevin West, are nothing if not thorough:

What do we mean, exactly, by bullshit and calling bullshit? As a first approximation:

Bullshit involves language, statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener, with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence.

Calling bullshit is a performative utterance, a speech act in which one publicly repudiates something objectionable. The scope of targets is broader than bullshit alone. You can call bullshit on bullshit, but you can also call bullshit on lies, treachery, trickery, or injustice.

In this course we will teach you how to spot the former and effectively perform the latter.

https://www.callingbullshit.org/

There’s a book, there’s videos of the course lectures (yes, you can earn credits for learning about bullshit), there’s a list of heuristics about detecting bullshit when it comes to interpreting visualizations, reading academic papers, and facial detection algorithms. There are case studies too!

And hey, if you insist on being politically correct (there’s merit in the argument that you shouldn’t, but hey, entirely your call) – well, they got you covered:

If you feel that the term bullsh!t is an impediment to your use of the website, we have developed a “sanitized” version of the site at callingbull.org. There we use the term “bull” instead of “bullsh!t” and avoid other profanity. Be aware, however, that some of the links go to papers that use the word bullsh*t or worse.

https://www.callingbullshit.org/FAQ.html

Some weeks ago, I promised somebody that I would come up with a lecture on demystifying statistics – and set myself the challenge of trying to come up with lecture notes without using a single equation.

As is the case with 95% of the things I really want to do, I promptly forgot all about it.

I haven’t seen all the videos yet on Calling Bullshit, but it does seem as if outsourcing this exercise – at least in part – to this fantastic website would be a really good idea.

Check out the syllabus here. A part of me is tempted to say that I would like to run this module as a summer school at GIPE, but you will remember what I said about things I really want to do.

But hey, there’s always hope, right?

Or should I be calling bullshit on myself?

Links for Friday, 30th October, 2020

On the Foxconn, um, factory in Wisconsin:

Such announcements are far from unusual for Gou, and often, nothing comes of them. In Vietnam in 2007, in Brazil in 2011, in Pennsylvania in 2013, and in Indonesia in 2014, Foxconn announced enormous factories that either fell far short of promises or never appeared. Just this year, the industries minister of Maharashtra, India, which aggressively pursued one of Gou’s multibillion-dollar projects in 2015, finally confirmed the factory isn’t coming, saying the state had learned a lesson about believing businesses promising big investments.
In China, where Foxconn employs the vast majority of its million workers, these sorts of announcements are called “state visit projects,” according to Willy Shih, a Harvard business school professor and former display industry consultant. Officials get a ribbon-cutting photo op, the company gets political goodwill, and everyone understands that the details of the contract are just an opening bid by a company that will ultimately do whatever makes economic sense.

https://www.theverge.com/21507966/foxconn-empty-factories-wisconsin-jobs-loophole-trump

I wish I could explain statistics as clearly as this:

Let’s say we have 100 people who have volunteered for the trials. We’ve divided them into two groups of 50 each. One will be administered the experimental drug, the other a placebo — i.e. something that looks identical, but has no medicinal value at all. There are rules for administering a placebo correctly, and I’ll come to those. For now, let’s assume they have been followed.
The trial runs its course. The placebo group reports that one person has recovered, whereas the group that got the actual drug reports that five have recovered. What, if anything, can we conclude? Is this just chance? Is there a real difference between the groups? Is this enough to conclude anything about the efficacy of the drug?

https://www.livemint.com/opinion/columns/opinion-significance-of-double-blind-drug-trials-11602211204718.html

Old men, friendships, and chimpanzees.

As they got older, the chimps developed more mutual friendships and fewer one-sided friendships. They also exhibited a more positive approach to their whole community, continuing grooming of other chimps, including those that weren’t close friends, at the same rate, but with a drop in aggression. Other primates don’t necessarily follow this pattern as they grow older, according to the authors. Some monkeys tend to withdraw from social relationships and their aggression levels stay high.

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/22/science/aging-chimps-friendship.html

Krish Ashok writes a passionate (and erudite, but that’s a given, no?) defence of… maida.

Maida is technically more all-purpose than all-purpose flour because, with a little bit of food science, you can turn this unfairly maligned flour into flaky Malabar parottas, crisp luchis, fluffy naans and kulchas, airy bhaturas, pillowy soft loaves of bread, crunchy-yet-chewy pizzas and delectable cakes without having to buy multiple kinds of flours to do it all.

https://lifestyle.livemint.com/food/discover/masala-lab-why-maida-is-not-the-flour-world-villain-111603383026971.html

And while on food, this excellent, entertaining article on custard:

Corn flour comes from pounding the kernel into a white powder that forms a non-Newtonian fluid––a liquid that doesn’t change viscosity under stress––when mixed with water. Its greatest virtue is that it contributes to thickness and volume without tasting like anything.
Its use as a food product was patented in Britain in 1854 by a man named John Polson Jr., who began manufacturing it in a factory in Paisley, Scotland owned by his father, John Polson, and his partners William Polson and John Brown. Some of their first advertisements declared that the product “was preferred on account of its plainness.”

https://fiftytwo.in/story/powder/

Statistics and the NRC

Imagine the following: you are the judge who has been hearing a case in which somebody has been accused of murder, and you go to sleep one night at the end of the trial, knowing that you must give your judgment tomorrow.
God appears in your dream, and tells you that he is displeased with you. As punishment, he decrees that whatever judgment you make tomorrow will be wrong. If you say that the accused didn’t commit the murder, then he did in fact commit the murder. If you say that the accused did commit the murder, then he didn’t in fact commit the murder. He’s god, so he gets to have all of this be true.
You wake up from your sleep convinced that this wasn’t a dream, and what god said will actually happen. When you announce your judgment, whatever you say is going to be wrong.
Would you rather send an innocent man to jail, or would you rather send a guilty man free? Remember, it must be one of the two. Don’t take a peek at what follows, and try and answer this question before you read further.
My bet is that you likely chose to send a guilty man free. I have been using a variant of this exercise for years in my classes on statistics, and there appears to be something within us that rebels at the idea of sending an innocent man to jail. One reason, maybe, that explains the enduring popularity of the Shawshank Redemption.
It is at least partially for this reason that we say innocent until proven guilty. That should be, for reasons outlined above, the null hypothesis. We give it every chance to be true, and assure ourselves that the chance we’re wrong is small enough to feel safe in declaring the defendant guilty (note to statistics students: that’s one way of understanding the p-value right there)
So what does this have to do with the NRC?
Well, if you were one of the officials charged with designing this scheme, what would you say the hypothesis should be about, say, me? Indian until proven otherwise, or not Indian until proven Indian?
Like the judge, you can end up making two errors. Declaring me as not an Indian when I am, in fact, an Indian. Or declaring me as an Indian when I am, in fact, not an Indian.
To me, personally, declaring an Indian to not be an Indian is morally more problematic than declaring a non-Indian to be an Indian. And therefore my answer to my own question would be that the hypothesis ought to be Indian until proven otherwise.
But the NRC is, of course, designed exactly the other way around. Everybody is assumed to not be an Indian until proven otherwise. The burden of proof rests on the defense, not the prosecution. We are assumed guilty until proven innocent.
Not only is this problematic for reasons stated above, it will also mean that we minimize the chance of mistakenly declaring someone to be Indian. Now, one may view that as a good thing, but the price we pay is the following:
We can’t control for the other kind of error. We lose control over the chance of mistakenly declaring somebody as a non-Indian.
And given that there’s 1,300,000,000 of us (and counting), there will be a lot of Indians who will mistakenly be identified as non-Indian.
Viewed this way, the CAA is potentially a useful tool to undo the inevitable errors that will occur.
And what has a lot of people upset (myself included) is the fact that the CAA has, to the extent that I understand it, the power to undo the errors the NRC in its current form will commit, but contingent on religious faith.
I being upset about this is me expressing my opinion, and your opinion might be the same, or it might be different – and that’s fine! Debate is an awesome way to learn.
But everything that preceded the last paragraph is not opinion. If the NRC is formulated the way it is described above, there will be far too many Indians who end up being classified as non-Indians.
If the NRC is not formulated the way it is described above, then the government needs to, 1.3 billion times, try us – in the legal sense – assuming we’re Indians, and they need to prove otherwise. To say that this will be expensive, and beyond our existing state capacity, is obvious.
There are many reasons to be against the NRC (if and when it will be implemented). But this post isn’t about my opinion about the NRC as an Indian. It is about my view of the NRC as a statistical exercise.
And as a statistician, there can be only one view of the NRC: it fails the most basic criteria.
It gets the null hypothesis wrong.
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The link to Shruti Rajagopalan’s article, which served as inspiration for this post.

My thanks to Prof. Alex Tabbarok for making this essay much, much more readable than it was at the outset (imagine!), and to Prof. Pradeep Apte for reminding me of the concept of falsifiability, which we’ll get to next Thursday.

Etc: Links for 20th December, 2019

  1. The coolest things that David Perell learnt in 2019. He has a paragraph on Twitter, from Bill Gurley, that I wholeheartedly agree with. Tempers run high on Twitter, true, but it is a magnificent learning tool for me.
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    “One of the examples is a famous New York City physician who was renowned for his ability to predict that patients would get typhoid. He predicted the sickness time and again. He would palpate their tounge (feel around their tongue) and predict, weeks before patients had a single symptom, over and over, and became famous, and as one of his colleagues said, he was a more productive carrier of typhoid than even Typhoid Mary because he was giving his patients Typhoid with his hands. In that case, the feedback he was receiving was reinforcing exactly the wrong lesson.”
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  2. Two articles that I got to read as a consequence of subscribing to Joanna Lobo’s Newsletter (if you are interested in writing, either as a hobby or a career, this is a newsletter worth subscribing to). The first is about the perils of comfort food…
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    “Every meal was meticulously pre-portioned and packaged for every individual. We never ate family-style, which was how I grew up eating, and how I learned that portion control is often not within your control: You are not just eating for yourself, and the choice to eat (and how much) often symbolizes love and affection more than physical nourishment. What is considered a “serving” when your chopsticks keep dipping back into shared plates and the diet app you use doesn’t even know what 鱼香茄子 (Chinese eggplant with garlic sauce) is? How can you not overeat when people were heaping dishes onto your plate without you asking? Is it rude to not finish that tofu someone offered you? What is fullness?”
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  3. “A Zomato spokesperson tells Open they are currently in the process of doing away with their food-reviewing levels. The titles have already been removed from the mobile app, the spokesperson says, and they will soon be removed from the website too. According to her, this has nothing to do with complaints about soliciting money, or restaurants and connoisseurs coming together to bump up an establishment’s ratings. “We are just coming up with a newer version, a new engagement tool for users,” the spokesperson says over the phone.”
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    A long read about gaming restaurant reviews.
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  4. Bourbaki’s influence is still alive and well. Now in “his” 80th year of research, in 2016 “he” published the 11th volume of the “Elements of Mathematics”. The Bourbaki group, with its ever-changing cast of members, still holds regular seminars at the University of Paris.
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    A lovely essay from the Madras Courier about Bourbaki, the “guy”.
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  5. Lots of links to work through in this video, but worth your time! Stats nerds only.

Tech: Links for 13th July, 2019

Five articles by Michael Nielsen. If you aren’t familiar with Michael Nielsen, this is a great place to start!

  1. His version of how to write better.
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  2. A scientist’s explanation of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem.
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  3. May this come true, and right soon.
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  4. “In the US House of Representatives, 61 percent of Democrats voted for the Civil Rights Act, while a much higher percentage, 80 percent, of Republicans voted for the Act. You might think that we could conclude from this that being Republican, rather than Democrat, was an important factor in causing someone to vote for the Civil Rights Act. However, the picture changes if we include an additional factor in the analysis, namely, whether a legislator came from a Northern or Southern state. If we include that extra factor, the situation completely reverses, in both the North and the South. Here’s how it breaks down:North: Democrat (94 percent), Republican (85 percent)

    South: Democrat (7 percent), Republican (0 percent)

    Yes, you read that right: in both the North and the South, a larger fraction of Democrats than Republicans voted for the Act, despite the fact that overall a larger fraction of Republicans than Democrats voted for the Act.”
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    One of my favorite problems from statistics: Simpson’s Paradox. And an old frenemy: correlation is not causation.
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  5. Memory, and how to get better at it.

EC101: Links for 20th June, 2019

  1. “One needs to be cautious in these type of businesses trading at higher multiples as slip in any one of the parameters – decline in sales and profit growth, build up of debt, deterioration in working capital, capital misallocation – wrong acquisitions and expansions will lead to derating of the stock quickly. The company has shown no signs of these as of now and investors need to keep a close look at these.”
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    A vastly under-rated skill among economics students. The theory of (and in this case also the application of) reading a balance sheet. Read this article to get a sense of how to read one – and in an ideal world, try to write a similar article about a firm of your choice.
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  2. “In other words, to quote Simon, “so long as the rate of interest remains constant, an advance in technology can only produce a rising level of real wages. The only route through which technological advance could lower real wages would be by increasing the capital coefficient (the added cost being compensated by a larger decline in the labor coefficient), thereby creating a scarcity of capital and pushing interest rates sharply upward.” In other words, the price of capital would have to rise by more than the price of consumption.”
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    Under what circumstances will advances in technology cause the real wage rate to go down? The vastly under-rated Herbert Simon provided an answer to this question way back when – read this article to find out its rediscovery.
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  3. “Now that the crisis is in the rearview mirror and the current expansion is nearing the longest on record, is it possible to go back to having a balance sheet as small as in 2007? The answer is no. The amount of currency in circulation has grown so much that it is not possible to shrink the balance sheet to its earlier size. This is good news because it reflects a growing economy. The larger balance sheet also reflects banks wanting to hold more reserves at the Fed. Banks partly hold these highly liquid and essentially risk-free assets to meet new liquidity regulations designed to improve the resilience of the overall financial system.”
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    A short, but useful essay about the huge expansion to the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet, and why it is unlikely to shrink anytime soon. A useful read for students of monetary economics.
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  4. “The correlation phrase has become so common and so irritating that a minor backlash has now ensued against the rhetoric if not the concept. No, correlation does not imply causation, but it sure as hell provides a hint. Does email make a man depressed? Does sadness make a man send email? Or is something else again to blame for both? A correlation can’t tell one from the other; in that sense it’s inadequate. Still, if it can frame the question, then our observation sets us down the path toward thinking through the workings of reality, so we might learn new ways to tweak them. It helps us go from seeing things to changing them.”
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    The phrase is burned onto my brain, as it is for everybody else who ever attended a statistics class. “Correlation is not causation” Sure, it isn’t – but this article warns us against the over-use of this phrase, and how it might have ended up making us not think deeper.
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  5. “The Baumol effect reminds us that all prices are relative prices. An implication is that over time prices have very little connection to affordability. If the price of the same can of soup is higher at Wegmans than at Walmart we understand that soup is more affordable at Walmart. But if the price of the same can of soup is higher today than in the past it doesn’t imply that soup was more affordable in the past, even if we have done all the right corrections for inflation.”
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    A short, but very readable interpretation of the Baumol effect – and as this excerpt makes clear, also a great reminder of the fact that all prices, everywhere and always, are relative.

Links for 22nd May, 2019

  1. “Perhaps the most typical thing about Bergstrom’s gambling was that for him, as for so many others, the money seemed to signify something else. Gamblers often describe how, when the chips are on the table, money is transformed into a potent symbol for other psychic forces. In Bergstrom’s case, the action on the craps table seemed, like a love affair, to be a referendum on his self-worth.”
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    What are the motivations for gamblers? How do they view money? Is it the means to an end, is it a metaphor, is it symbolic? How might the lessons one gleans from reading something like this be applied elsewhere? For these reasons, a lovely read.
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  2. “Virat Kohli, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina, Dinesh Karthik, KL Rahul, Kedar Jadhav and Ambati Rayudu are all collectors if you go by their IPL batting. I had mentioned in the copy (which later got edited out) that it is worrisome that the Indian batting lineup ahead of the World Cup has a sort of sameness to it.Fortunately, while they all bat the same way in T20 cricket, they are all different kinds of beasts when it comes to One Day Internationals.”
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    Beware of relying too much upon data, but that being said, the cricket fans among you might want to subscribe to this newsletter, which analyses cricketing data to come up with interesting ideas about the upcoming world cup.
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  3. “Well, you know what Graham understood, I think, better than probably anyone who had written about investing before him is that there’s a big difference between what people should do and what they can do. Another way to think about this is that distinction between what’s optimal, and what’s practical. And we pretty much know how people should invest. Investing is – as Warren Buffett likes to say “It’s simple, but it’s not easy.” And dieting is simple, but not easy. In fact, a lot of things in life are simple, but not easy. And investing is a very good example. I mean, if all you do is diversify, keep your costs low, and minimize trading. That’s pretty much it. It’s like eat less, exercise more. Investing is just about as simple, but it’s not easy. And so Graham understood that people are their own worst enemy, because when they should be cautious, they tend to take on risk.”
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    David Perell interviews Jason Zweig, and it is an interview worth reading, and perhaps even re-reading. I have linked here to the transcript, but if you prefer listening, you should be able to find out the link to the podcast.
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  4. “Any time a central bank – unless it has a completely sealed closed economy – raises or cuts interest rates, it is taking currency and interest rate risk vs. the major reserve currencies, even if it is not directly buying or selling foreign currency.”
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    A short, clear and concise article about the RBI’s rupee-dollar swap.
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  5. “Diets have changed most dramatically in Africa, where 18 countries have diets that have changed by more than 25 percent. Sugar consumption in Congo, for example, has increased 858 percent since 1961.”
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    A truly excellent visualization – worth seeing for a multitude of reasons: data about nutrition, visualization techniques being just two of them. And that statistic about sugar consumption in Congo is just breathtaking.

Links for 20th May, 2019

  1. “The debate could have been depoliticized if the CSO was more sensitive to criticisms, and had made proactive disclosures on the error estimates of different sub-sectors of GDP, with explanations for why output estimates for some sectors were more reliable than that of others. In fact, the first national account estimates presented by Mahalanobis after India’s independence carefully noted the data gaps and limitations of the estimates, as well as the error margins associated with each sectoral estimate. Providing such error estimates would also have drawn wider attention to data gaps, and could have helped MoSPI garner the requisite resources to fill those gaps.”
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    An article entirely worth reading if you are interested in India’s statistical organizations – from independence until today, the tale has been one of slow and painful deterioration.
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  2. “In short, Indian agriculture has undergone a phenomenal change over the last decade that it is no more dependent on just foodgrain or one sector. In fact, it has emerged as a versatile sector that still provides employment to over 50 per cent of the country’s population (per 2011 census) and keeps the economy ticking in rural areas despite the vagaries of weather.”
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    A useful place to get a good summary of Indian agriculture over the last decade or so. But I would argue that the key point is that there are far too many people employed in this sector – and that is the real problem.
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  3. “The four main factors they identify are as follows. First, there are historical institutions such as slavery and colonial rule. Second, the impact of cultural norms linked to religion, trust, family ties and beliefs. Third, there are geographical factors such as the terrain, temperature shocks and the frequency of floods. Fourth, historical accidents, such as the way national boundaries are drawn, also have an impact. These four factors together play an important role in the development trajectory of a country through time. The question is, what can be done to overcome these constraints in case they are a barrier to development? Can anything be done at all?”
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    Using cricket to learn about development economics. Or is it the other way around? Exactly the kind of article the world sees far too little of!
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  4. “The state legislators who are passing these bills know they will be challenged in court. They also know they will probably lose. But their sights appear to be set higher than their state jurisdictions: With a solidly conservative majority on the Supreme Court, anti-abortion advocates are eager to seed the challenge that could one day take down Roe v. Wade, the 1973 opinion that legalized abortion up to the point of fetal viability. At the very least, they hope the Supreme Court will undercut Roe and subsequent decisions that reaffirmed abortion rights, the idea being that each legal challenge makes it a little harder to obtain an abortion in the United States.”
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    Have you heard of Roe vs. Wade? Might you be curious to learn about what exactly culture has to do with economics, as we discussed in the link above? A useful, if unfortunate example is this article.
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  5. “What concerns health practitioners is the high transmissibility of the bug. “We studied the fungus in January, 2017, when we found it had colonized the skin of a patient who was referred to the Trauma Care ICU from another hospital. But within four days, it (bug) had spread to all the other patients admitted in the unit. All nine of them,” said professor Arunaloke Chakrabarti from Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh.”
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    Just in case your Monday wasn’t depressing enough. Be afraid – be very afraid.

Links for 17th May, 2019

  1. “Despite the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments, except in a few states, there has been little progress at decentralization—to both rural and urban local bodies. Most state governments have been reluctant to devolve the functions, funds and functionaries for delivering public services at the local level. The functions assigned are unclear, funds uncertain and inadequate, and decision-making functionaries are mostly drawn from the state bureaucracy. Local bodies do not even have powers to determine the base and rate structure of the taxes assigned to them. The states have not cared to create institutions and systems mandated in the Constitution, including the appointment of the State Finance Commissions, and even when they are appointed, states have not found it obligatory to place their reports in the legislature. In fact, the local bodies are not clear about delivering local public goods, with the prominent agenda of implementing central schemes obscuring their functions.”
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    M. Govinda Rao pulls no punches in pointing out how and why decentralization hasn’t (and likely will not) taken place in India. This is a conversation more people need to be having in India – and in particular, to aid meaningful urbanization.
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  2. “I love this paper because it is ruthless. The authors know exactly what they are doing, and they are clearly enjoying every second of it. They explain that given what we now know about polygenicity, the highest-effect-size depression genes require samples of about 34,000 people to detect, and so any study with fewer than 34,000 people that says anything about specific genes is almost definitely a false positive; they go on to show that the median sample size for previous studies in this area was 345.”
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    Slate Star Codex helps us understand the importance of learning (and applying!) statistics. The website is more than worth following, by the way.
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  3. “Sucking the life out of a mango is one of those primal pleasures that makes life feel worthwhile. The process is both elaborate and rewarding. The foreplay that loosens up the pulp inside, the careful incision at the top that allows access without a juice overrun, and then the sustained act of sucking every bit juice from the helpless peel. Senses detach themselves from the body and attach themselves to the mango, and even mobile phones stop ringing. The world momentarily rests in our mouths as we slurp, suck and slaver at the rapidly disappearing pulp. The mango is manhandled vigorously till only the gutli remains which is scraped off till it has nothing left to confess. As is evident, there is no elegant way to eat this kind of mango, no delicate and dignified method that approximates any form of refinement, which is just as well, for the only way to enjoy a mango is messily.”
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    An excellent column about an excellent fruit – there isn’t that much more to say! I completely agree with the bit about serving aamras front and center, rather than as an afterthought, by the way.
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  4. “Welcome to the 4th Annual Top Economics Blogs list. For the 2019 edition, we’ve added many newcomers, as well as favorites which continue to provide quality insight year after year. Like lists in previous years (2018, 2017, 2016), the new 2019 list features a broad range of quality blogs in practically every economic discipline. Whether you are interested in general economics or prefer more specific topics such as finance, healthcare economics, or environmental economics; there is something here for you. You will also find blogs which focus on microeconomics, macroeconomics, and the economics of specific geographical regions.Whether you are a student, economics professional, or just someone with a general interest in how economic issues affect the world around you, you’re certain to find the perfect blog for your specific needs.”
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    The most comprehensive answer to that most perennial of questions: what should I read?
    Bonus! If you’re wondering how to keep up with all of this, this might help.
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  5. “India should do the same with our state capitals. The Union government can create fiscal and other incentives to encourage state governments to shift their capitals to brown- or green-field locations. Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai, Jaipur or Lucknow, for instance, will continue to thrive even if the state government offices move out. Their respective states will benefit from a new urban engine powered by government.”
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    I have been sceptical about the feasibility of doing something like this – my reading of urbanization has always been that it more of an organic process – cities grow (or not) of their own accord, and rarely as a planned endeavor. But maybe I’m wrong?

Links for 1st May, 2019

  1. “As McKinsey points out, governments, businesses and individuals will all have to embrace change and figure out the best ways to move towards digitisation — including on such basics as land records and business transparency (which could improve access to bank credit). There are also many aspects of this wave of digitisation that are not to the good—including the impact of toxic social media, the loss of privacy, and so on. The rules for this new world will have to be framed carefully to prevent business capture as well as political misuse, and to protect citizens from predatory action. What is required is to minimise the costs as much as to maximise the benefits. Still, the over-riding message is clear: The prospects of digitisation are so overwhelmingly advantageous, if not also inevitable, that those who become laggards in adapting to the new reality are the ones that will be left behind.”
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    T N Ninan (author of the excellent The Turn of the Tortoise) writes about the potential of “digital” India while reviewing a McKinsey report about the same topic. The scope, details and aspects of such a topic simply cannot be dealt with in a single post – but with that in mind, this is worth reading.
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  2. “The Right to Education Act in 2009 guaranteed access to free primary education for all children in India ages 6-14. This paper investigates whether national trends in educational data changed around the time of this law using household surveys and administrative data. We document four trends: (1) School-going increases after the passage of RTE, (2) Test scores decline dramatically after 2010, (3) School infrastructure appears to be improving both before and after RTE, and (4) The number of students who have to repeat a grade falls precipitously after RTE is enacted, in line with the official provisions of the law.”
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    That is the abstract of this paper. Also, have you read this book? Also, have you listened to this podcast? Also, keep an eye out for this Sunday’s video.
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  3. “China’s TFP surged in the 1980s following the agricultural and ownership reforms, in the 1990s following the state enterprise reforms and the creation of a modern housing market, and in the 2000s as China prepared for and was then able to exploit WTO membership.The key takeaway is that China’s one-party system deservedly has won plaudits when it has been most ambitious with regard to economic reforms and experimentation with market mechanisms. But this is not the case, for example, before the 1980s and again since 2012, when reforms were suppressed or stifled and inputs were boosted, but without any improvements.”
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    An interview that remains interesting throughout if you are a student of economics, or China and especially the intersection set. Troubling times ahead for the Chinese economy, it would seem – and on account of a variety of short term reasons, and one very important long term one – TFP.
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  4. “That was when he saw the light. Two small, black, rectangular boxes were stacked next to an outlet on the far side of the guest room, both facing the bed. From afar, they looked like phone chargers. But when Vest got closer, he realized they were cameras, and they were recording.”
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    Airbnb, technology, privacy and customer relations. A great way to learn that There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.
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  5. “In 1960, 13.4% of the population age 20-74 was obese (as measured by having a Body Mass Index above 30). In 2016, 40% of the population was obese.
    In 1970, 37.1% of those age 18 and older were cigarette smokers. By 2017, this has fallen to 14.1%.”
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    Just two out of many, many interesting tidbits about America today, and America back then.