Notes on “India’s Footwear Industry: A Reality Check”

Gulzar Natarajan has an excellent, excellent blogpost up on this blog, Urbanomics, titled “India’s Footwear Industry: A Reality Check“. In what follows, I make notes for myself about the post in terms of what it reminds me of, what I did not understand, and additional links or resources I learnt about while reading the post.

  • “The footwear industry makes 2 billion pairs, of which 286 million pairs were exported last year. It employs 2-4 million people, the vast majority as informal and contract labour and/or hired through manpower agencies and at very low salaries in the range of Rs 6000-10000.”
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    Reading more about this helped me land up on a website called worldfootwear.com, and I learnt of the existence of the 2019 World Footwear Yearbook. In 2018, the world manufactured 24.2 billion pairs of footwear, and the industry grows at about 3% a year in normal circumstances – give or take a few points.
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    90% of all shoes manufactured in the world come from Asia. That makes sense, as Asia is responsible for 54% of the world’s demand for footwear on an annual basis.
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    China alone was responsible in the year 2018 for about 70% of the world’s exports.
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    All of these snippets come from this page.
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  • “As a summary, the current state of the Indian footwear industry is characterised by small scale, very low productivity, low automation, stagnant growth, and pervasive informality.”
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    One of the reasons I liked reading this blogpost so much is because while I get to learn a lot about the footwear industry in India, I also get to reflect on how so much of what is true for the footwear industry is also true of other industries in India. The inability to break out of the small scale (about which much more below), the low levels of automation and the pervasive informality are to be seen in almost all industries in India. There is, perhaps, a sociological point to be made about whether the causality runs from the inability to scale to informality or the other way around (or indeed, both!), but we’ll save that for another day.
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  • “The highest value market segment is the mainstream global branded manufacturing in non-leather footwear. But this is a segment that has proved elusive even to the Chinese manufacturers, especially in the global market. It may well be outside the reach of Indian manufacturers, unless some particular brand breaks out due to a combination of exceptional entrepreneurship and even more exceptional good fortune.”
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    As you will learn later on in this blogpost, Gulzar Natarajn seems to be as big a fan of “How Asia Works” as I am, and perhaps a bigger one. One of my favorite questions to ask in class as a consequence of reading that book is this one “Name one globally recognized brand from ASEAN nations”. This applies to India, and to a lesser extent to China as well – that’s basically the point that is being made here. Being a manufacturing and export powerhouse is not the same as building globally recognized brands.
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    This brings to mind both the “manufacturing smile” as well as Peter Thiel’s distinction between technology and globalization. It also raises important questions about what paths India should choose between for the next two decades when it comes to manufacturing policy, but again, more on that later.
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  • “The next best alternatives may be to increase their share of the Indian branded manufacturing segment and become large scale contract manufacturers for global brands. This is the playbook of the Chinese footwear industry.”
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    Have you read Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight? Don’t know who Phil Knight is? Well, have you heard of Nike? Read especially the bits about his travels in Japan, in search of contract manufacturers.
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  • Gulzar Natarajan’s first recommendation when it comes to the footwear industry in India is to be a contract manufacturing hub. Easier said than done! (To be clear, that is not a criticism of the point he makes – it is a reinforcing of his message, and also a reminder to readers that India is not quite ready to this just yet, for a variety of reasons).
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    One of these reasons is actually mentioned in a more recent post by the same author, regarding Vietnam’s recent agreement with Europe about tariffs on Vietnam’s exports.
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    What about India and the EU, you ask?
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    “Negotiations for a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the EU and India were launched in 2007 and suspended in 2013 due to a gap in the level of ambition between the EU and India.”
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  • The last bullet point was about India making for the world. Gulzar Natarajan goes on to point that we must also think about India making footwear for India.
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    “Any strategy to increase local branded manufacturing to capture this market has to focus on Make for India (and not Make in India for the world). This does not mean skimping on quality, but competing with the imported manufacturers by gradually improving productivity. This can be done only by efficiency gains to cut costs – improving labour productivity, local component manufacturing, greater automation (not full automation, but enough to enhance labour productivity), and economies of scale.”
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    He speaks about each of these four points: improving labor productivity, local component manufacturing, greater automation and economies of scale in his blogpost, click here to read those specific parts of the post.
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  • Gulzar Natarajan speaks about manufacturers having no incentive to train workers:
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    “In order to train the workers, the manufacturers have to incur the cost of trainings as well as bear their salaries. They have no incentive to bear this cost, even if a couple of months trainings can suffice.”
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    Well, maybe so. But this does remind me of an excellent excerpt from one of my favorite books to recommend to students about macroeconomics – Tim Harford’s “The Undercover Economist Strikes Back
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    The section on Ford and superior wages is especially worth reading. Perhaps I am missing an obvious point (which is all too possible), but I can’t help but wonder why Ford’s strategy cannot work in India – whether on footwear or elsewhere.
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  • “While capital investment subsidies are in general not a very desirable thing, some form of fiscal incentives may be necessary to encourage the smaller and medium sized manufacturers to increase their level of automation. Though targeting and tailoring these subsidies will be challenging, the government could consider a subsidy that is linked to some performance, either exports or on higher productivity growth.”
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    For those of you who have read the book, the reference is unmistakable. And for those of you who haven’t, I’ll say it again: How Asia Works is mandatory reading.
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  • “The Government of India already has specialised institutions on footwear design and leather research. There is a need to have them play a much more proactive role in supporting with supply of trained and quality designers. There may also be a need for an arrangement to access good quality designers at a reasonable cost. An incentive compatible subsidy mechanism may be required here too. This should be complemented with colour and fashion forecasting support.”
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    I actually find myself in disagreement here with Gulzar Natarajan. Reading this post made me aware of the Best Footwear Design and Development Institute (yes, it really exists), but isn’t this an example of government overreach? Facilitating a college like this is one thing, actually having government run it is quite another, no?
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    But the solution is in the quote above: incentive compatible subsidy mechanism. Another recommendation in this regard: please read In The Service of the Republic, by Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah. My notes on this book can be found here. Providing subsidies that are designed to keep incentives (preferably for both parties) in mind is a surprisingly powerful idea!
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  • “For sure, the industry will not collapse, but will meander along business as usual. There may even be the occasional mutant success. But there cannot be a sectoral exit out of the current low productivity and stagnation trap.”
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    It is oddly depressing to have Gulzar Natarajan be pessimistic about the growth prospects for this sector, particularly because it is so hard to disagree with him on this account.
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  • He is against tax breaks, particularly because of the inevitable equilibrium in terms of the lobbying that will take place.
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  • “The conventional wisdom in this regard blames poor quality of infrastructure, restrictive labour laws, difficulty in assembling large land parcels, high cost of capital, and pervasive red-tape. These are all, in general, factors of concern.”
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    My favorite book to recommend to students in this regard is Bhagwati and Panagariya’s book “Tryst with Destiny“. And of course, in terms of policy prescriptions, Gulzar Natarjan’s own book “Can India Grow?
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  • Gulzar Natarajan has an extended section on the “innate charactersitics of entrepreneurs“. It is too long to excerpt, but it did remind me of an excellent paper on why productivity in India is so very low. Worth reading, especially if you are a student of micro, IO or India.
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  • “The impact of reforms like GST, while certainly beneficial in the long-run, may have ended up squeezing the vast majority of the small manufacturers. For a start, for these small manufacturers, the compliance costs in terms of hiring accountants and IT requirements are a non-trivial share of their profits. Then there is the structure of the GST tariffs – 18% for the components and 5% for the final product. This means that the manufacturers capital gets locked up as receivables for a long time. For small manufacturers, these costs are prohibitive.”
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    This point is a little weird. Let me explain what I mean when I say “weird”. I think almost every economist is aware of this issue, and has spoken about it repeatedly. But the level of awareness otherwise is very, very low. Again, the GST is a great idea with poor implementation. The unique nature of India’s economy (a blend of formal and informal along the supply chain for many, many things) makes the implementation worse.
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  • And perhaps the coda to this excellent blog post, and for me the most important part:
    “It is important for the Government to play an important role if the footwear industry can move significantly forward. The market by itself is unlikely to have the incentives or the capacity to manage that.”
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    This is a classically Studwellian recommendation. The problem is that the “no but markets will work if you let them” brigade will never accept this line of reasoning. Additionally, there are far too many people in India (especially within government) who will interpret this to mean that government needs to actively participate in the actual ecosystem by getting into manufacturing and allied activities.
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    And hardly anybody will get what I think is the actual Studwellian message. Government needs to carefully design incentive compatible subsidy mechanisms and make it clear to producers that it (the government) carries a very, very big stick – and that it is not afraid to use it. And well, if push comes to shove, actually use it. Please, read How Asia Works!

Ec101: Choices matter!

We’ve, in our Thursday posts this year, learnt about incentives and costs. But, and this is a really, really big “but” – they become operational only when we live in a world where we’re able to choose.

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabbarok – two people who have probably done more for educating people in economics than anybody else over the last thirty years or so – have written two of the best textbooks on economics available anywhere – one on micro and the other on macro.

In the book on microeconomics, they summarize ten different “big ideas” in economics: incentives, the invisible hand is the best kind of magic*, trade-offs matter, thinking on the margin matters, trade matters, wealth matters, institutions matter, business cycles are unavoidable, printing more money will lead to inflation and central baking is hard.

*I’ve paraphrased practically all of the big ideas, but this in particular is my phrasing, not theirs.

Two other asides before we proceed: in retrospect, it is interesting (at least to me) that at least one of their PhD’s (Tyler Cowen’s) and quite a few of their books are based literally on nothing more complicated than an exposition of these big ideas. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Also, they say that the biggest idea of them all is that economics is fun. I’d paraphrase that too: learning about the world is fun, and economics is a great tool to use towards that end.

Now, that allows for a neat segue to the topic du jour. At the very start of the book, even before the table of contents, they provide their definition of economics, one that I agree with wholeheartedly: economics is the study of how to get the most out of life.

Here’s the two word version: choices matter!

Unless we live in a society that is free to choose, at an individual level or otherwise, none of the other big ideas even come into play. So, to me, economics is first and foremost about being free to choose – and then about the benefits and costs of the choices that you make.

Which, I’d argue, means that learning about choices is plenty important. Ergo, this post.

  1. First things first. What is choice?
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    I chose (see what happened there?) this Quora post not because it is the “best”, but simply because it is so typical. Here’s what I think choice is: it is an admission of the fact that you can’t have everything. A particularly relevant example for me: what to eat from a buffet at a five star restaurant? With every passing year, “everything!” becomes an increasingly unrealistic answer. So choose those dishes that are likely to taste the best (maximizing happiness), or those dishes that are likely to cause the least harm (minimizing unhappiness) along some dimensions such as spiciness, oiliness or what have you.
    Or hey, do both at the same time! Choose the dish that is likely to taste the best and the dish that is likely to do the least harm. That’s half your micro paper right there – the rest is just math and diagrams. (I am kidding, of course, but only a little bit.)
    Choice is an admission of the fact that you can’t have everything, but that’s a good thing! It forces you to go with the best. Which paintings should you look at when you’re at the Louvre? “Every single one!” is unrealistic. Force yourself to choose, therefore, the very best of the lot. Constraints help you understand your own tastes better: aesthetics is, among other things, a matter of acknowledging the existence of constraints.
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  2. So having too many choices is a bad thing? It would seem so:
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    “It all began with jam. In 2000, psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper published a remarkable study. On one day, shoppers at an upscale food market saw a display table with 24 varieties of gourmet jam. Those who sampled the spreads received a coupon for $1 off any jam. On another day, shoppers saw a similar table, except that only six varieties of the jam were on display. The large display attracted more interest than the small one. But when the time came to purchase, people who saw the large display were one-tenth as likely to buy as people who saw the small display.”
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  3. But hang on. Of what use is an economics theory that doesn’t have a on-the-other hand angle? Tim Harford, as is so often the case, to the rescue.
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    “But a curious thing happened almost immediately. They began by trying to replicate some classic experiments – such as the jam study, and a similar one with luxury chocolates. They couldn’t find any sign of the “choice is bad” effect. Neither the original Lepper-Iyengar experiments nor the new study appears to be at fault: the results are just different and we don’t know why.”
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  4. And on a related note, have you heard of Herbert Simon and satisficing? This excerpt is from a Wikipedia article on Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice, but it is actually about Herbert Simon.
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    “A maximizer is like a perfectionist, someone who needs to be assured that their every purchase or decision was the best that could be made. The way a maximizer knows for certain is to consider all the alternatives they can imagine. This creates a psychologically daunting task, which can become even more daunting as the number of options increases. The alternative to maximizing is to be a satisficer. A satisficer has criteria and standards, but a satisficer is not worried about the possibility that there might be something better. Ultimately, Schwartz agrees with Simon’s conclusion, that satisficing is, in fact, the maximizing strategy.”
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  5. And the final word goes to Tyler Cowen. Or is it Herbert Simon all over again? Choices, choices.
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    “What if you asked people the following: do you wish to choose your own means of limiting your (subsequent) choices, or do you wish to let someone else, perhaps the government, do the work? I suspect the answers would overwhelmingly favor the former option, namely voluntary choice at the meta-level. And if you reexamine the experiments mentioned above, they are all about ways in which people voluntarily limit their own choices. Maybe you don’t wish to run your own cancer treatments, but you wish to choose the doctor who will.”

 

Ec101: Understanding Opportunity Costs

I mean, come on. Who doesn’t understand opportunity costs?

The cost of the next best alternative, of the opportunity foregone. We could have told you this in our sleep.

So answer me this (and please don’t cheat):

“Imagine that you have a free ticket (which you cannot resell) to see Radiohead performing. But, by staggering coincidence, you could also go to see Lady Gaga – there are tickets on sale for £40. You’d be willing to pay £50 to see Lady Gaga on any given night, and her concert is the best alternative to seeing Radiohead. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either gig. What is the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead? (a) £0, (b), £10, (c) £40, or (d) £50.”

  1. That is from Tim Harford, and is unfortunately behind an FT paywall. But here’s the original paper.
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    “We were surprised by the diversity of opinion regarding the value to which the
    term “opportunity cost” applies. As Table 2 indicates, the most popular answer
    was $50, with 27.6% of respondents choosing this answer. The second most
    popular answer was $40, with 25.6% of respondents choosing this answer. The
    third most popular answer was $0, with 25.1% of respondents choosing this
    answer. The correct answer, $10, was the least popular, with only 21.6% of
    respondents choosing this answer. In essence, the answers given to us by well trained economists appear to be randomly distributed across possible answers.” (Emphasis added)
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    So what did you guess?
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  2. People got plenty upset about the whole thing – check the comments, especially,
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  3. “I don’t have any quarrel with Alex’s economics; as far as I can see this point is semantic. (I’ll also admit that my gross perspective on opportunity cost is somewhat anachronistic; it is one reason why mainstream economists work directly with consumer surplus.) What disturbs me is how few economists gave $50 or $40 as the right answer; the actual answers were close to randomly distributed. Most Web-based sources appear confused on the net vs. gross issue, but at least they hover across the $40 and $50 options.”
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    Economists don’t always agree, but it mostly comes to down to splitting hairs? If only it were so
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  4. “This paper analyzes the relationship between opportunity costs of waiting and bribery in rationing by waiting situations. Assuming that a uniform waiting time clears the market for any given bribe and the bureaucrat chooses a bribe to maximize profit, the market equilibrium is characterized in terms of individual valuations of the good and opportunity costs of waiting. If individual valuations take discrete values and opportunity costs of waiting are uniformly distributed, then in an equilibrium individuals with low costs of waiting choose to wait while those with high opportunity costs pay the bribe”
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    While traveling on India’s highways, have you ever seen trucks waiting by the highway for no apparent reason?
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  5. For interested students, a big fat list of examples, drawn from multiple walks of life.

Etc: Links for 3rd Jan, 2020

  1. Tim Harford sings praises of gaming:
    “But for most gamers the point of games is that they are enjoyable in a deeper way than most mere entertainments. They create moments of enchantment to rival the finest music or theatre. A good game has you solving puzzles, throwing yourself into improvised acting, and then helpless with tears of laughter. The friendships I’ve forged over the gaming table have been the ones that have lasted.”
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  2. On living in a commune in San Francisco. Beer isn’t welcome anymore, apparently.
    “I made my first mistake early on. It came at one of the dinner parties, which tended to happen spontaneously: one person would sit down quietly to eat a stir fry, before others joined them with takeout or leftovers. I brought a case of beer, which seemed to offend the zest for self-improvement that defined the commune. Sleep, and getting enough of it, was the topic du jour. Entire dinners were spent discussing the finer points of sleep tracking, which monitoring gadgets worked best (the Oura Ring was popular); how best to optimise a bedtime schedule; what to eat; what not to drink. I felt like a Neanderthal, supping beer and interjecting to add that surely it was important to enjoy yourself now and again. This sat oddly with a group that was on a different path towards self-actualisation. Alcohol disrupts sleep, it turns out.”
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  3. A fascinating article on… feathers.
    “Feather stuffing, once the height of luxury, has become ubiquitous. Over the past quarter-century, our global demand for warmth – even on a short shopping trip – has led to a tripling of the global trade in feathers by volume. Never mind being light as a feather, the raw plumage that drifts across borders each year is equal to the weight of nearly 90,000 cars. And 80% of those feathers come from one country: China.The trade in feathers is not a simple case of supply meeting demand. The down in our coats is, in fact, a by-product of the ducks and geese that end up on dinner tables. In terms of price per weight, down feathers – the soft, fuzzy ones on the bird’s breast – are the most valuable part of a duck, worth $25-50 per kg, roughly ten times as much as the meat. But a typical bird yields some 2.5kg of meat compared with just 15 grams of down, so a duck’s value lies mostly in its flesh. The soft feathers account for just 3% of its value, so abattoirs see those fluffy hairs not as a treasured commodity but detritus.”
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  4. Curbed chooses bike sharing as the biggest thing to have happened in the previous decade.
    “Studies have shown that bike share can help boost some transit ridership and may even be safer than riding personal bikes. The average cyclist death rate is 21 deaths per 100 million trips, but through 2014, after seven years of bike share in U.S. cities and 23 million rides, not a single person had been killed riding a bike-share bike. By the time U.S. bike share rides hit 100 million, which happened sometime in early 2017, only one death had been reported.”
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  5. On simplifying quadratic equations.

Etc: Links for 18th October, 2019

  1. “If I win, I’ll be 18,000 chips to 2,000 chips ahead. If Levitt wins, game over.”
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    Tim Harford plays poker with Steve Levitt. This was a very enjoyable read!
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  2. “And yet there is something about TikTok’s presence in mainstream culture — as a testing ground for “real” stars, as an Emmys joke about what the kids are into — that underestimates the power of the thing itself. It feels as if there are endless TikTok universes unfolding all at once. And so last week, over 48 hours, five critics of The New York Times with different specialties and varying familiarity with the app took a look at what it has to offer.”
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    The NYT profiles tiktok – we are clearly in peak tiktok territory now.
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  3. “During one such inspection in 1731, a British merchant captain named Robert Jenkins protested the intrusion, and in the ensuing scuffle the Spanish captain’s blade somehow separated Captain Jenkins from his left ear. This civilian injury was far from newsworthy back in Britain—after all, smuggling was a rough business. Eight years later, however, when Great Britain sought a pretext for war, it became politically expedient for British politicians to suffer outrage over this unauthorized amputation. Legend has it that Captain Robert Jenkins himself held aloft the very ear in question at a Parliamentary hearing, as evidence for the grave insult to the crown—though there is no historical proof that this exhibition actually occurred. Ear regardless, the outrage was successfully fabricated, and the resulting years of hostilities would come to be known as “The War of Jenkins’ Ear.””
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    11,000 words, but all of them fascinating. This is about a ill fated expedition through the Drake passage. Via The Browser.
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  4. “But the purpose of chronic pain, which scientists define as pain that lasts for more than three months after its initial cause, is more mysterious. The pain’s origin might be muscular-skeletal – the result of a fall, perhaps – or neuropathic, caused by damage to the nervous system. Or it might be a result of a long-term condition, such as fibromyalgia. Whichever way, it is a pain that has gone on beyond its expected life span and does not respond to medication. Often it is a discomfort that has become invisible and shifted shape, growing harder to understand the greater the distance from its original cause. A physiotherapist suggested to me that chronic pain was like a musician being given a piece of sheet music to play. The musician learns the music and when the music is taken away, she continues to play it. The body has learned the pain by heart.”
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    On the tragedy of, and a potential solution to, chronic pain.
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  5. The Madras Courier on a short history of the telephone.

Etc: Links for 12th July, 2019

  1. “Often failure is simply failure, and a setback is exactly what it seems. But sometimes the obstacle that has been placed in our path might provoke us to look around, and perhaps to discover that a better route was there all along.”
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    Tim Harford on the Doris Day effect
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  2. “If I have to be curt, they’re famous for being famous. Another way of understanding how a family (+ dogs+friends+assistants) has risen to unprecedented levels of fame and fortune is by the Principle of Cumulative Advantage. This principle is also known as the Matthew Effect, and refers to the phenomenon of those who already have an advantage acquiring more of it. This concept is applicable to both financial and social capital.”
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    …and since the previous article mentioned it, Reshu Natani in Think Pragati on the Matthew Effect.
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  3. “The last time I saw Bourdain was a few months ago, at a party in New York, for one of the books released by his imprint at the publishing house Ecco—of his many projects, his late-career role as a media rainmaker was one he assumed with an almost boyish delight. At the bar, where I’d just picked up my drink, he came up and clapped me on the shoulder. “Remember when you asked me if I was a feminist, and I was afraid to say yes?” he said, in that growling, companionable voice. “Write this down: I’m a fuckin’ feminist.”
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    A lovely essay on the late Anthony Bourdain. Just in case you haven’t, do read this – the article that started it all.
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  4. “5-MeO-DMT is produced in large amounts by Bufo alvarius, a rare species of toad commonly known as the Colorado river toad or the Sonoran desert toad. When preyed upon, the toad secretes a venom that repels predators by causing them to, in scientific terms, trip balls. Psychonauts discovered that you can milk the toads’ venom, dry it out, and smoke it. The substance’s close relative, DMT, is an active ingredient in the traditional shamanic brew known as ayahuasca, but what they say about smoking the toad is that it’s like riding a rocket to the same place of total ego death that ayahuasca takes you to by riverboat.”
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    That, the excerpt above, is not what this article is about. It is about Mike Tyson. He, as the title says, smokes the toad.
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  5. “There are many ways to achieve success and fulfillment that do not involve attending an elite college. Instead of encouraging people to pursue options well-matched to their abilities, however, we tell young people that their self-worth hinges entirely on the brand name on their college diploma. This creates a perverse incentive to do whatever it takes to get into their dream school, to amass tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, and to select a major based not on the professional opportunities it will open to them but on the ease of the program’s academic requirements. Small wonder we now have a generation drowning in debt and struggling to meet the traditional benchmarks of adulthood.”
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    A long, but very reasoned rant about education in America, and about how it isn’t quite as good as it is made out to be. Also, that rare article that distinguishes between education (teaching) and research.

Etc: Links for 5th July, 2019

  1. “…in the series, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a member of the Academy of Sciences, lives in nearly the same kind of squalor as a fireman in the Ukrainian town of Pripyat. In fact, Legasov would have lived in an entirely different kind of squalor than the fireman did.”
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    This is one of many, of course, but that line above was particularly illuminating. A review of the excellent series, Chernobyl.
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  2. “The productivity equation is a non-linear one, in other words. This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent and why I very rarely accept speaking engagements. If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly. What replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time, and that will, with luck, be read by many people, there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons, and a few speeches given at various conferences.”
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    Neal Stephenson (whose books are excellent, and uniformly so) on productivity.
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  3. “Thanos, observing that there were too many people, decided to kill half of them. But this is curiously short-sighted for a man regarded by many as a policy prophet. Any exponential population growth process will soon replace the lost people: that is why exponential growth is such a headache in the first place. For example, if an economy’s resource footprint grows exponentially at a rate of 7 per cent, it doubles in just ten years — meaning that in less time than has elapsed since the first Iron Man movie, we could be back where we started.The only lasting solution is an economy that uses resources at a sustainable rate. Malthus’s qualms notwithstanding, contraception has been a very good start. The world population growth rate is steadily approaching a very sustainable-sounding zero.”
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    Tim Harford analyzes Thanos like only an economist can.
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  4. “Imagine you’re cooking a roast dinner for your family of four. You opt for beef with all the trimmings, safe in the knowledge that it’s a firm family favourite. But just as you’re about to serve up, your daughter announces she’s vegetarian, your partner texts to say they’re running late, and your son tells you he’s invited “a few” friends over for dinner too. Then, your dog runs off with the joint of beef while you’re desperately trying to work out how you are going to meet the needs of all these (quite frankly) very demanding and unruly individuals.”
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    The BBC on the problem of dynamic resource allocation. The excerpt, by the way, has nothing to do with the rest of the article.
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  5. “Because at the end of their pilgrimage, the weary are rewarded with two things: a footbath and a bowl of steaming noodles. The footbath is just a footbath, but the noodles are extraordinary. Su filindeu is—quasi-official designation here—the rarest pasta on the planet. The dish is made specifically for this occasion; its very existence revolves around this trek. So specialized and obscure and mind-bendingly intricate is it that only a few souls can make it. And only those who reach Lula will ever try it.”
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    The rarest pasta on earth. Why wouldn’t you want to read!

Links for 16th May, 2019

  1. “The other risk of a huge centrally planned response to climate change is that of a huge centrally planned response to anything: clumsy megaprojects chosen for their political or bureaucratic acceptability rather than because they deliver the biggest results for the lowest cost.”
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    In which the ghost of Pigou is found to be giving a contented chuckle. Pigouvian taxes is a term you should learn about, and read this article to find out how and why the idea continues to resonate.
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  2. “With casuals being the next wave of streaming adopters, their impact will increase. But despite being ‘more valuable’ they will also reduce royalties, because more streams per user means revenue gets shared between more tracks, which means lower per-stream rates. The music industry thus has an apparently oxymoronic challenge: it is not in its interest to significantly increase the amount of media consumption time it gets per user, but instead it will be better served by getting a larger number of people listening less!Current market trajectory points to more streams per user, which – for subscriptions, where royalties are paid as a share of revenue – means lower per-stream rates.”
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    Have you read The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson? Read it (or about it), and then read this article to learn about the problems that will arise in a world full of long tails.
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  3. “The answer is no and yes. The views of Piketty and Blanchard can indeed be reconciled, because they are talking about different interest rates. While Blanchard focuses on the rate on low-risk government bonds, Piketty is concerned with the return on risky capital investments. Because the two interest rates are separated by a risk premium of roughly five percentage points, it is entirely possible for the rate on government bonds to be below the economic growth rate, while the rate on capital is above it.”
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    Barry Eichengreen on the return (as he puts it) of fiscal policy. A short article, but a useful one to understand macroeconomics better.
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  4. “When historians in the distant future look back at our era, the name Alfred Sauvy may appear in a footnote somewhere. Sauvy was a French demographer who coined the term “third world” in a magazine article in 1952, just as the Cold War was heating up. His point was that there were countries not aligned with the United States or the Soviet Union that had pressing economic needs, but whose voices were not being heard.”
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    The always excellent Tim Taylor on the nomenclature for “third world” countries – how it came about, what it means, how it might change going forward – and ends with a clarification about how it may not have been what we have thought all along!
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  5. “I have to tell you, I’m a pretty lazy person, I don’t work more than 40 hours per week. What I’ve discovered helps me is to not compartmentalize – because if I thought of my life as, “there’s teaching, there’s research, there’s writing on my blog, there’s X, Y and Z…” then you very quickly run out of hours in the day. But almost everything I do spills over into almost everything else I do. So I’m constantly looking for ways to take whatever I do and get it to serve three or four or five purposes.”
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    A fascinating interview with Aswath Damodaran – a person you must know more about if you want to study finance. The entire interview is worth reading – but this excerpt is for you even if you are not a student of finance – his view about what qualifies as work, and what doesn’t.

Links for 25th April, 2019

  1. “Singapore appreciates the relative strengths and limits of the public and private sectors in health. Often in the United States, we think that one or the other can do it all. That’s not necessarily the case.”
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    It is always a good idea to learn about Singapore’s healthcare system, and this Upshot column from the NYT helps in that regard. Each of the links are also worth reading. If you spend time reading through the article and all the links therein, you might be a while, but it is, I would say, worth it.
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  2. “With Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, he collected evidence on happiness that remains my benchmark for social scientists’ ability to shed light on wellbeing. Prof Kahneman once warned me that expert advice can go only so far. Much happiness and sadness is genetically determined: “We shouldn’t expect a depressive person to suddenly become extroverted and leaping with joy.” Those words are much on my mind this week.”
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    Tim Harford remembers Alan Kreuger, and helps us understand a lot about the man, his work, happiness and much else in the process. Entirely worth reading.
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  3. “The Captain Swing riots are thus one more example, an especially vivid one, that new technologies which cause a lot of people to lose a way of earning income can be highly disruptive. The authors write: “The results suggest that in one of the most dramatic cases of labor unrest in recent history, labor-saving technology played a key role. While the past may not be an accurate guide to future upheavals, evidence from the days of Captain Swing serve as a reminder of how disruptive new, labor-saving technologies can be in economic, social and political terms.”
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    One, because reading something you hadn’t read before is always interesting. Two, because unemployment because of automation isn’t new. Three, makes for very relevant reading today (in multiple ways: automation itself, but also untangling causality.)
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  4. “He says he was inspired by the depth of the nun’s commitment to India’s least fortunate—but he was unwilling to emulate her approach, and not simply because of its material sacrifices. Although Shetty often performed free surgeries for the poorest of the poor, he reasoned that the only way to sustainably serve large numbers of people in need was to make it a business. “What Mother Teresa did was not scalable,” he says—perhaps the first time venture capital jargon has been applied to the work of the Angel of Calcutta.”
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    Interested in healthcare, or economics, or both? A lovely read, in that case. Also a good explainer of the challenges in front of Modicare.
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  5. “The argument in favour of having Tribunals is that they offer a specialised and dedicated forum for settling specific categories of disputes which are otherwise likely to get stuck in the regular judicial channels. But this assumption holds only if the regular judiciary exercises restraint and does not insert itself into the proceedings pending before Tribunals. ”
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    The problem with laws in India isn’t their framing – it is their implementation. Read this to find out more.

Links for 9th April, 2019

  1. “What is not useful is the sense that measuring GDP is the problem, and measuring gross national happiness is the solution. Few societies have ever really focused on either. We should all be happy about that.”
    Tim Harford reminds us that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. In this case, the article is worth reading for understanding how GDP can’t really be measured, and how that may not be a bad thing. In addition, please read the article to understand that Bhutan probably isn’t all that “happy” a country in the first place!
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  2. “Given the pressure on all unions to negotiate higher-than-average wage increases, using monetary policy to reduce inflation would inevitably aggregate spending to fall short of the level needed to secure full employment, but without substantially moderating the rate of increase in wages and prices. As long as the unions were driven to negotiate increasing rates of wage increase for their members, increasing rates of wage inflation could be accommodated only by ever-increasing growth rates in the economy or by progressive declines in the profit share of business. But without accelerating real economic growth or a declining profit share, union demands for accelerating wage increases could be accommodated only by accelerating inflation and corresponding increases in total spending.”
    Monetary nerds only, it should go without saying! David Glasner runs a blog called Uneasy Money, which is well worth reading, but only if you want to find yourself steeped in all things monetary. This post takes a slightly critical view of Arthur Burns tenure as Fed Chairman.
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  3. “Amazon’s economists game out real estate decisions, set the lowest prices that will deliver a profit, precisely determine what customers care about and whether advertisements are working — all using machine-learning algorithms that automate decision making on a massive scale. It’s the kind of asset that smaller companies can’t always pay for, allowing Amazon to pull further and further away from the competition.”
    Amazon has, in case you didn’t know, probably the world’s largest collection of PhD’s in economics. This article helps you understand what it is that they do once they’re in Amazon. A helpful read if you are considering building a career in economics.
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  4. “The White House explains why it’s predicting such big growth: the TCJA will cause a surge in business investment by “substantially raising the target capital stock and attracting increased net capital inflows.” And this rise in the capital stock will cause a surge in productivity. Except that there’s no sign of a surge in business investment: the report cherry-picks a few numbers, but overall orders for capital goods, probably the best real-time indicator, are showing nothing much (that 2015-6 slump, by the way, was about fracking, which fell off for a while when world oil prices plunged)”
    Paul Krugman is less than impressed with the 2019 Economic Report of the President, and provides data to show why he is less than impressed. The chart that follows the excerpt is worth looking at too.
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  5. “There’s one biosignature that Seager, Guyon, and just about everyone else agree would be as near a slam dunk for life as scientific caution allows. We already have a planet to prove it. On Earth, plants and certain bacteria produce oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis. Oxygen is a flagrantly promiscuous molecule—it’ll react and bond with just about everything on a planet’s surface. So if we can find evidence of it accumulating in an atmosphere, it will raise some eyebrows. Even more telling would be a biosignature composed of oxygen and other compounds related to life on Earth. Most convincing of all would be to find oxygen along with methane, because those two gases from living organisms destroy each other. Finding them both would mean there must be constant replenishment.”
    That’s just one of many, many excerpt-able pieces from a very long, but also very rewarding article about the search for ET. Take your time with this one – about an hour or so, and pay particular attention to the infographics.