Thursday, August 30, 2007
Be sure to enter the Polyjuice potion contest. We have four excellent entries so far and you could add to this pool. Your entry is due on September 1st, 2007, so think quick and think clever!
If you are on the fence about entering, let me entice you by telling you more about the prize. I bought some traditional South African crafts/sculptures, and this is what I plan on giving to the winner.
Note: I went shopping specifically for this purpose. In fact, I haven't bought anything for myself since coming to Cape Town.
Check here for more details about the contest.
What do the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, Ramadan and Chernobyl have in common? (And Other Interesting Links)
The year is 1918. A massive pandemic of the influenza makes itself known worldwide. In the
It turns out that Freddie will likely live longer than Carl, in better health and in better socioeconomic circumstances.
The subject of early life conditions and subsequent life trajectories is now quite hot within the economics and medical professions. In particular, the economics literature in this area is growing quite quickly. Leading the charge is Douglas Almond (check out his website here), who is one of my favorite economists and always a good read given his combination of insights from biology and good econometrics. His latest research points out that prenatal exposure Chernobyl pollution and the Ramadan fast may have had negative effects on subsequent adult outcomes. The basic idea is simple: mothers have placentas, and maternal exposure to adverse or beneficial shocks has consequences for fetal nutrition and wellness, which go on to affect the child later in life. This process is called “fetal programming” in the medical literature.
The impact of fetal programming may reach across generations, as well. For example, Almond and his colleagues have shown the effects of hospital integration in 1965 (as part of the Civil Rights Act) may have had intergenerational effects. Prior to integration, hospitals were segregated by race, and black hospitals were often in very poor conditions relative to their white counterparts.
Using information from birth certificates (very rich and publicly available), women born just after integration are in better health during the pregnancy and are more likely to have children with higher birth weights than those born just before integration. These differences will likely widen as these children become adults: other research has shown how birth weight is a good predictor of future health and socioeconomic outcomes.
Other interesting links:
1) Check out this Slate article about the research on the beneficial effects of cable TV in Indian villages. I mentioned this research in an earlier post.
2) Another Slate article, this time on how physics can help inform us why some countries remain poor.
3) Check out Greg Mankiw’s blog (under links). I just started reading it and I’m loving it so far. It reminds me of my undergrad macroeconomics class, which inspired me to become and econ major. Our instructor, Professor Allen Kelley, put together something called the Macro News, which applied simple economic theory to every day macroeconomic events, for the benefit of his students. Good stuff, and Mankiw’s blog is in the same spirit.
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
One thing I immediately noticed about
I realized that my behavior here is completely different: I make sure seek out the recycling bin because I don’t want to be looked upon as the jerk who doesn’t care about the Earth. The one time I didn’t manage to recycle (because I was already late for a meeting) I wrapped my soda can in a plastic bag and carefully stuffed it near the back of a trash can, away from the possibly judgmental eyes of others.
As a friend of mine noted, this suggests that shame might be an effective to induce people to be nice to the environment. I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of using shame for public policy. In
Less squirmy, to me at least, are financial incentives. A popular idea is creating a market for pollution permits. Companies buy and sell the right to emit pollutants at certain rates. The idea is that, by introducing a cost for pollution, companies internalize the cost of environmental damage and therefore pollute less. Here’s another one: as a colleague of mine pointed out, supermarkets in
The Chinese fast food stall here at the
Monday, August 27, 2007
: Get out of bed and take an outdoor shower (though in an enclosed, private space) while catching a view of the top of
: Head to the
– : Dig into the data set and do some serious programming. I have a desk in UCT’s Leslie Commerce Hall. I spend some time chatting up UCT grad students and professors and talk travel with an interesting and very sharp American anthropology student. (Has anyone else realized that anthropologists use the word “context” a lot? Political scientists like to talk about “salience.” I still use words like “dude” and “cool.”)
– : Grab some lunch with UCT undergrads.
1 PM – 2:30 PM: Head out to one of Cape Town’s poorer townships and help my colleague/co-author Brendan Maughan-Brown deliver blankets to kids as part of his blanket drive. These areas are characterized by lots of small shacks, paved, but crumbling roads, and high unemployment. However, the spirits are warm, the people friendly, and the kids are really cute.
: Do some more work. Get in some serious “ground-truthing” action by asking those in the know about some sociological and economics hunches we have.
: Watch Sonia Gandhi, the most powerful woman – or, depending on your point of view, person - in
8:00 PM – sleepy time: Enjoy a goose-egg omelet for dinner, spend a couple hours doing programming, read some Harry Potter, and practice singing “Sleepy Fish.”
Finally, here are some pictures I took this weekend on a trip to the Cape Wine Country. Enjoy!
Friday, August 24, 2007
If you had access to polyjuice potion and a strand of hair from any person in the world, who would you choose to be and what would you do?
Post your answer as a comment, and I'll pick a winner when I come back to the US (first week of September). You can post anonymously provided that, if I announce you the winner, you e-mail me your identity (e-mail not provided here: thanks James). Put "blog contest" in the subject line. Keep your answers clever (while remembering the properties of polyjuice potion) and clean. Vulgarities have no place on this blog: my little cousins read it (or at least claim to), so be nice.
Here is my answer: I'd choose to be Elvis, since he is obviously still alive. I would call up the Rage Against the Machine instrumentalists and arrange a jam session.
Some admin stuff: I've been incredibly tied down with work, so the India series will have to wait a week or so. Stay tuned. I'm really excited about it and I am sure you'll enjoy it as well.
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
I was recently hexed by a Cape Town area beggar. The man wanted a 5 Rand donation towards his fishing business. My colleague and I politely refused, and he proceeded to swear at us and proclaim that all sorts of maladies would befall us. More specifically, the said beggar predicted/wished that we would get into a car accident. Nice guy.
This was the first time I’ve ever been hexed by anyone. I have to say the episode freaked me out to the point where I did not want to get in a car for the rest of my South Africa visit. This was completely ridiculous given that:
-Shortly after the episode, I was completely fine with picnicking near the edge of a cliff. This was probably much more dangerous than any car ride I have taken here so far, both because of the nice tumble I could have taken as well as the presence of aggressive baboons.
Monday, August 20, 2007
1) A great set of essays on the political, economic and social future of India, commemorating India's 60th birthday. The painting by M.F. Hussein is pretty fun and has replaced Daniel Craig's James Bond as my desktop background.
2) A recent Quarterly Journal of Economics article about how cell phones have made Keralite farmers and fish markets more efficient. The author, Robert Jensen, was mentioned in a previous post in this space, in the context of his article on the effects of cable TV on rural Indian households. Doesn't the following abstract make you want to abandon whatever you are doing and read this right now?
When information is limited or costly, agents are unable to engage in optimal arbitrage. Excess price dispersion across markets can arise, and goods may not be allocated efficiently. In this setting, information technologies may improve market performance and increase welfare. Between 1997 and 2001, mobile phone service was introduced throughout Kerala, a state in India with a large fishing industry. Using microlevel survey data, we show that the adoption of mobile phones by fishermen and wholesalers was associated with a dramatic reduction in price dispersion, the complete elimination of waste, and near-perfect adherence to the Law of One Price. Both consumer and producer welfare increased.
3) James Heckman's research agenda. I made a brief comment about this on my post on height. I find this agenda really inspiring: there are tons of interesting, open questions and great scope for some interdisciplinary work. Neuroscientists, economists, sociologists, policymakers and anyone interested in the origins and remediation of inequality should read this.
4) Is it possible to recover the extra cost of hybrid vehicles through savings generated by using less gas? Santosh Anagol suggests the answer is yes.
Saturday, August 18, 2007
I had an interesting conversation with a member of the TN Planning Commission on the topic of buses. He pointed out that, excluding the luxury buses, both private and public buses are highly regulated. In this case, all non-luxury buses cannot charge more than 28 paise per km.
Here is where it gets interesting. Apparently private buses are running at a profit while public buses are running at sizable losses. Not only that, the non-luxury sector is profitable enough that there are multiple private carriers in the markets (this suggests that, despite price regulations, barriers to entry might be rather low).
Why is this so? As I mentioned earlier, private and public buses offer the same amount of luxury and personal space. Not only that, both buses run around the same time and take about the same time to reach their end destination. Then what gives? Here are some theories:
Exploitation of Labor: The planning commission member suggested that private bus companies operate on lower costs by stretching their labor inputs to the fullest. Apparently, this is a well known phenomenon - at least well known enough to warrant some air time on this blog.
I'm not too sure about this explanation. Why don't exploited drivers find employment opportunities at other bus companies, that might offer more competitive salaries or perks, or with the government buses? What about employment opportunities outside of driving buses (such as driving lorries)? Unless there are some weird frictions in the labor market (ex 1: perhaps bus drivers are easy to replace and there are few outside opportunities for bus drivers in other sectors, thus giving bus drivers little bargaining power; ex 2: private bus companies collude with each other), I'm not sure if this can fully explain the profit difference.
Competition on Other Margins: Another explanation is that private buses make their meal on margins other than service quality, time to destination, etc. The planning commission officer noted how, on inter-city trips, private buses dilly-dally around, picking up lots of customers, making up the difference by booking it on the highways. Public buses on the other hand are forced (by regulation) to make timed stops and have to sign off on their time of stopping at various points on the journey. The point is that private buses are able to allocate the journey time more productively by spending more of it in areas where more customers can be picked up.
Ultimately, while I think the second explanation is compelling, this is still a bit of a riddle. I wish I had more time to observe what exactly is happening. If any of you have experienced Indian buses, or have thoughts on this puzzle, please post your comment.
Friday, August 17, 2007
1) Do you believe that India will be a developed country by 2020?
2) Do you think everyone is benefiting from economic growth?
3) What are the top three factors/forces that could derail India's quest to become a world economic superpower?
Over the last two years, India has been everyone's favorite cover girl, with breathtaking commentaries on rising affluence and consumerism in India a sign of the West's fascination with this budding superpower. Also, one of the things that struck me most during this most recent trip was how much things had changed, mostly for the better, since my last visit in 2003. Given these two things, I felt a study on people's perspectives on growth might be interesting.
My "sample" consists of all the parties mentioned above, along with individuals from occupations such as flower seller, auto rickshaw driver, small store owner, large store owner, and school child, with the idea being to try the best I could to generate a representative cross-section of the Chennai population. (Besides getting answers to my questions, interacting with so many people allowed me to practice my Tamil, whose condition I have upgraded from "terrible" to "not good."). My aim is to combine these perspectives with my own thoughts and readings in a series of posts about Indian economic development.
Of course, any synthesis that begins with Chennai is probably biased in the direction of optimism (which happens to be my natural leaning, anyway). This is where you come in: please feel free to post any comments, experiences, or thoughts you might have.
I hope to kick off this series in the coming few days and work on it over the course of a month or so. Hope you find it interesting.
Televisions for the Poor: As part of a large set of campaign promises, the DMK party promised free TVs for poor and near-poor households all over the state upon being elected. Sure enough, the DMK was voted into power and TVs are now being distributed all over the state. Some 160,000 households have received TVs so far, and the government hopes to up this number to 700,000+ in the next five years. (I may be off by an order of magnitude on the latter figure).
Quite a few people I talked to believe the whole TV bit is yet another check in a string of shameless populist promises and claims (check out this humorous piece about populist politics in TN). However, the DMK brass claims that TV's may have a number of benefits, including providing educational and cultural opportunities for women and children and inducing various parties to provide electricity to previously unconnected households in remote rural areas.
I'm a bit skeptical about the latter, but the former may not be such a stretch. A recent paper by Robert Jensen and Emily Oster suggests that the influx of cable TV, with its urban culture/sensibility slanted TV serials and commercials, may have lead to improvements in women's autonomy and position in the household, lower fertility, and higher rates of female child schooling in Indian villages. The paper is compelling and definitely a good read. I always thought stuff like "Kyunki Saas Bhi Kahbi Bahu Thi" was totally mind-numbing nonsense, so its interesting to see that good things may actually stem from its existence!
Employment Guarentee Schemes: This one is not specific to Tamil Nadu, but its interesting and something everyone I met wanted to talk about. Basically, individuals who want to work but are unable to find jobs are either given a job or provided a cash transfer while searching for a job by the government for a period of 100 days. The wage/value of the transfer currently stands at Rs 80 a day (see the flower lady post to put this in context).
Currently, the scheme is operating in some 200 districts all across India. The area of coverage should grow over the next few years, with the growth being especially rapid in Tamil Nadu. I think an interesting set of studies would be to look at the household and labor market effects of this policy. As the Yale Economic Growth Center is carrying out a large panel survey in TN starting this year, there might be ample scope to use the phased-roll out of the program to identify the effects of having an employment safety net in rural areas.
Land Distribution: Some 100,000 individuals have benefited from a scheme where previously fallow lands were distributed to previously landless farmers. The lands are distributed to groups of farmers, with the government providing capital inputs (borewells for irrigation, heavy machinery, seeds) as well as advice on agricultural practices and investment.
What is most interesting is the collective action aspect. Since the group of farmers own the land together, who makes the farming decisions, who owns the borewell, who is in charge of monitoring and remedying capital depreciation? I couldn't get a good answer from the bureaucrats about this one. Please post a comment if you have any thoughts/nuggets of knowledge regarding this scheme.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
I love sports. Most of my time on the internet is devoted to various sports websites and my morning routine is not complete without some Sportscenter and cereal. If I had to rank sports in terms of the enjoyment I derive from them, American football would be on top and cricket would be second.
Cricket receives little attention from people here in the US - most of thetime people think I'm referring to croquet - and its hard to find fault with this. In the original (test match) form of the game, matches take FIVE DAYS to complete. The truncated (one day international = ODI) version only takes 1 day. And by one day I mean 8 hours or more. When you consider the length of matches and the often perplexing rules, it's no wonder that baseball, the godson of cricket, is preferred in this country and that cricket remains relegated to England and its former colonies.
In the past few years, however, there has been a push to make cricket more accessible with the introduction of Twenty20 cricket. Twenty20 cricket features matches that last 2.5-3 hours, about the length of a baseball/football game. So far Twenty20 matches have been very popular and have been growing in number.
Although the national sport of India is field hockey, cricket is by far its most popular sport. Indians devour anything cricket related, and the Indian cricket market is the largest in the world. Indian cricket fans are rabid ;after Bangladesh defeated India in a World Cup match earlier this year, infuriated fans destroyed bowler Zaheer Khan's restaurant in Pune and wicketkeeper MS Dhoni's house in Ranchi (note: I do not condone this behavior in any way or form, it just serves as an example).
The record of the Indian cricket team has been stellar in the sub-continent; they are essentially unbeatable. However their results overseas are another story. Out of 200 test matches played abroad, India has won 29. TWENTY NINE! That is ridiculous.
Cricket in India is ruled by one body, aptly named the Board of Control forCricket in India. They decide what the match schedule for the Indian team, they select the players on the national team, they set the pay scale for theplayers. They also control various cricket fixtures and tournaments within India. The BCCI is basically this big bureaucracy that is in charge of anything associated with cricket in India.
Not surprisingly, the BCCI is India's richest sporting body and perhaps the richest cricket sporting body in the world. Let's look at a few of their contracts:
-kit sponsorship deal with Nike from 2006-2010: US$43 million
-official team sponsorship with Air Sahara over 4 years: US$70 million
-media rights for 25 neutral venue ODIs to Zee TV: US$219.15 million
-global media rights for cricket in India over 2006-2010 to Nimbus: $612million!
Bottom line: the BCCI is loaded. Their net worth is well over US$1 billion,which is an incredible sum for any sports agency worldwide and especially large by Indian standards.
What the BCCI's financial success reflects, more than anything else, is the fervor with which Indians pursue cricket. Again, Indians love cricket. They worship the sport. Is it too much to ask, therefore, for Indian success at home and abroad? Can anyone truly be satisfied with the team going from a king in South Asia to a doormat anywhere else? One would think that a nation of 1 billion people (most of whom play and watch cricket almost all the time) would be able to produce players capable of executing in any environment.
Fed up with the state of cricket in India (and no doubt looking to make a nice profit) Subash Chandra, head of Zee TV, announced the creation of the Indian Cricket League (ICL) in April 2007. All ICL matches are to be played in the new Twenty20 format. Moreover, the teams will be comprised of four international, two Indian, and eight rising domestic players. Cricketsuperstars such as Brian Lara, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, and Inzamam Ul-Haq, players who remain popular but whose skills are not entirely on par with international cricket standards, have expressed interest in joining theICL.
The ICL seems to have it all - an entertaining format, veteran players who can attract a crowd, and a way in which unknown Indian players can gain national exposure. Not surprisingly, the BCCI has taken a clear anti-ICL stand, going so far as to say that any players involved in the ICL would bebanned from cricket FOR LIFE.
From the BCCI's standpoint this makes perfect sense. They have a monopoly on cricket in India and can easily use their size and power to push any potential rivals out of their market. The BCCI could even go so far as to create its own Twenty20 league to rival the ICL. I understand where theboard is coming from and if I was the BCCI I would be tempted to do something similar if my profits were at stake.
However, as a cricket fan, I find this appalling. The BCCI is full of a bunch of obnoxious, overbearing jerks. They're also self-serving. Every team selection and action undertaken by the board is riddled with politics. It's just ridiculous. On our current team, there are multiple players whose skills have diminished and should just make way for a younger breed. Yet they continue to play. Also, is Anil Kumble really the only spinner inIndia? Yeesh.
In terms of its sheer bureaucracy-ness the BCCI is just over the top. If I had to point to one reason why the Indian team is so stagnant, it would be the BCCI.
The current state of cricket in India is most analogous to the Indian economy post independence (1947). The post-1947 economy was full of regulations and bureaucracy, in part out of fears of another East India Company taking over the country. As a result of these regulations, overall growth was minimal. Only in the 1990s when regulations were lifted and the government decided to pursue a much more open market approach did the economy flourish and achieve the remarkable growth rates we see today.
The BCCI should adopt a similar free market approach. Why restrict the ICL? If it is a product that the people want then the BCCI should strive to meet these demands as well. And the selection process for the national team should follow the Australian method. That is, it should be totally merit based. If you aren't playing well, you aren't on the team. No questions asked. Will this make a difference? I don't know. But, I would be happy to know that our best team was on the field at all times.
One final note to those at the BCCI, I will definitely be watching the ICL when it starts.
Saturday, August 11, 2007
A few days ago, I felt ready to get back into the Bollywood sphere. With only a few days left in India, my sister and I decided to watch Chak De India, a movie about the Indian women's field hockey team (field hockey is a very big deal in India), their coach, and their quest to bring glory to the Motherland. A priori, the movie had a few things going for it:
-No love story
-No breaking out into song
-Shah Rukh Khan in the lead
-The movie centers around sports and Indian pride
There were also a few negatives:
-Shah Rukh Khan in the lead
-Produced by Yash Raj Films, which has a history of putting out over the top, gooey cinema
The verdict? Chak De is absolutely fantastic. The movie centers around a former Indian national side field hockey player (Khan) who falls into disgrace by missing a final penalty shot against Pakistan in a World cup final (he is accused of intentionally helping the Pakistanis win and the resulting craziness is well portrayed). Seven years after the fateful missed shot, Khan seeks a chance for retribution by coaching a talented, yet mercurial Indian women's side to World Cup glory.
Not only is Chak De India a good Hindi movie, but its also a darn good sports movie. Yes. I've taken the qualifier 'Hindi' out of the equation. Chak De certainly has all the hackneyed elements of a typical sports film, but the beauty is that each is 'Indianized' in a very effective and compelling matter. Here are some examples:
-Team Bonding: Almost every sports movie centering around a team starts out with the team members at odds with each other. Over the course of the movie, they set their differences aside and become an effective squad. In Chak De, the penultimate team bonding moment occurs when the girls beat up a gang of eve teasers in McDonald's. It a scene that has to be seen to be believed. (Anyone whose ever walked around with a female relative in an Indian city will truly appreciate the moment! This was definitely one of my favorite scenes.)
The other aspect of team bonding which is quite unique is that each of the girls hails from a different state in India. As a result, team bonding is used for a metaphor for national pride superceding regional pride in the goal seeking process.
-The Tortured Coach: The beauty of Shah Rukh Khan's role is that the coach displays steely determination throughout the film in seeking glory for India. Besides his personal demons, there is no other side story or distraction. Khan's coach is tough, unrelenting and driven, and this attitude slowly seeps into the girls' mindset during the course of the film.
Shah Rukh Khan has done a really good job in this film. This is the Swades or Hey! Ram Shah Rukh that I love to watch: restrained and expressive. There is no Kabhi Alveida Na Kehna buffoonery or excessive crying here.
-The Back Stories: Usually there are some compelling back stories for some of the players to make the action more meaningful. In Chak De the stories center around chauvanism, expectations of familial responsibility on the part of women, etc. Very germane to an India that is changing in both economic and sociocultural dimensions.
-The Montages and Action Sequences: Regarding the former, these sports montages are as good as any I've seen (save the Rocky movies). Regarding the latter, apparently each of the girls (all newcomers in the acting arena) were taught to play hockey over the course of some weeks. I know little about field hockey, but the action looks pretty convincing to me. Definitely well done.
The inevitable comparisons will be with Lagaan, a movie about cricket and independence that won international acclaim. I think such comparisons are unfair. While Chak De and Lagaan share common elements - the underdog story and cross-cultural unity in particular - the message and scope of the two movies are completely different.
The bottom line? See this movie. The acting is great, the action is great, the music is rocking and the goose-bump moments are plenty. You also get a lot of social stuff: women's empowerment, national pride and unity, among other messages. This is good fare and, for me personally, a great re-entry into Hindi cinema.
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
Here is an interesting question: do produce vendors develop these great voices as part of their on the job experience? Or do individuals with such voices tend to self-select into these jobs thanks to higher returns to their respective traits? I have a prize in mind for the "best" answer to this question. (I leave the definition of "best" vague on purpose.)
Flower vendors are another interesting occupational group. Every night the flower lady comes by and collects Rs 5 - 20 in exchange for a string of jasmine flowers and some pink rose petals. I've seen her the last three trips I've been here.
I always assumed that flower vending was a part time evening job to supplement another low-skill day job. Apparantly not. Flower vendors on average make about Rs 5000 a month (and maybe 50% more on festival months), which is equivalent to what a full time driver would make. That sounds like very little, but consider that an average 1 bedroom apartment in Chennai rents for around Rs 1500/month and, since flower vending is typically carried out by married females, the Rs 5000 salary is on top of what the spouse makes in his respective job. Pretty interesting stuff.
Friday, August 3, 2007
So here's to Coach Walsh: best wishes wherever you are.
I kind of like the strays: they are cute. On our way back home, my aunt, sister and I picked up a new friend, a little white dog who followed us over 2 km back home. He came up to the house gate and waited for us to come back out to play. We gave him some bread and he wagged his tail and went on his way.
After an experience like that its hard to support any policy of killing stray animals. In fact, there might be something to be learned from Bombay, where airport officials were forbidden from shooting dogs on the runway and forced to find more humane solutions.