HS2: A rocking-chair with three legs

The HS2 has two problems according to Sir Terry Morgan, who resigned as the Chairman of HS2 last month. The first problem according to Sir Terry Morgan is that the name is misleading. The emphasis should not have been on high speed but on adding capacity to the existing network. The second problem is the cost. He suggested that in order to keep the cost down, the line should stop at Old Oak Common in Northwest London. The question remains what is the point of adding capacity if the line does not reach Central London.

It also lays bare the limitations of the cost-benefit paradigm. The cost-benefit paradigm presumes that costs and benefits can be explicitly estimated and compared to pin down the net benefit to the society. If estimated benefits exceed estimated costs, then the projects is weakly a Pareto-improvement, i.e., it can potentially make people better off after the people who are worse off are suitably compensated.

From a practical perspective, costs can all be converted to pecuniary units and easily added up. Conversely, benefits are multi-dimensional and largely non-pecuniary. It is very difficult to estimate each dimension, let alone find some mechanism to add these various non-pecuniary dimensions. A bit like adding apples and oranges. The math just does not add up. Costs are more precisely estimated and benefits are effectively assumed. That is, there are usually a number of hidden assumptions in the methodology that allow benefits to be added up and given a pecuniary value that can then be compared to the benefits. If you are sceptical ask yourself how would you compare the benefits to HS2 line being built to Euston or Old Oak Common.

Sir Terry Morgan’s frank testimony at the Economic Affairs Committee on 22 January 2019 reveals how cost-benefit analysis works in practice. For any large troubled project, the focus often moves to minimising the cost, without mapping the resultant loss in benefits. This is because benefits are vague and cannot be easily estimated. For people who claim that cost-benefit analysis is flawed yet best available methodology, the very least you can say is that putting numbers on unknown unknowns is not a methodology. It is called stabbing in the dark.

HS2 may have been an unwise project to start without fully understanding the pattern of benefits to society. Yet, having sunk the cost into HS2, it needs to be brought to Central London. No one buys a chair with three legs however cheap its. So, why should we as a society pay for a high capacity line from Manchester to Old Oak Common.


Hart, O., Shleifer, A., & Vishny, R. W. (1997). The proper scope of government: theory and an application to prisons. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 112(4), 1127-1161. Link

Kanbur, R. (2005). Pareto’s revenge. Cornell University. Link


It is rare that a movie captures contemporaneous events so well. The reason why Contagion grips the viewer from the first frame is because it makes allegorical references to the contemporary world we live in and taps deep into our insecurities. It is also an intelligent cautionary tale on the globalisation and urbanisation. As the recent ebola crisis amply illustrates, we are never far from a apocalyptic contagion.

Contagion works at various level. The movie is a docudrama which describes how a contagious disease would spread in todays world and tear apart the fabric of the society. It is a mutated virus that spreads through contact and within days becomes a global pandemic. The disease spreads at an alarming rate because of our interconnectedness. Even though there are no surprises in the movie and the story proceeds at an even pace, the movie turns out to be gripping. I was intrigued by the effect the movie had to me. I was drawn to it as I would be to a movie in the horror or thriller genre, even though it had none of the usual cinematic techniques used in the genre. On reflection, the movie seems to work because it plays on our the insecurities associated with living in a inter-connected modern world. It taps into the insecurities that go much beyond the fear of a global pandemic.

The fact that the movie does not have a well defined human protagonist is refreshing. The story is written around a well defined invisible, yet lethal antagonist. The real protagonist in the movie is the abstract notion of how we organise and govern ourselves as a society. The institutional structures the society uses to organise itself is thus the real protagonist. The protagonist is frail and has serious setbacks but prevails over adversity ultimately. In the well travelled cinematic tradition, this abstract protagonist is fighting a losing battle through the duration of the movie and succeeds in the face of adversity towards the end. The movie proceeds at a even monotonous pace and ends gently without a clear sense of a climax. Yet, the movie grips the audience like a thriller would. Steven Soderbergh has tapped into the insecurities that we carry with us in the modern world. What frustrates the viewer interminably is both the invisible nature of the threat and the incompetent institutional reaction to the threat.

The threat is not idiosyncratic in nature. Put another way, it is not a threat that affects an individual with a given probability. We are quite used to that in the modern world and there are numerous well-developed mechanisms for insuring against idiosyncratic threats. The threat in the movie is a covariate threat, as in, it affects a significant proportion of the population at the same time. The parallel with the recent financial crisis is uncanny and maybe intentional. The institutional reaction to the covariate threat posed by the financial crisis is inadequate both at level of individual countries as well as the global level. The institutions were slow to grasp the nature of the threat from the financial crisis and their reaction was inadequate at best. In the movie, as the global pandemic spreads, the inadequate institutional response leads to break down of law and order. Widespread looting ensues leading to anarchy and lawlessness.  Again, the parallel with the London riots and protests in Greece is uncanny.

The institutions we live with and that govern us were designed for a very different world. Institutions by its very nature get ossified over time.  It is thus not surprising that these ossified institutions are neither able to comprehend the nature or the scale of the evolving threat to our prosperity. Our ossified institutions have not kept pace with the threats that have emerged from globalisation. 

In essence the evolving nature of covariate threat in the modern inter-connected world and ability of our ossified institutions to react to it taps into the insecurity that envelopes all of us in the modern world. There are great pecuniary and non-pecuniary benefits to be had from globalisation. The benefits of globalisation are meaningless if we don’t acquire a new set of institutions that are capable of reacting effectively to the covariate threat the globalised world poses.

Agglomeration and Urbanisation: The technological advances of the last couple of decades along with the natural tendency to agglomerate has meant that we are living a world where we trade off prosperity for a covariate risk. We are moving towards a increasingly inter-connected world with intense specialisation where we are constantly in sync with each other. Thus, we live in a world of impossibly long value chains that implies that a simple product we buy at our local store could have been made in a number of countries. These long value chains allows individuals to specialise and become part of this large interconnected global production process that makes us more prosperous over time. But this interconnected prosperity is like a house of cards. One significant covariate shock and it all collapses in a blink of an eye.

The institutions that govern us are past their sell by date. Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party movement, the Arab Spring or the Anna Hazare led anti-corruption movement in India is all part of the same overall challenge to our institutional structures. The fact that is easier to communicate and travel has meant that it is easier for the civil society to organise itself and challenge the current institutional structure. There institutional governance structures are still used designed to respond to threats that are staccato in nature. These institutions are like the superstructures in Marx’s world and generate a similar friction in the society due to their inherent inertia.

The institutional governance structures we currently have are synonymous with the modern nation states. Even though the nation state is the organising principle for institutions that govern us, people across the world are able to assort themselves in smaller homogenous groups according to their interests and want to governed accordingly to their newly acquired group identity. Hence, we see emergence of trans-national movements like the environmental movement and political islamism.

Technology is allowing people to group in ways that defy traditional geographical and physical constraints, yet the nation states and its institutions remain embedded in well defined geographical space. It is not at all clear that the demands we collectively place on our institutions as groups can be resolved easily. Something will have to give. It would either be a radical institutional change or a apocalyptic contagion.

Thresholds in Education

Malcolm Gladwell suggests in his celebrated book “Outlier” that the key to success lies in investing 10,000 hours in practising and perfecting a pertinent task. Does that mean that 10,000 hours guarantees success in your profession? Skill is a perquisite for success in most profession, yet that is not all it takes.

Malcolm Gladwell focusses only on the “outliers” in the society. It is obvious that practising a relevant skill for 10,000 hours is just one part of the success matrix. The outliers are likely to be individuals with exceptional innate abilities. The sample that Malcolm Gladwell studies consists of individuals that already have certain innate abilities and have gone on to invest 10,000 hours to hone a particular skill to perfection. Malcolm does, however, make an useful point of about the effect of thresholds in skill formation that we explore here in the wider context of education.

Across the world, there is a considerable debate on whether the quality of education matters, i.e., to what extent does a good teacher have an positive impact on the student’s future life? The fadeout effect has always puzzled the economist, i.e., the impact of good quality education in kindergarten fades out as the student’s grade drop to average level. The Project STAR, a well known education experiment in Tennessee randomly assigned students to kindergarten classes. This allowed Chetty et. al. (2010) to identify the impact that being in a “good class” had on a student. Students from some kindergarten classes did better than others but this effect on student’s educational performance faded out by high school. What is surprising is that the initial positive effect revisits the student in later years. Students that did better in kindergarten were more likely to go to college, less likely to become single parents, more likely to save for retirement and earn more.

What is striking is the impact initial education in kindergarten had on seemingly unrelated aspects of the student’s later life. Of course, the exact channel through which early education impacts later life is not clear from the study.

Heckman and Cunha (2007) summarise decades of empirical work on education. Their story suggests that thresholds are relevant in a very specific way. Formal education consists of acquiring a series of skills that can be mapped on an inverted pyramid. There is certain hierarchy of skills, i.e., acquiring a particular skills allows one to acquire a range of further skills. More specifically, certain primary skills facilitate the acquisition of intermediate skills. Learning how to write or do basic math could be one of those primary skills. Similarly, these intermediate skills allow the students to acquire more advanced skills. Heckman and Cunha (2007) also make the point that the level of a primary skill increases the marginal returns on effort in acquiring a related advanced skill. Put another way, the cost of acquiring a certain expertise on a new skills gets lower if you have mastered the previous skill. That is, the more skilled a child is at reading and writing, the easier it is for her to learn history, geography and physics. In Tennessee, students that were put in better kindergarten classes presumably acquired primary skills that allowed them to attain better outcomes in later life. Some of these could have been direct effect in terms of lifetime income where as others could have been indirect effect like lower likelihood of being a single parent.

This paints a rather depressing picture. Children who get a good quality early education get far ahead of children who miss out on early education. Further, it is almost impossible to catch up once there is gap in a child’s education. Further, at a day to day level, the education systems need to be designed to plug the skill gaps so that children are able to acquire more advanced skills. One critical gap could have a disproportionate effect on a child’s ability to acquire skill in future, which a flexible education system would immediately plug. This is where good schooling and home environment becomes critical. A high human capital parent may be more effective in both recognising a critical skill gap in their child and ensuring that it gets plugged by hook or crook. Thus, low human capital parents and under-performing schools are a combination that fatally damages a child’s future from which there is no escape. If a society aspires to provide social mobility to its citizens, then it needs to address this problem head on. Of course, the problem even the richest societies face is that under-peroforming schools are often found in neighbourhood where the average human capital level tends to be low. Hence, these neighbourhoods find themselves caught in a vicious trap, where human capital acquisition remains low from one generation to another.

Malcolm Gladwell suggests that the critical threshold is 10,000 hours of learning a particular skill. Of course, Malcolm Gladwell has a very specific issue in mind. The point he makes about thresholds applies generally to any skills an individual acquires. Heckman-Cunha‘s story of smaller inter-connected skill thresholds is more likely representation of reality. Ensuring that each child gets the best possible chance in life is very resource intensive, which is expensive even for the richest nations in the world. Given the enormity of the problem, it is not surprising that education policy and its role in inter-generational mobility is still being hotly debated in even the most developed of nations of world.


Fettering the Markets

Vince Cable recently said that corporate behaviour was murky, bankers were greedy, capitalism was a competition-killer. Well, Mr. Cable gets certainly no points for eloquence, yet there was nothing particularly offensive about the substance of his remarks. We have known for a long time that unfettered markets do not deliver the social good. So, why is there such a huge backlash from the city and the media.

Through the history, unfettered markets have delivered the society to disastrous consequences. Slavery being the best known example. We associate prosperity with a government that has a strong fiscal capacity (ability to tax and spend) and an ability to deliver market supporting public goods, i.e., regulate the markets effectively so that they deliver the social goods. (Besley and Ghatak, 2001, 2003)

There seemed to have been a surprising back lash at what Mr. Cable said. What surprised me was how organised and orchestrated it seemed. Mr. Cable’s tone was certainly irreverent and emotional. After all, why bring the words murky, greed and capitalism into it. But to understand the precise reason for the backlash, we have to think of the role regulation plays in maintaining market competition in the services industry.

Regulating the services sector (banking, law industry etc.) is not easy. The services sector produces an output that has significant information problems associated with it, i.e., the consumers are not able to assess the quality of the good before buying it. The information problems are circumvented by the service producers developing reputations for producing reliable services. Cost of acquiring reputation is often steep in these industries. This makes entry into these markets become extremely costly and the industry naturally gravitates towards a monopolistic competition environment.

In a monopolistic competition environment, the firms pays an upfront fixed cost to the enter the market before it can start producing in the market. The fixed cost could be the cost of setting up the factory, the cost of acquiring the correct permits, cost of researching and developing a particular product or the cost of acquiring a reputation for reliability. The size or the volume of the markets and the fixed cost of entering the market together give you the number of firms that the market would be able to support.

In the services sector, given the problem of reliability, the up front fixed cost is often the cost of acquiring the reputation. An entrant that does not have sufficiently deep pockets would not able to enter such a market. See Banerjee and Duflo for an excellent study on the software sector in India and specific cost of developing reputation in this sector. (A. Banerjee and E. Duflo, 2000)

Does monopolistic competition deliver the social good for the society? The answer is a definite yes. There are a lot of sectors that have monopolistic competition and deliver the social good.

But, there is another level of complication here. What is the relationship between regulation and cost of acquiring the reputation. Regulation reduces the cost of acquiring reputation. If the firm meets the regulatory requirements, the consumer does not have to worry about the reliability of the firm.

If the regulation is sufficiently stringent, the significance of regulation decreases driving down the cost of entry. As the fixed cost of entry decreases, there are more players in the market and price of output decreases as a direct result of a lower initial fixed cost that needs to be recovered by the firms. With monopolistic competition per se, the firms are not really able to charge any kinds of rents. The price of the output is sufficiently higher than the variable cost so that it allow the firm to recover the initial fixed cost.

When does monopolistic competition become bad for the society? Essentially, this happens when the firms in the economy are able to collude with each other and influence the regulation that effects that sector. Think of the political economy of regulation. If the market incumbents are able to influence the regulation, what kind of regulation would they like. They would like to drive up the potential cost of entry into the market. This would ensure that only the collusive incumbents remain in the market. If the set of incumbents are stable, their ability to collectively influence the policy becomes greater over time, leading to a vicious circle.

The are many ways to drive up the fixed cost of entry. You could burden the firms that are entering the market with all kinds of regulation that put the new entrants to a disadvantage compared to the incumbents. The most extreme case of this was the “license raj” in India till the mid 80s. The firms had to obtain a license to produce. The regulators (bureaucrats and politicians) would compare the payoffs from the new entrants and incumbents before deciding on the license. Over time as the incumbents grew strong, the new entrants found it difficult to outbid the incumbents and the entry virtually stopped in the market. The oft quoted example of this is the car industry in India, where for decades there were only two players in the market. The market over time grew so lucrative that the government itself entered into the market as the third player in the early 80s.

Of course, if the quality of particular output is not obvious from the start, only firms with reputation for reliability would be able to operate in that market. In that case, lowering the regulation may prove of beneficial as it increase the need for reputation and increases the fixed cost of entry into the market. Thus, counter-intuitively, in these markets, the incumbents could argue for lower regulation.

Ironically, by singing praises of free markets, the services sector has limited the number of players in the market and ensured lack of effective ex post competition. This has been a two-pronged strategy. The first strategy has been to influence the regulators directly and convince them that there is no need for regulation. The second strategy is to build a narrative for the society through an extensive media campaign. In both cases, these market fundamentalist are using the using the free market slogan to effectively reduce the competition in the market.

Vince Cable’s observations were not off the mark. He of course underestimated the ability of the service sector incumbents to use the media to discredit anything that deviates from the narrative. It is indeed puzzling that four decades on after Akerlof’s lemon’s paper, we as society still think that free markets work and anybody who interferes with it is evil. (Akerlof, 1970)

As a society, collectively empowering our regulators to deliver the social good is extremely important. We often talk of regulators that are influenced. The bigger problems is that the society can collectively be influenced by vested interests to think that unfettered markets are always good for us. It is thus extremely important for the social scientists to challenge the free market slogan and explain the precise caveats the markets come with.

A. Banerjee and E. Duflo (2000). Reputation effects and the limits of contracting: A study of the indian software industry. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115(3):989–1017.

T. Besley and M. Ghatak (2003). Public goods and economic development. Prepared for Policies for Poverty Alleviation (ed.) Abhijit Banerjee, Roland Benabou, and Dilip Mookherjee.

T. Besley and M. Ghatak (2001). Government versus private ownership of public goods*. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 116(4):1343–1372.

G. Akerlof (1970). The market for” lemons”: Quality uncertainty and the market mechanism. The quarterly journal of economics, pages 488–500.

Spatial Peer Effects Among Children

First day of the Econometric society World Congress meeting. Interesting paper by Helmers and Patnam this morning. The paper tries to disentangle peer effect of and common (covariate) effects on children’s reading and writing achievements. The paper was interesting because it was using networks to disentangle these effects and not through the usual experimental framework. It is a neat idea. Using the Young Lives survey from Andhra Pradesh, the paper maps spatial (strictly geographic networks). Then it uses the networks to identify the the clusters. Certain individuals have multiple links within the clusters whereas certain other individuals are linked to the cluster through just one link. This variation allows the authors to identify the peer effect. They also look at the insurance component of the peer group. For this, in a really neat trick, they use idiosyncratic shocks are IVs.

The paper is very useful and shows us that we can use observation data and social network maps to disentangle various effects. Of course, it takes the spatial network as given. It may (may not be) be a reasonable assumption. After all, there may be some strategic relocation by the household. The other caveat is that it does not map the network completely. The network mapped (or the information available) is only for the children’s spatial peer network. The paper is not able to distinguish the effects that run through the children’s peer network from the effects that run through the adult’s network. In spite of these caveats, I really like the paper, not for what it is right now, but more for what it maybe lead to.

Looking forward to John Moore’s presidential address this afternoon. The title of the talk is contagious iliquidity. Very topical and may have a flavour of his credit cycles paper. I am sure it is vintage John Moore stuff. Entertaining with lots of stories involving red and blue stuff. More on Moore later on in the evening.

Christian Helmers and Manasa Patnam. Does the Rotten Child Spoil His Companion? Spatial Peer Effects Among Children in Rural India

Progress in Rwanda

Just read an interesting account of Rwanda 16 years on from the ethnic conflict that brutalised and fractured the civil society. The visible progress that Rwanda has made is note worthy and impressive. The economic growth, albeit from a low base, has led to the incomes tripling in the last 16 years. There is considerable interest from the global business community in the country. The question is whether economic progress can reduce the probability of future violence in the country or may actually increase the probability of violence. We need a framework to think about this.

Lets take the tunnel effect described by Hirschman and Rothschild (1973). If you are sitting in the a traffic jam in a tunnel and you suddenly find that that the other side starts moving, you get excited thinking that the movement indicates that things are getting resolved and you would move soon as well. If the other side keeps moving and you are stuck, frustration increases and may reach a boiling point where you decide to crash you car and stop the other side from moving. This describes the aspect of political violence seen across the world when the economic gains are concentrated and not shared widely.

Lets look at it from Krugman’s “History versus Expectations” perspective. Krugman shows that equilibrium could either be determined by either historical factors or by the expectations of the future. The shared history in the tunnel example is the fact that you got stuck with your fellow passengers in the tunnel. The shared expectations is the based on the information you have about when things would improve. Whether the shared history or the shared expectations determine the outcome depends on which one dominates. The information you have about what the future has in store comes from the movement of the vehicles on the other side. At first when the vehicles start moving, the shared expectations of the problem getting resolved very soon dominates. As the other side keeps moving and you remain stuck, your and your fellow traveller’s expectations about the future changes, leading to either a small subset crashing their car to stop the other side from moving.

There is an obvious behavioural explanation for why stopping the other side from moving increases you perceived utility. There is also an non-behavioural explanations, which comes from the membership of social networks or communities. Social networks or community ties emerge as a way to facilitate the societies’ activities in the absence of a wider effective government and functioning markets. It solves the information and enforcement problems associated with public goods. An effective government can make the need for these social ties obsolete by providing the public goods and access to market. In the absence of the public goods and markets, need for social ties increases. There is clear relationship between the strength of social ties and acess to markets and public goods. The members of a community choose the investments they make in social ties given the state of effectiveness of government. Given a weak or absent state, crashing the car may be the investment that community members are required to make in order strengthen their own social ties and in turn strengthen their social identity. There are interesting papers from across the world that show that local public goods provision is easier in the areas where the ethnic diversity is lower. (Alesina, Baqir, and Easterly, 1999) I am not aware of papers that take social ties as endogenous and show that the strength of these ties depends on other exogenous factors, which in turn leads to government’s effectiveness in providing public goods and market access.

The solution to ethnic violence lies in an government’s ability to co-ordinate the respective communities’ expectation about the future. This needs to be done in such a way that gains from the future economic progress outweighs the problems of the past. The incentives should be such that there is no gains for even a small sub-group to under-take the violent route. People speculate that it was economic progress both in Ireland and United Kingdom that led to the Northern Island conflict getting resolved. Of course, the expected gains from future economic progress needs to be sufficiently wide spread for this to happen.

In Rwanda’s case, it would be interesting to see whether the progress hitherto has resulted in the benefits from the economic growth of the last 16 years being concentrated in the urban areas where the emerging middle class live or it has had a wider impact in the country. It would be important to get a sense of what different part of the Rwandan society expect from the future. Kagame certainly seems to have improved the public goods in the urban areas but the relevant question is whether his government has allocated sufficient public funds to improve the public goods and facilitate access to the markets in the rural areas?

One obvious way to eliminate the source of the past conflict is for the government to act as a co-ordination device and to dramatically increase the future economic gains from peace so that the groups collectively choose the peace strategy over the violent strategy. So, the future equilibrium can be driven by expectations and overwhelm the difficult history in the country. The government needs to ensure that expectations starts dominating the history in Rwanda.

With this in mind, it would be very interesting to see how the incomes, pubic goods and market access have fared in the rural countryside across the country. Actually, looking at the micro data it may be possible to predict the future trouble spots, if any. Gujarat was racked by politically motivated violence along religious lines in 2001. Pande, Field, Levinson and Visara (2008) is a interesting retrospective econometric study that carefully looks at the pattern of violence in Gujarat’s capital city, Ahmedabad. It explains that pattern of violence in the terms of historical economic factors, i.e., neighbourhood’s proximity to derelict textile mills. The subtext is that historical economic shocks determined the pattern of violence in the city.

Recent Articles in the Press:

Rwanda’s other genocide, Foreign Policy, 2 September 2010.

Revisiting the killing fields, Economist, 2 September 2010.


A. Alesina, R. Baqir, and W. Easterly (1999). Public goods and ethnic divisions *. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 114(4):1243–1284. Link.

Albert O. Hirschman and Michael Rothschild (1973). The Changing Tolerance for Income Inequality in the Course of Economic Development. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 87, No. 4 (Nov., 1973), pp. 544-566. Link.

Paul Krugman (2001). History Versus Expectations. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 106, No. 2 (May, 1991), pp. 651-667. Link.

Rohini Pande, Eric Field, Matthew Levinson and Sujata Visara (2008). Segregation, Rent Control, and Riots: the Economics of Religious Conflict in an Indian City. American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, May 2008, Vol. 98 (2): pp. 505-510. Link.

Naxal Violence in India

There was another naxal attack in Chhattisgarh today. The naxal violence has had a secular upward trend in the last couple of decades. The violence has also spread geographically. The government response has often been local, confined to the state governments. There has never been a coherent national strategy to deal with the naxal violence. This may partly be due to the fact that policing is a state subject and the problem by default is percieved to be a law and order problem. Historically, the central government gets only involved once the political conflicts in the country become significant enough to start having impact beyond the boundaries of the state in question. Home Ministry, the ministry responsible for internal affairs in India is a fairly opaque body with very little accountability. It controls the country’s resources for policing yet tends to not consider itself accountable for any lapse that may occur. The national strategy for most political conflicts in the country have had a predictable cycle where it is initially perceived to be a law and order problem for almost a decade before the government starts thinking of political solutions.

The response to the recent upsurge in the naxal violence has been mainly a militaristic on, both at the level of state and central government. The chattering classes seems to be of the opinion that it is a problem that needs a political solution. Yet, the response hitherto seems to be mainly in terms of increasing the resources allocated to the police marginally. Since the naxal problem has been perceived as a law and order problem by the government, the responsibility of dealing with it has fallen on the police by default.

Lets look at pattern of violence. It is clear that the naxal violence is confined to the tribal areas in India. By no means all tribal areas have been affected. The pattern seems to be that in the afflicted states, the intensity is much greater in the tribal areas. Further, the newly formed states like Jharkand and Chhattisgarh have bore the brunt of the naxal attacks in the recent years. These are states that were formed in 2000 and thus are just 10 years old. It is possible that when the boundaries of the new state were being drawn, the bigger states parted with under-developed areas more easily. The bottom line is that the government in these new states are less effective administratively as well as less muscular than in states with longer history.

Further, the naxal violence dominates the mining belt. Mining is a significant proportion of India’s export basket. Mining requires land acquisition and it is not difficult to imagine that the unfairness in land acquisition maybe be one of root causes of the naxal violence.

Moving on from root cause, it is useful think about the organisational structure of these organisation. It seems that there is a very dedicated upper management cadre that guides the naxal movement. What is also striking is that there is no branding in terms of the name. There seems to be significant amount of decentralisation in the actual execution of the violence. At the local level, there seems to be a local coalition of people, some with clear criminal intent, that seems to act like the psuedo-state at the local level in the absence of effective local government machinery. This local coalition seems to get material support from the upper management, yet it does not have the rigid organisational structure that we associate with terrorist organisation in the 70s and 80s. As a result, the movement can lose the local organisational structure and yet preserve its upper management that goes on to create other local organisation structures. Peter Bergen in his 2001 book Holy War, Inc. claims that it is exactly the strategy made it so difficult to penetrate Al-Qaeda. He claims that in Al-Qaeda information flows down but does not flow up. As a result it is very difficult to the pin down the upper management of Al-Qaeda.

The other interesting element seems to be that hitherto the funding for the naxal movement has been very local. There is no evidence as yet that there is any flow of resources either from outside the India or from institutions within the country. The arms naxal movement uses are the ones captured from the police. In their attacks, they have often targeted places which would give them access to resources that they can use to perpetrate more violence. Recall the attack on Nalco’s Daman Jodi mines in 2009.

The current militaristic strategy seems futile. The strategy seems to be take on the problem locally through policing. Yet, it seems that breaking down the naxal coalition will involve the empowering the local administration and making them accountable to the local population. Of course that is easier said than done. Further, there needs to be some kind of national strategy that fights the problem both locally and nationally. The problem can be fought locally by strengthening the local administration through a combination of the state and non-state actors. The non-state actors could be given the responsibility of providing public goods. The state actors along with the local community become monitors and give signals that have an impact on the payoff to the non-state actors. Bolivia, through its social funds has implemented this kind of decentralised problem quite effective (See Faguet, 2004).

Of course, this on its own would not be enough. In any peaceful society, the state has a monopoly over violence. How peaceful the society is depends on how judicious the state is in using violence. The upper management of the naxal movement are competing very hard with the government to take over this role by using violence judiciously to protect the local population. Breaking down the upper management is critical, with the understanding that if the problems at the local level are not solved, a new upper management cadre would come up very soon to the replace the old management cadre.

Bergen, Peter (2001). Holy war, Inc.: Inside the secret world of Osama bin Laden. Free Press.

Faguet, Jean-Paul (2004) Does decentralization increase responsiveness to local needs?: evidence from Bolivia. Journal of public economics, 88 (3-4).

Education and threshold effects

According to Malcolm Gladwell, to make it big you have to put in 10,000 hours. This is irrespective of any profession. It is a bold claim and has got me wondering. Can anyone put in 10,000 hours and expect to succeed. Or does it depend on certain other factors as well. And if so, what are these other factors?

First of all, it should be clear that Malcolm Gladwell seems to be reporting what he has observed from looking at the lives of the people who have succeeded. He is not counting the people who put in the 10,000 hours and did not make it. These are the invisible people who are difficult to find. Further, he is presumably talking about highly skilled people with sufficient human capital. After all, it would be very difficult to imagine that an unskilled worker can make it big by putting in 10,000 hours. There are hundreds of millions of unskilled workers across the globe that have put in 10,000 hours and yet remain poorly paid with no significant chance of progress in sight. If we were to believe the premise, the relevant question is what are the prerequisites that need to fulfilled before 10,000 hours start counting.

Lets think of this in the context of the debate on whether the quality of education counts. Does a good teacher have a positive impact on the students. The fadeout effect has always puzzled the economist. The impact of good quality education in kindergarten fades out as the student’s grade drop to average level. Chetty et. al. (2010) look at this using data of 12,000 children from a well know Tennessee education experiment Project STAR which randomly assigned students to kindergarten classes. Some classes did better than others but this effect disappeared by the high school. Surprisingly, the initial positive effect revisits in later years. Students that did better in kindergarten were more likely to go to college, less likely to become single parents, more likely to save for retirement and earn more.

The study does illuminate the contribution that educators and schooling environment makes. What it does not tell us how it affects it. Does it give each person a step up jump or does it increase the amount a person can extract from a given set of fortuitous circumstances. It also leaves me wondering if there are threshold effects. To put it more specifically, does the income increase with quality of education through at level effect or does it have an affect through various interaction terms. Further, are these effects continuously increasing in the quality of education or are there thresholds beyond which earning jumps suddenly.

These questions are very important from a policy perspective. If there are threshold effects, then providing education that does not reach the threshold is infructuous. This maybe a the story of a lot of education. It may also explain why systematically poorer people across the opt out of education. The returns to education do depend on other factors like health, public goods, infrastructure, economic activity and credit markets. These are factors that are all inter-connected and conspire together to provide an environment where the returns from education are high or low. This in turn determines whether markets can be used to deliver education or not. If returns are very high and people have an ability to pay, then the schooling can provided through the market. People would pay for the schooling in anticipation of high future earnings. People would be able to pay either if they (or their parents) have sufficient wealth or people can borrow against their future earnings. When the factors conspire to keep the earnings from education low, the state (government) needs to take the burden of education. Education here maybe helpful socially because of its external effects but individuals may not have the incentive to acquire education. This in turns leads to the vicious circle which keeps areas poor persistently as people do not have the incentive to acquire education and economic activity is limited due to low average level of education in the area.

One cannot think about education without thinking about it in terms of quantum as well as its interaction with other factors in the local economy. These links are complicated and it is not surprising that even though there is a large literature that shows education’s impact in micro studies, its impact in macro studies is yet to be discovered.

Raj Chetty, John Friedman, Nathaniel Hilger, Emmanuel Saez, Diane Schanzenbach and Danny Yagan (2010). How Does Your Kindergarten Classroom Affect Your Earnings? Evidence from Project STAR.

Solow’s take on DGSE

Solow writes an interesting piece on deficiencies of DGSEmodels in giving us insight about the economy. He points that since the economy is populated with “representative agents”, these models do not take into account the strategic interaction between the agents in a realistic way. The fact that these models are not able to give us a decent explanation for unemployment is particularly striking.