The theory of computation studies a class of problems called ‘NP Complete.’ These are problems that are considered computationally hard in the sense that all known algorithms to solve them require a non-deterministic Turing machine polynomial orders of time. The traveling salesman problem is a classic example of this set. They all share one characteristic – indeed it is the test of membership in the class – that they are all isomorphic. An algorithm that solves any of the problems would therefore solve all of NP Complete problems.
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It is transaction costs all the way – Part 1

It is worth pondering this question: What exactly is the role of ICT in any economy?

This week, I would like to address myself to that question in detail. The answer can be succinctly stated as: It reduces transaction costs. It will take a pretty long time to explore that answer. But first a few personal experiences to set the stage would be appropriate.

Today I called up a local store which sells “white goods” (major appliances such as washing machines, etc.) I wanted to order an air-conditioner. Could I order the AC over the phone, I asked when the phone was finally answered by someone. I was told that I had to come down personally and bring cash. Will they accept a debit card? No. Will they deliver today? They can’t tell me that until I had paid and only then will they check to see if the department that does the delivery has the capacity to deliver today.

I drove to the bank to withdraw the cash. At the bank, the line for withdrawing cash was immensely long. I could not use the ATM because the amount I needed was above the ATM cash withdrawal limit. It took me a half hour before I had the cash in hand.

Next step: drive to the store. The closest branch was in Shivaji Nagar. I told the driver the address and we proceeded to drive the four or five kilometers to the store. It was on ‘L.J.’ road. The traffic was bad, as usual. The driver did not know where L.J. road was. We asked for directions from various taxi drivers. We traveled with hope thinking that this time the directions were right. In about 45 minutes, we had reached the store. It was closed because that branch of the store is normally closed on Mondays. I could not have found this out without going to the store. This was in Mumbai, the commercial capital of India.

I had spent about 2 hours in trying to buy something that in a different setting (for instance in California) it would have taken me all of 5 minutes and that too from the comfort of my home: I would have checked the prices of ACs on the web and ordered it online and paid for it with my credit card. Instead, after about 2 hours of frustration, I was still without what I wanted.

This little episode is indicative of a depressingly large set of similar experiences. The features of this set almost always include having to spend an inordinate amount of time searching. The search cost of locating a place is non-trivial. Street addresses don’t exist. You could be looking for a place with an address with reads “122/1/B Lajpat Nagar II”. You reach 121/1/B. And then you discover that 122 is not adjacent to 121 but is somewhere else altogether. Sequential numbers are not physically close. The house numbers are in the order in which the plots were registered, for instance. Once I spent about an hour hunting around for a place in Lajpat Nagar in Delhi. I am sure that I was not the first — nor I was the last person — to waste time and energy (gasoline) trying to locate an address there.

Another feature common to all the episodes includes transportation. On Saturday last, I was invited for dinner at a house that was about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the Andheri local train station. I took a bus from the station. It took about 50 minutes for the bus to cover the 5 kilometers. Traffic moves about 8 kms an hour in the city of Mumbai, and at the breakneck speed of 18 kms an hour average on the nation’s highways.

Traffic is not the only thing that is slow. The movement of payments is an important function in any economy. I had to pay my brother Rs 25,000. I mailed him a check to Nasik without asking him first. He called to say that it will take about 3 weeks for that check to clear and so it would be good if I could send him cash or do a wire-transfer.

Cash is inconvenient to handle and carrying large sums is stressful. For furniture shopping, the only acceptable form of payment appears to be cash. Part of the reason is of course tax avoidance. But the slowness with which checks clear could have something to do with it as well.

There are a few things that one can do at a macroeconomic level to push the economy towards its potential such as fixing the monetary and fiscal policy. But they are limited instruments. Fundamentally, what really puts the brakes on the machinery of the economy is a very large number of very small grains of sand which are individually ignored but together form a very potent force. These grains of sand arise from what can only be said to be the overall culture of the economy.

It is an unfortunate fact that the Indian economic culture is dismal and unless that changes, India’s economy cannot reach its potential. Becoming aware of the problem is fundamental to the solution, of course.

In the next piece, we will explore what ICT can do to remove the sand from the Indian machinery.

[Continue reading part 2 of “It is transaction costs all the way“.]