Click to embiggen. There’s a famous landmark in the picture. What’s it?
I can justifiably claim that equality is rising in the world. Meaning, the world used to be less equal than it is today, and that in the future it will become more equal than today. The reason that claim appears to contradict reality is that I have not specified the dimension for the comparison implicit in any measure of equality. When it comes to comparisons of material wellbeing, there are three distinct dimensions — consumption, income, and wealth.
My claim is that consumption equality is increasing, not wealth or income.
Here’s a trivial case that illustrates what I mean. Warren Buffet’s income and wealth is six orders of magnitude greater than mine. Meaning his wealth is measured in units of “000,000,000” and mine is measured in units of “000.” Billions as opposed to thousands. Similarly his income per year is measured in billions and mine in thousands. Certainly, compared to Buffet in terms of wealth and income, I am dirt poor. But I am not dirt poor compared to Buffet in consumption. Continue reading
Good news for Indians. Back to autarky. Back to grinding poverty.
I normally don’t do numbers. But in this post, I will have to refer to numbers because wealth and poverty have to be understood quantitatively too. So let’s do the numbers.
It is an amazing fact that extreme poverty has fallen both in absolute and relative terms. The world’s population living in extreme poverty has dropped from 42% in 1981 to 11% in 2013. The world population was 4.5 billion in 1981, and 7.2 billion in 2013. Therefore in absolute numbers, extreme poverty numbers dropped from 1.9 billion to 0.8 billion. Over one billion people climbed out of extreme poverty, mostly in China. Good job, China. Continue reading
Of the three major sectors of any economy, agriculture is the primary sector. It is prior in time and naturally enough forms the basis for the other two sectors — manufacturing and services. Without a solid foundation provided by an efficient agricultural sector, no society can prosper.
Everybody — factory workers, quantum physicists, doctors, programmers, musicians, writers, politicians — needs food. Farming is the oldest occupation and all civilizations begin as essentially agrarian societies. Agricultural success is the necessary precondition for the advancement of civilization. Without an agricultural revolution there can be no avenues for social, technological, and economic development.
The claim of this essay is that India has not had a comprehensive agricultural revolution. All the other problems that India faces derive from that failure. The good news is that India has the opportunity to have an agricultural revolution. It has always had that opportunity. Primarily because of plain idiocy — let’s not sugarcoat this bitter fact — India has failed in progressing much beyond subsistence agriculture. India’s abysmal poverty follows relentlessly from that fact. Continue reading
I was asked on twitter how students of Indian origin do in the maths equivalent of the US spelling bee contests. (I had written a blog post on how students of Indian origin appear to have cornered the market on US spelling bee contests.)
I guess they do well in math too. I did a bit of searching on the web and here’s what I found. Continue reading
If you were an employer, and your employee was inefficient, incompetent, irresponsible and arrogant, you would fire him. There are other people who can do the job. If you were an employee, and the work was demeaning, the boss irascible, the pay miserly, you would quit. There are other jobs in other companies. If you were a customer, and the product was faulty, expensive, unreliable and badly designed, you would take your business elsewhere. There are other suppliers of goods and services. If you were in a partnership, and your partner was insulting, domineering, lazy and greedy, you would dissolve the partnership. We can associate with others. We all have the freedom to do the best we can and deserve our just deserts. But all bets are off when it comes to the government.
We take it as a given, almost a fact of nature like the seasons or the geography of continents, that different parts of the world enjoy different levels of prosperity. But there’s nothing “natural” about this since this is almost entirely within human control. The differences are stark, and at one end of the scale, heartbreaking. Consider the extremely rich first. Luxembourg has an annual per capita income of over $110,000, Norway over $100,000, Switzerland around $85,000. Those are small countries and outliers with perhaps little to tell us. But the US is large and has an annual per capita income of $53,000. Why is it so rich?
At the other end of the scale are Burundi and Malawi with only $200 or so annual per capita incomes. Why are they so poor? The richest countries are around 500 times richer in per capita terms than the poorest. What accounts for this inequality in incomes of countries? That question has engaged the attention of people for hundreds of years — starting with of course the great Scottish economist Adam Smith who inquired about “The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” in his famous 1776 book.
One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, polymath, inventor, scientist, writer, diplomat, etc., etc., Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790) observed that “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.” An analogous statement about nations could be that all nations are born poor but it requires hard work to keep it in poverty. Not surprisingly that hard work is properly done by the politicians of poor countries. What’s surprising is the evident pride they appear to take in their dismal accomplishment. They obviously revel in the fact that the country is poor and proclaim it loudly for all to marvel at. A recent statement on twitter (image below) by the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs of India, retweeted over 1500 time no doubt approvingly by Indians, brought this to mind.
A couple of quotes related to violence and development.
“. . . all societies must deal with the problem of violence. In most developing countries, individuals and organizations actively use or threaten to use violence to gather wealth and resources, and violence has to be restrained for development to occur. In many societies the potential for violence is latent: organizations generally refrain from violence in most years, but occasionally find violence a useful tool for pursuing their ends. These societies live in the shadow of violence, and they account for most of human history and for most of today’s world population. Social arrangements deter the use of violence by creating incentives for powerful individuals to coordinate rather than fight.”
Source: In the Shadow of Violence: Politics, Economics, and the Problems of Development. Edited by Douglass C. North, et al. Cambridge Univ Press 2013.
“Political development occurs when people domesticate violence, transforming coercion from a means of predation into a productive resource. Coercion becomes productive when it is employed not to seize or to destroy wealth, but rather to safeguard and promote its creation.”
Source: Prosperity and Violence: The Political Economy of Development. Robert H. Bates. (2001)
A related post worth a read is “Of Kakistocracies, Principals and Agents.“
“Experience teaches us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”
— Justice Louis Brandeis in Olmstead vs United States 1928
May 26th, 2015
Dear Prime Minister Shri Modi:
I write this letter as a long-time supporter. I have had great expectations from you. Considering the importance of the matter I wish to address, this is very short; considering that you will probably not read anything longer than a powerpoint slide given your busy schedule, it is much too long. Therefore although addressed to you, it is meant for the ordinary citizen of India.
The opportunity for transformational change arises rarely. Rarer still are the times when these opportunities are actually seized and the nation transformed. We never get to know about those missed opportunities because history neither records nor evaluates failures positively. The potential for change exists rarely but actualizing that potential is even rarer still. So rarely do transformations occur that when they do happen, they are highlighted in the history of nations centuries after the events, often long after the entire population has been replaced many times.