High Population Considered Necessary but not Sufficient for Poverty

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since my last blog entry. “Where in the world,” some asked, “is Atanu and why is he not writing stuff anymore?” For better or for worse, I am back from a brief round-the-world trip. Among the exotic far off places of the world, I was in Helsinki, Paris, London, Boston MA, New York NY, the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Seoul Korea. I flew Air France (which I call ‘Air Chance’), Delta (don’t ever make the mistake of flying Delta), and Korean Air. Met lots of interesting people and heard lots of great stories. One of these days I will write about them. But for now, it is back to the usual business.
Continue reading “High Population Considered Necessary but not Sufficient for Poverty”

It is transaction costs all the way – Part 2

In my last post I claimed that the fundamental role of ICT is reduction of transaction costs. What, you may ask, is transaction costs? The answer is this: pretty much everything is transaction costs, with a little bit of physical stuff thrown in.

In California, you can buy a loaf of bread for about $2. The basic materials that go into the making of the bread — wheat, primarily — is about $0.07. Then there is some energy required for baking it and transporting it. Add a dime for that. The total material cost is therefore about 17 cents. The difference between the cost of the inputs and the price of the product is the value added. In our case, it is $1.83. That is, about 92% of the price of the bread is value added.

How do you allocate the value added in this case? Most of it has to be assigned to services — from the marketing of the bread, to the stocking of it in the store shelf. The cost incurred in bringing a loaf of bread to the market (less the cost of the material, the fuel and labor involved in the baking and transportation) is transaction costs.

Of course, costs seen from a different angle are revenues and incomes. And part of revenues are profits (if prices exceed costs.) The generalization of these costs are transaction costs.

Transaction costs are ubiquitous. Consider what happens in any organization, say a car manufacturing firm. Cars are produced by people using machines to transform steel and other stuff. If you add up the costs — labor, material, and machines — the car would not cost all that much. But when you add the fact that there are other people employed by the car firm who have nothing to do with the manufacturing of cars, you realize that they represent transaction costs. For instance, you have managers, and accountants, and secretaries, and human resources divisions, … the list goes on. They all represent transaction costs. And the greater the transaction costs, the higher the cost of production. Why do firms exist? Because they reduce transaction costs.

Ultimately, one can explain pretty much all organizations as an attempt to systematically reduce transaction costs. Economies of scale, scope, and agglomeration themselves arise from the reduction of transaction costs.

Information and communications technologies reduce transaction costs. Here is a simple demonstration of that. The next time you make a phone call, ask yourself what it would have cost you if you could not have made that call.

For instance, I called the store to find out if they had indeed installed the AC in my apartment. (They had not.) If I could not have made the call, I would have had to spend at least two hours and a lot of money to travel to the store to find out that information.

I will continue to ramble on the transaction costs theory of the universe in the next few posts. As they say on the radio, stay tuned.

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“.]

It’s the Small Stuff, Stupid

An ironic bit of popular wisdom goes

  1. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
  2. It’s all small stuff.

In the context of economic development, I totally agree with the latter bit, but strongly disagree with the former bit. If we don’t sweat the small stuff, we don’t have much hope of managing the big stuff since the big stuff is exactly what arises from an aggregation of all those small bits of stuff.
Continue reading “It’s the Small Stuff, Stupid”

A Set of Hard Problems — Part 2

An attitude to life which seeks fulfillment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth –in short, materialism– does not fit into this world, because it contains within itself no limiting principle, while the environment in which it is placed is strictly limited.
E. F. Schumacher in Small is Beautiful


Economist Thomas Schelling defined the ethics of policy ‘as what we try to bring to bear on those issues in which we do not have a personal stake.’ It can be convincingly argued that there are no issues in which we do not have a personal stake. Every action in an interdependent global system has far-reaching consequences. My desire for cheap hamburgers could translate however indirectly to rainforest destruction.

One has to grapple with the notion of social obligations and what we owe to the poor and the disadvantaged who have legitimate claim to the resources that are required for a decent human existence.

Continue reading “A Set of Hard Problems — Part 2”

We are Made of Stuff

… We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Writing in the Dec 28th, 2003 edition of The Week, President Kalam says, “In the 21st century, knowledge is the primary production resource instead of capital or labour.”

I have been unable to fully comprehend that insight, fundamentally because it does not make any sense. Sounds profound but makes no sense. What is a ‘primary production resource‘? Did Kalam imply that once upon a time capital and labor were primary production resources but knowledge wasn’t? What changed so that labor and capital got displaced and now knowledge holds that position?
Continue reading “We are Made of Stuff”