Alex Tabarrok

It’s taken some time but owner’s equity in real estate is rising and getting close to its 2006 peak.* The wealth of most households is in the family home so household balance sheets look to be in good shape.

See this video on the importance of owner’s equity and Vernon Smith’s book with Steven Gjerstad, Rethinking Housing Bubbles.

Hat tip: Vernon Smith.

*The graph is now corrected for inflation. My bad. Fortunately FRED makes it easy to fix. You can make your own changes by clicking customize.

BMJ: In a national sample of elderly Medicare beneficiaries admitted to hospital with medical conditions, we found that patients treated by older physicians had higher 30 day mortality than those cared for by younger physicians, despite similar patient characteristics. These associations were found among physicians with low and medium volumes of patients but not among those with high volumes.

…Our findings suggest that within the same hospital, patients treated by physicians aged <40 have 0.85 times the odds of dying (1.00/1.17) or an 11% lower probability of dying (10.8/12.1), compared with patients cared for by physicians aged ≥60 (table 2⇑). This difference in mortality is comparable with the impact of statins for the primary prevention of cardiovascular mortality on all cause mortality (odds ratio of 0.86)39 or the impact of β blockers on mortality among patients with myocardial infarction (incidence rate ratio of 0.86),40 indicating that our observed difference in mortality is not only statistically significant but arguably clinically significant. In addition, if our results are causal, an adjusted risk difference of 1.3 percentage points suggests that for every 77 patients treated by doctors aged ≥60, one fewer patient would die within 30 days of admission if those patients were cared for by physicians aged <40.

The paper has data on over 700,000 Medicare admissions and over 18 thousand hospitalist physicians. Physicians are assigned to patients more or less randomly depending on admission time so there are no significant differences between patients assigned to younger and older physicians. Older physicians are more likely to be male and, of course, to be trained during a different time period so the paper can’t fully distinguish age effects from cohort effects. The authors do find that older physicians who work a lot perform well–perhaps these physicians update their training or perhaps they are a self-selected vigorous sample. Continuing medical education and assessment requirements are probably very valuable.

Hat tip: Eric Topol.

Here’s an excellent story about Chris Carr who played in the NFL for 10 years and is now about to graduate from law school. That’s unusual but not so unusual, the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White also played in the NFL. What makes this story special is that Carr will specialize in immigration law. Why?

Carr grew interested in immigration law a few years ago, after reading Thomas Sowell’s “Ethnic America.” (“A really cool book,” he said.) That made him reflect on the country and “just how unique the American experiment was.” He read blog posts by Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, and the writing of Michael Huemer, a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado.

Hat tip: Fabio Rojas.

In The Failure of Solanezumab –How the FDA Saved Taxpayers Billions, an article in the NEJM, Sacks, Avorn and Kesselheim (SAK) defend the FDA by arguing that its high standards prevented the Alzheimer’s drug, Solanezumab, from being approved and thus saved the taxpayers billions in Medicare payments.

It is, of course, not the job of the FDA to approve or fail to approve a drug based on its effect on taxpayers. The FDA has historically stood independent of this kind of politics and that has been all to the good. But the SAK article is a reminder that under socialized medicine every FDA decision moves money from one patient group to another and between patients and taxpayers thus FDA decisions become a tempting leverage point to control allocation through collective choice.

I do not favor collective, which is to say politicized, choice and find much else objectionable in the SAK article–it attempts, for example, to evaluate a rule by examining a single decision when a system-wide, long-run analysis is called for. Rather than go into detail, however, let’s instead point to a much better article by Vradenburg, Fillit, Morgan, Sabbagh, Aisen, and Mohs, a group of leading physicians and scientists who treat Alzheimer patients and research the disease.

Rather than support or criticize an isolated FDA decision, Vradenburg et al. call for a change to the rule/norm currently used to evaluate Alzheimer’s drugs:

The analysis…recommends that the FDA approve new medicines that demonstrate a proven benefit on at least one therapeutic endpoint – either cognition or function. The current FDA standards require a new drug to show benefits on both proven endpoints, an unnecessarily challenging hurdle the authors say may be inhibiting investment in new Alzheimer’s treatments.

The authors make three excellent points about such a change. First:

…the success rate of drugs tested for Alzheimer’s disease has been extraordinarily low when compared with drugs in other therapeutic areas. Of the 244 compounds that were tested in 413 clinical trials between 2002 and 2012, only one resulted in approval of a new chemical entity, in 2003. No others have been approved since that time; the failure rate in clinical trials conducted over the last decade exceeds 99.6%. This staggeringly high failure rate has adversely impacted investment in Alzheimer’s disease research at precisely the time when new advances are most needed.

The failure rate reflects how difficult the problem is but also policy. Either way, when firms look at the billions of dollars in research and development that haven’t led to a single approved drug they are naturally wary about spending more. Breakthroughs don’t happen randomly, however, they happen after lots of trial and error. To stimulate such trial and error firms need revenues and thus to stimulate more swings at the bat it may be justified to approve drugs with relatively small benefits.

Second, as I have noted previously, the FDA needs to be careful not to commit an error of composition. Three ineffective drugs need not add up to an ineffective treatment.

Many drugs in development for Alzheimer’s disease have complementary mechanisms of action. Even if each of these might, individually, deliver a modest clinical benefit, when used in combination or adjunctively, the benefit could become more substantial. If the FDA were to reject, individually, several safe and well-tolerated therapies with complementary mechanisms of action that each demonstrate a modest clinical benefit, it would unwittingly deprive patients of potentially substantial advances in the quality of treatment over the long run with a combination of therapies.

Third, it is ultimately the patient that matters, especially with regard to Alzheimer’s where so much depends on the patient’s internal experiences, and thus we ought to be careful before rejecting their perspective:

The ultimate perspective on clinical meaningfulness, of course, comes from the patient….Efforts to identify what matters, what matters most and how much change matters to patients should become a priority for the field, focused on all stages of the disease. The requirements of the recently-passed 21st Century Cures Act are instructive in this regard.

Hat tip: Abhay Moghekar

My latest paper (with the excellent Brandon Pizzola) is on occupational licensing in the funeral services industry. Almost all of the previous work on occupational licensing has used cross-sectional data, comparing outcomes in states that license an occupation with outcomes in states that do not. Since many factors vary between states it’s difficult to be sure whether those studies are identifying causal effects. Pizzola and I take advantage of a unusual change, Colorado delicensed its funeral service industry in 1983. The time-series variation combined with the cross-sectional variation lets us examine and test the data in many ways.

In 1983, Colorado delicensed funeral services….the results from difference-in-differences, difference-in-difference-in-differences, and synthetic control specifications suggest occupational licensing causes a wage premium of 11-12 percent.

Importantly, we also do a cross-sectional test similar to those that have been done before in other industries and that test is also consistent with a wage premium of 11-12 percent. In other words, our paper makes all the previous papers on occupational licensing that use cross-sectional data more credible.

We find similar results from a standard cross-sectional wage regression using data on individuals in 1990. Thus, this suggests that cross-sectional regressions of wages on occupational licensing in other industries are a good baseline estimate of a causal effect.

Finally, consistent with an earlier paper by David Harrington and Kathy Krynski that used cross-sectional data, we find some evidence that licensing, which requires training in embalming, increases prices even more than the wage premium alone would suggest because under licensing consumers appear to be pushed away from cremation and towards more expensive burial.

Consistent with Colorado’s decision to delicense in 1983, we find no evidence that delicensing reduced quality in the funeral services industry.

MacWorld: Developers of the Apple Watch app Cardiogram worked with researchers leading the University of California San Francisco’s Health eHeart study to develop a ResearchKit-based study of their own called mRhythm. On Thursday, Cardiogram and UCSF’s cardiology division are presenting the results of that 14-month study, which collected more than 100 million heart rate data points from more than 6,000 Apple Watch users. Cardiogram developed a machine learning-powered algorithm that can detect atrial fibrillation, which is often asymptomatic.

Cardiogram’s algorithm was tested against an in-hospital test called cardioversion. Patients experiencing atrial fibrillation, which affects one in four people in their lifetime and causes 25 percent of all strokes, wore an Apple Watch while undergoing cardioversion to compare outcomes. Both segments, the cardioversion test and the Apple Watch’s heart rate data, were blinded against whether the patients’ heart rates were normal or abnormal, then sent to Cardiogram’s algorithm. The results: the Apple Watch data detected atrial fibrillation 97 percent of the time.

Apple has been communicating privately with the FDA for years about medical devices and so far the FDA has taken a light touch to Apple but these issues are coming to a head. As with the regulation of DNA tests, the regulation of these devices is going to raise important free speech issues. It’s one thing to ensure that the devices do what they say they do at reasonable accuracy (measure heart rate, identify genes etc.) but regulating what advice may be given on the basis of such readings is problematic. Can the FDA regulate a website that says go see your doctor if your heart rate monitor exhibits these particular readings? Why is an app that tells you the same thing any different?

Hat tip: Samir Varma.

The Belt and Road is How

by on May 10, 2017 at 5:57 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

What a world we live in where the US government rips up trade deals and the Chinese government produces excellent educational videos in favor of free trade, even if they are for propaganda purposes.

Hat tip: Joe Weisenthal.

raudat_tahera_01You won’t find the Raudat Tahera, a beautiful mausoleum for two holy leaders of the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Ismaili Muslims, on any of the standard tourist guides to Mumbai. In part that is because the Raudat isn’t ancient (but like the Akshardham Temple people will be coming to this shrine for hundreds of years so why wait?) and in part because it isn’t a tourist site but an active and revered part of the Dawoodi Bohra community. Not many people seem to know about the Raudat Tahera and today it is literally hidden under a tarp to protect it from nearby construction (more about that later). Nevertheless, the Raudat Tahera is without question one of the best things to see in Mumbai and arguably in all of India.

The marble for the mausoleum was quarried from the same grounds as that used for the Taj Mahal. Most spectacularly, the entire Quran has been inscribed in golden letters on the inside walls with each of the ‘Bismillah’ inscribed using diamonds, emeralds, rubies and other precious stones. The interior is austere and beautiful but hard to capture in photographs (which aren’t permitted except for official purposes). Although of low-resolution the image below actually gives the best feel.

raudat_tahera_02I visited with my wife and son. We came in the morning and we were told to return later that afternoon. When we returned we were treated very courteously and provided a guide, a student from Saudi Arabia. The local community is proud of the mausoleum and although they don’t encourage tourists I believe they were pleased that foreigners wanted to see it. Both men and women need to cover their head.

Aside from the architectural awe and religious interest my pilgrimage to the Raudat was motivated by economics. One of Mumbai’s great problems is that a lot of land is locked up in low-value uses. Rusted factories and ports generate little value on land worth billions, slums look out onto million dollar sea-views, land that could house thousands in sky rise apartments instead holds dozens in dangerously dilapidating structures. The complexity of ownership (who owns a second floor apartment that has been occupied by the same family for generations?), the chaotic land-titling system, the slow court system and the politicization of everything means that solving these problems requires little short of a miracle. Enter Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, the holy leader of the Dawoodi Bohra.

Burhanuddin built the Raudat Tahera for his father, the previous Dawoodi leader, and they are now buried there together. Burhanuddin was not just a spiritual leader. He was an astute businessperson and before he died be presented his vision to rebuild the Bhendi Bazaar, the 150 year old warren of crowded and narrow streets and shops behind the Crawford bazaar (hence “b hend i” bazaar) where a majority of the residents are Dawoodi.

ET: To an outsider, [Bhendi Bazaar] holds an old-world charm…But the neigbourhood is so congested and some streets so narrow that cars cannot enter. Virtually every open or unoccupied space has turned into a garbage dump. And almost all the 280 buildings in Bhendi Bazaar look shaky and dilapidated (80% have been declared unsafe).

Burhanuddin’s visionary redevelopment plan requires thousands of people to sell their homes and businesses to the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust. Trust, being the operative word. Then they will move out of their crumbling structures into temporary quarters while some 250 buildings spread across 16.5 acres will be torn down and redeveloped. After completion, the old owners will move back in to (part) of the now much larger and better planned area. It’s a big-push plan and, remarkably, it seems to be working.

So far, the Trust has bought 87% of the buildings in the area and construction is active (hence the Raudat Tahera being under a tarp). Holdouts can be a problem but every Dawoodi child who comes of age has to swear loyalty to the Dawoodi leader (now Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, son of Burhannudin and the 53rd in the line) and disobedience brings pressure and social boycott.

It’s no accident that the Raudat Tahera is the focal point of the planned new development. Towers of apartments and offices will rise from the Raudat in order of ascending height, framing the Raudat forever and giving everyone a visual reminder of where true power lies.

raudat_tahera_03

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that all of India is looking to the Bhendi Bazaar redevelopment project and praying that it will succeed. Although the billion dollar plan is being funded and run by the private Trust, the Maharashtra state government and Prime Minister Modi have thrown their support behind the plan. The plan, of course, cannot be easily replicated. The Dawoodi are a small, close-knit, geographically concentrated, spiritual group devoted to a holy, charismatic and visionary leader and all of that has been key to solving the holdout problem and creating the trust necessary for large-scale cooperation. Many of the Dawoodi are also successful and well-connected business people. Adil Zainulbhai, former head of McKinsey India and consultant to the Modi government, for example, is counted among their members and sits on the board of the Trust. Nevertheless, even if the Bhendi Bazaar redevelopment plan cannot be easily replicated, if it succeeds the demonstration value of the wealth that can be unlocked with cooperation will be tremendous.  And if the plan fails…well that is why people are praying.

Hat tip: David Moo.

It’s now well known that many findings in social psychology fail to replicate. Social psychologists have often discovered noise rather than fundamental aspects of behavior. A new paper suggests that many market anomalies also fail to replicate. Hou, Xue and Zhang write:

The anomalies literature is infested with widespread p-hacking. We replicate the entire anomalies literature in finance and accounting by compiling a largest-to-date data library that contains 447 anomaly variables. With microcaps alleviated via New York Stock Exchange breakpoints and value-weighted returns, 286 anomalies (64%) including 95 out of 102 liquidity variables (93%) are insignificant at the conventional 5% level. Imposing the cutoff t-value of three raises the number of insignificance to 380 (85%). Even for the 161 significant anomalies, their magnitudes are often much lower than originally reported. Out of the 161, the q-factor model leaves 115 alphas insignificant (150 with t < 3). In all, capital markets are more efficient than previously recognized.

Walking around Mumbai I see many vacant houses and apartments and the statistics verify what I see on the ground, an astounding 15% of Mumbai’s housing stock lies vacant. In Mumbai, the slums are full but thousands of homes lie vacant. The share of vacant housing in Mumbai is only slightly higher than the national average of 12% (In comparison, the United States has a vacant homeowner rate of less than 2%.) Sahil Gandhi and Meenaz Munshi, two of my colleagues at the IDFC Institute, examine the paradox of India’s vacant housing:

Urban India has a severe shortage of housing, yet Indian cities have many vacant houses. According to the census of India 2011, out of the 90 million residential census units, 11 million units are vacant; that is about 12% of the total urban housing stock consists of vacant houses.

Gandhi and Munshi focus on two issues. First, government built housing is shockingly underused. In one centrally sponsored housing project in Delhi, for example, the government built 27,344 units and 26,288 lie vacant! Government housing has often been built far from jobs and public transport and in some cases the houses have been of low quality and lacking basic infrastructure. As the government acknowledged:

“In spite of the continuous efforts by the government, slum dwellers are reluctant to move to the houses built by the government due to lack of proper infrastructure and means of livelihood,” the statement to Parliament said, explaining further that the new houses often lack electricity and water, cheaply available–often through illegal connections–in slums. The new houses are usually not close to workplaces, the ministry acknowledged.

People living in India’s urban slums have often preferred to stay living in the slums rather than move to government built housing–which is really saying something.

Government built housing, however, is only a small part of the housing stock. The bigger problem is that owners of private housing would prefer to see their housing capital lie vacant than to rent.

Renting out a property is a risky affair in India due to perceived (often, correctly) difficulties of evicting tenants, particularly under the onerous regulatory framework of the various rent control laws that are still applicable across states in India.

….These laws fix rent for properties at much below the prevailing market rates and make eviction of tenants difficult. As a result, they increase perception of risk and distort incentives for renting. To get around this, leave and licence agreements are being used as an alternate legal mechanism to rent properties. Despite this, the legacy of rent control and policy uncertainty creates reluctance to rent. To provide an example of policy uncertainty, in 1973 the Maharashtra government brought the then existing leave and licensees contracts under rent control (Gandhi et al 2014). Instances like this have had an adverse impact on the confidence of investors and landlords.

As I pointed out in A Twisted Tale of Rent Control in the Maximum City it can take courts decades to resolve legal disputes, especially those involving land and tenancy so this further disincentives rental housing.

As Gandhi and Munshi note, the problems in the housing market exacerbate probems in the labor market (just as in the United States):

Without a vibrant rental housing market labour markets cannot function efficiently (see Shah 2013). Bringing the private vacant housing stock into the rental market and understanding and resolving the reasons for vacancy in the government provided stock could significantly improve efficiency in utilising available stock of housing.

See Gandhi and Munshi’s blog post and a forthcoming IDFC report on housing for more details.

When Labor is Cheap

by on April 22, 2017 at 4:24 am in Current Affairs, Economics | Permalink

Labor is cheap in India which leads to some differences from the United States.

The first couple of times I took a taxi to a restaurant I was surprised when the driver asked if I wanted him to wait. A waiting taxi would be an unthinkable expense for me in the United States but in India the drivers are happy to wait for $1.50 an hour. It still feels odd.

The cars, the physical capital, in India and the United States are similar so the low cost of transportation illustrates just how much of the cost of a taxi is the cost of the driver and just how much driverless cars are going to lower the cost of travel.

Everything can be delivered.

Every mall, hotel, apartment and upscale store has security. It’s all security theatre–India is less dangerous than the United States–but when security theatre can be bought for $1-$2 an hour, why not?

Offices are sometimes open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Not that anyone is in the office, just that with 24 hour security there is no reason to lock up, so the office physically stays open.

Every store has an abundance of staff. This one is puzzling since it results in worse service. Even in a tiny store, for example, it’s common to have one person tabulate the bill and then hand it to another person to ring you up. My guess is that this is an anti-theft procedure for the owner as it then requires two to collude to rip the owner off.

At offices, cleaning staff are on permanent hire so they come not once or twice a week but once or twice an hour. The excessive (?) cleanliness of the private spaces makes the contrast between private cleanliness and public squalor all the more striking.

Hedging FDA Risk?

by on April 19, 2017 at 6:09 am in Economics, Law, Medicine | Permalink

In the words of a recent article, the FDA’s rejection of a recent drug application was a stunning setback. Stunning setbacks are by definition unpredictable and unpredictable risks aren’t correlated with other risks which means that they can be easily priced and bought and sold. The all-star team of Adam Jørring, Andrew W. Lo, Tomas J. Philipson, Manita Singh and Richard T. Thakor propose just this in Sharing R&D Risk in Healthcare via FDA Hedges.

The idea is to create FDA Hedges that pay out a fixed fee if a drug fails to be approved and zero otherwise. Pharmaceutical firms could then buy some of these contracts and reduce their risk exposure which in turn would increase their incentive to invest in R&D.

The idea is clever but firms and even more so firm owners already have many ways to diversify and its not clear what the value of an additional source of diversification is, even one that is more closely tuned to the firm’s profits. It’s also not clear how much additional R&D would be driven by offloading these risks. Pharmaceutical R&D is valuable, however, so even small increases in R&D are welcome even if more fundamental changes would be better. Prices in these markets would also provide useful information.

I also worry that we are asking a lot of FDA reviewers and firm insiders to keep their inside information private. Information about FDA approval decisions is already very valuable and there have been a few cases where insiders trade on their information or leak it to make millions. FDA Hedges might make this problem worse which should be balanced against the possible gains.

Walking around Mumbai it’s common to see some lovely, older buildings (circa 1920s perhaps) that are rentcontrol1in a great state of disrepair. A well maintained building can last for hundreds of years so why are these buildings falling apart? The answer is rent control. Bombay passed a rent control act in 1947 that froze rents at 1940 levels.

More than fifty years later, rents remained frozen at 1940 levels. It wasn’t until 1999 that the Act was modified slightly to lift controls on some new construction and to allow rent increases of 4% per year. After a fifty two year freeze, however, a 4% increase was a pittance. Thus, even today there are thousands of flats where tenants are paying rents of 400-500 rupees a month (that’s $6 to $8 a month!)–far, far below market rates.

The rent control law meant that there was virtually no construction of rental housing (WP) for decades and a slowly dilapidating housing stock. (Ironically, the only free market in rental housing is in the rentcontrol4slums.)

The nominal landlords have neither the incentive nor the funds to maintain the buildings so every year during monsoon season some of the buildings collapse and people die. As the World Bank put it, the monsoons are Natural Hazards but the collapses are Unnatural Disasters:

Rent controls in Mumbai may have initially benefited tenants at the expense of landlords, but over time everyone suffers. Rent controls cause landlords to forgo maintenance and neglect their properties, and tenants not only live in dilapidated buildings but die when they collapse in heavy rains. Even if tenants are willing to either pay higher rents or to maintain the building, each tries to not pay his share of the expense (free riding), especially if appropriate retrofitting involves structural changes to the entire residential structure and not to individual apartments. Tenants also may lack the legal authority to make changes to their building’s structure.

Consider the photo at top, it’s an elegant building on a nice plot in a highly desirable part of town but take a closer look and you can see that it is falling apart (second photo). Several businesses and flats operate in the building. Now read the sign on the wall.

rentcontrol3I don’t doubt that the sign is largely accurate but it also illustrates another aspect of rent control. Rent control transforms a mutually profitable exchange into a zero-sum war of misery. As I discovered in my investigations, a remarkable and sometimes hilarious example is illustrated by this very building.

The tenant, called the “victim lady”, in the Bombay High Court case that she initiated alleges that her landlord has vexed her with many frivolous lawsuits and harassed her in various and sundry ways:

It is alleged that the Respondent, on the pretext of reading books and doing meditation, continues to sit near the window of the victim lady reading law books and passing unwanted remarks stating that he will become a better lawyer by reading law books and will teach the victim lady a lesson. The Respondent is also alleged to have killed the kitten to whom the victim lady regularly used to feed. He is also alleged to have called three men to remove coconuts from the coconut tree and in the process broke number of flower pots belonging to the victim lady and destroyed the garden maintained by her.

In addition, and the judges of the High Court find this especially distasteful, the landlord “has also cast aspersions on the judiciary by making certain statements” about the “inefficiency of the judicial system”. Indeed, in his affidavit-in-reply, the respondent doubled down arguing:

…”the judiciary is perceived as inefficient by most citizens of India” as a justification for what he had stated.

Where could the respondent have gotten such absurd ideas? How dare he claim to know what most citizens think!

The Respondent may be free to express his views about the judiciary, but obviously had no right to project his views as of “most citizens in India”. What survey or research has been made by the Respondent to ascertain the views of “most citizens in India”, has not been disclosed, and considering the number of the citizens in India it is impossible to believe that the Respondent has made any survey or research on these aspects, so as to be able to make an authoritative statement of what “most citizens” feel. The impropriety is so obvious that we do not wish to comment upon the same any further…[to which, of course, the judges then proceed to comment further, AT]

The landlord does come off as a troublesome fellow but dig a little deeper and it’s not hard to see the source of his frustration. The judges, to give credit where credit is due, careful sift through the history of the case and they learn that the landlord has not actually filed many lawsuits against the plaintiff. Instead of many lawsuits, it turns out that there is only one very, very lengthy lawsuit.

Now, coming to the details given in part-B of the petition classified as “facts of the case”, there is reference of the suit bearing RAE No.537/4434/63, but this suit has, admittedly, not been filed by the Respondent and apparently the same has been filed by the grandfather [emphasis added, AT] of the Respondent….It is clear from the averments in the petition itself that the legal proceedings are pending between the parties since the year 1963.

Since landlord junior “came in picture in the year 1998 only”, and was only filling in the shoes of landlord father, who was only filling in the shoes of landlord grandfather, junior can’t be said to have initiated many lawsuits against the tenant. Thus, despite the landlord’s clearly outrageous comments about the inefficiency of the judiciary and whatever else junior may have done to the kitten, the judges throw out the tenant’s petition. The lawsuit that began in 1963 moves forward!  Perhaps to be taken up by the next generation.

Addendum: I talk rent control in Mumbai with Amit Varma on his excellent podcast, The Seen and the Unseen.

The Spirit of the Law

by on April 16, 2017 at 12:50 am in Current Affairs, Economics, Law | Permalink

To get around the Indian Supreme Court’s ban on selling alcohol within 500 meters of a highway, a bar in Kerala added some distance. Here is one case where obeying the letter of the law is producing the spirit of the law. As an added bonus it will be easier to enter the bar than to exit.

bar

Hat tip: Anjan Rao.

Outside my apartment a cobbler has a sidewalk shop where he sits and fixes shoes. One of the things that interests me in this photo is the picture the cobbler hangs behind him, that’s BR Ambedkar. In the Cobblerindependence movement BR Ambedkar was the leader of the Dalit (untouchable) class and the guiding force in writing the Indian constitution, which in India makes him a combination of Martin Luther King and James Madison.

Ambedkar died in 1956 but he continues to be highly regarded, especially, but by no means solely, among the Dalits. Indeed, of the great triumvirate, Gandhi, Nehru, and Ambedkar, only Ambedkar seems to have grown in stature since his death. Gandhi is given lip service but his image no longer carries meaning. As Arundhati Roy put it, “Gandhi has become all things to all people…he is the Saint of the Status Quo.” The image of Ambedkar, however, still signals a demand for justice and an insistent claim that not all is yet right.

Today is Ambedkar’s birthday and at the stroke of midnight my neighborhood, which happens to be on Ambedkar Road, erupted in a party and parade that lasted until two in the morning.

Of the great triumvirate, I’ve always been partial to Ambedkar. He had a PhD in economics from Columbia where he worked under Edwin Seligman and later also graduated from the London School of Economics writing another dissertation under Edwin Cannan. Ambedkar was not a free market advocate and he didn’t write much in pure economics after the 1920s but he was an early supporter of monetary rules because he had a sophisticated understanding of the distributional consequences of monetary interventions and feared government manipulation.

A managed currency is to be altogether avoided when the management is in the hands of the government.

Ambedkar also wrote insightfully on the problem of India’s small farms, a problem that continues to plague India (although some of his solutions such as government ownership of land actually don’t fit the problem, lack of capital, that he emphasized).

So why does Ambedkar continue to resonate in modern India? Ambedkar never had Gandhi’s worship of the village and tradition. He understood that progress would come with cities, industrialization and education. Exactly the forces that are transforming India today. Ambedkar did not mince words:

The love of the intellectual Indian for the village community is pathetic. What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness, and communalism?

Most importantly, quoting Luce’s excellent In Spite of the Gods (still the best introduction to modern India):

Ambedkar gave India’s most marginalised human beings their first real hope of transcending their hereditary social condition. He saw the caste system as India’ greatest social evil, since it treated millions of people as sub-humans by the simple fact of their birth.

But even as the caste system declines in importance (in some ways), there remain those who are marginalized and downtrodden. Ambedkar, for example, resigned as law minister in post independence India when his bill to bring greater equality and property rights to women was rejected. Even today, Ambedkar’s vision is not complete. Ambedkar was a modernist, a rationalist, a believer in the principles of liberty, equality, and the rule of law for all, and for these reasons he remains relevant in modern India.