Here is a query from a loyal MR reader:

If you had net assets in the six figures, and were very concerned about global warming (some combination of wanting a good life for your children, and believing human civilization is valuable over a time horizon longer than your lifetime), how would you invest those assets?

Some thoughts I’ve had:

Invest in renewable energy companies: Extremely hard industry to figure out where your money would have most value added. Not easy to invest in Tesla.

Invest in water utilities: a lot of the problems with water are regulatory rather than investment.

Buy a house in an urban center: NIMBYism means that this likely just crowds out someone else, with unclear impact on carbon reduction

Housing ETF: Might have more political impact than personal purchase but difficult industry to figure out.

Give money to politicians: Does money actually impact political results?

Buy a house with access to water and a lot of guns: Not an ideal solution

Quit your job and become an activist: seems to have been moderately effective in recent years.

What non-complacent answers am I missing? How would your answer change if someone had 5 figure assets? 7 figures? 8 figures?

My answer is pretty simple: invest in fighting indoor air pollution in developing nations.  (Here are further research sources.)  The burning of wood indoors, for instance, leads to pretty significant carbon emissions, as does the burning of charcoal, dung, and plant residue.  These burnings are also harmful to human health, accounting for perhaps as many as four million (!) deaths last year, maybe more.  Some of the problem is inadequate ventilation, but also safer and cleaner gas stoves, among other technologies, represent a better and environmentally friendlier option for many of these households.  Pilot projects in India, Kenya, and China have shown positive results.

The nice thing about this target is that you can save lives even if global warming can’t really be stopped.  And rather than (implicitly or explicitly) taxing poor people in poor countries, you are helping them out.  The broad steps one wishes to take are consistent with these locales become wealthier rather than poorer regions.  Here is a paper on indoor air pollution and carbon emissions in Nigeria.

That said, I do not know which are the best non-profits or commercial projects in these areas — could any of you help out in the comments?

Another option would be to continue to apply pressure to Indonesia to limit the burning of their forests: “Indonesia’s carbon emissions from the 2015 forest fires were bigger than the daily emissions rate of the whole European Union, a study reveals.”  This would involve working through international organizations and perhaps NGOs in Indonesia itself, again your suggestions are welcome.

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.


Hat tip: Anjan Rao.

France is careening toward a nail-biter presidential election this month that pits a crowded field against anti-E.U. titan Marine Le Pen. But E.U. funds pay her salary, support her assistants, and underwrite the conferences and books she churns out to attack the 28-nation bloc. Key British leaders of the successful Brexit campaign got their financial lifeline from Brussels euros. Elsewhere in Europe, self-identified fascists are paying for rallies to further the future of the “white race” by breaking up the E.U. — all thanks to E.U. money.

…[these parties] get millions because of their heft in elections for the European Parliament, an institution that is short on power but flush with cash.

Here is the Washington Post story by Michael Birnbaum.  I say that Hegel, and works of Continental philosophy that use the word “totalizing,” should be raised in status!

Addendum: Here is more from Farrell and Newman.

We study the effects of interest rate ceilings on the market for automobile loans. We find that loan contracting and the organization of the loan market adjust to facilitate loans to risky borrowers. When usury restrictions bind, automobile dealers finance a greater share of their customers’ purchases, which allows them to price credit risk through the mark-up on the product sale rather than the loan interest rate. Despite having little effect on who receives credit, usury limits therefore have a substantial effect on who provides credit and on the terms of credit granted. Usury limits may harm defaulting borrowers, who face greater liabilities in default than they would if loan contracts were unconstrained.

That is from a new paper by Brian Melzer and Aaron Schroeder, via Kevin Lewis.

Here is the award citation, here is one excerpt from it:

Donaldson’s paper “Railroads of the Raj: Estimating the Impact of Transportation Infrastructure?” (American Economic Review, forthcoming) investigates the economic benefits from building transportation infrastructure studying the case of railways in 19th century India. This paper is widely viewed as both a methodological breakthrough and substantively important paper in the field. Donaldson assembled a new and rich data set from archival sources about the expansion of railroads in India through the 19th and early twentieth century and the volume of inter-regional trade in the same period. He then uses the data to look the effect of access to railroads on real agricultural incomes. To check that this effect does not come from building railroads where the growth was predicted to be, he uses the fact that a number of proposed lines did not get built or did not get built when they were proposed to be built. Assuming that the proposal was based on what the contemporary experts thought were the areas of greatest demand for transportation, these un-built railroads should also have an effect if they were any good at predicting growth. He finds no such effect.

The second part of the paper builds a quantitative model where the effect of trade on real agricultural GDP is fully captured by one sufficient statistic: the share of expenditure that each Indian district allocates to goods produced in the district. When that share is low, it indicates that the relative price of imports in the district is low, and in turn, that the welfare gains from trade are large. Controlling for shocks to technology (mainly rainfall in this case), he finds that observed changes in real GDP following access to the railroad move almost one for one with the sufficient statistic predicted by the model, thereby making the case that the benefits of the railways is indeed the result of increased trade.

There is much more of interest at the link.  Here are copies of the papers, overall I am delighted to see a Clark Award that so prominently features economic history, not to mention India and trade.  Donaldson is at Stanford, here is his home page.  An excellent pick, but this one was a surprise to me.

Here is one bit:

I am reminded of a study of college friendships conducted by psychologists Angela Bahns, Kate Pickett and Christian Crandall. They found that students in a large, diverse campus sought out and befriended other students very much like themselves. In smaller universities with fewer friendship options, young people had more varied groups of friends because the alternative was to have no friends at all.

Our bias towards the status quo is not new — but perhaps we are taking advantage of new opportunities to indulge it.

Here is the full FT piece.

In a previous column on India, and how it suffered under colonialism, I mentioned:

If you are looking for the upside of British colonialism, you are more likely to find it in the wealthier and better-treated Singapore or Malaysia.

Why might this have been true?  Part of India’s colonial curse was its high population, which meant the British viewed it as a source of soldiers, and a captive market for goods, rather than an area whose value could be internalized through direct economic development.

When it comes the British history in India, I think of “letting the interior fester” as a big part of the core problem.  Most of India was and still is interior.  You might look at the coastal regions, but given that British policy forced India to accept free trade for British goods, without receiving the same privileges in return, the coastal regions became rent-seeking imperial clusters more than possible rivals to Hong Kong or for that matter Manchester.

Singapore, in contrast, was built around its port, and the British encouraged further developments in that direction, even as early as Raffles in the 1820s.  The city didn’t/doesn’t have much of an interior or for that matter much population (about 1,000 when the British took over).  Keeping the people servile didn’t seem worth the trouble, because they could neither fight nor buy in great numbers.  Instead, you can think of British policy as trying, selfishly, to maximize the value of Singaporean land to the British.  But that wasn’t such a nasty process, as the British Navy made Singapore more focal as a trade center, with a later boost from the opening of the Suez Canal.  Note that as late as the mid-1960s, just before independence, about 20 percent of Singaporean gdp was British defense spending.

Singapore as port and entrepot developed “the entire nation,” all the more as the induced spirit of enterprise later spread to manufacturing.  This in turn gave the territory the possibility of a relatively inclusive and egalitarian future.  Unlike with India, the British rulers never imagined a future where Singapore might threaten them economically, or politically, and so they could just let matters rip.  The British felt, more or less correctly (until the Japanese invasion), that improvements in the value of Singapore would be captured by them.

So it was “keeping an option on captive buyers and fighters” (India) vs. “maximizing the value of the land for Empire” (Singapore).  Both were selfish strategies, but the latter did better for the colony in question.  Hong Kong seems to fit comfortably into this framework, though other cases might be considered (Barbados vs. Guyana?  Ghana vs. Uganda?).

Singapore also benefited from having most of its relevant colonization come later, whereas India had a damaging East India Company period in the 17th and 18th centuries, when imperialism often was more brutal and less sophisticated.

Non-Singaporean Malaya/Malaysia would require a post of its own.  In that case, and also with Singapore more narrowly, an evaluation of British rule cannot be separated from major changes in the exports and also corresponding changes in the ethnic composition of the territory.  The Singaporean national anthem is still a song written in Malay, and by law it must be sung as such.

In 2014, Narenda Modi campaigned on the slogan “maximum governance, minimum government”. It was a brilliant slogan that neatly captured India’s dichotomous problem, too much government and not enough capacity to actually govern. Since then, however, Modi’s government has not done much to fulfill its promise. The latest absurdity is a plan to govern the size of meal portions that restaurants may serve–apparently an attempt to fulfill Modi’s musings on the subject as if they were commands from the Maharaja. Add to this the absurd paid leave maternity bill–something akin to having the US government mandate seatbelts on flying cars, not exactly wrong but not exactly dealing with a problem relevant to most people either. Top off with the Supreme Court’s ban on any liquor sales within 500 meters of a highway (Mumbai, by the way, will follow Rajasthan in recategorizing highways within the city as roads to get around the ban). Put it all together and it looks like we are back to the old India model of maximum government, minimum governance.

In an excellent piece, Rupa Subramanya asks exactly the right question:

…how exactly is intervening in food portion sizes, a matter which in any sensible country would be left to the market system to decide, an example of good governance?

As a first principle of good governance, the government must recognize the limitations of state capacity and prioritize in areas in which it wishes to intervene in the market economy, based on a cost benefit analysis and grounded in a market failure it’s trying to correct.

…Modi campaigned on good governance. It’s time for him to start delivering on that promise.

An economic critique of prison

by on April 13, 2017 at 11:45 am in Economics, Law | Permalink

That is a new article by Peter N. Salib, at the University of Chicago, here is the abstract:

This Article argues that we should not imprison people who commit crimes. This is true despite the fact that essentially all legal scholars, attorneys, judges, and laypeople see prison as the sine qua non of a criminal justice system. Without prison, most would argue, we could not punish past crimes, deter future crimes, or keep dangerous criminals safely separate from the rest of society. Scholars of law and economics have generally held the same view, treating prison as an indispensable tool for minimizing social harm. But the prevailing view is wrong. Employing the tools of economic analysis, this Article demonstrates that prison imposes enormous but well-hidden societal losses. It is therefore a deeply inefficient device for serving the utilitarian aims of the criminal law system — namely, optimally deterring bad social actors while minimizing total social costs. The Article goes on to engage in a thought experiment, asking whether an alternative system of criminal punishment could serve those goals more efficiently. It concludes that there exist economically superior alternatives to prison available right now. The alternatives are practicable. They plausibly comport with our current legal rules and more general moral principles. They could theoretically be implemented tomorrow, and, if we wished, we could bid farewell forever to our sprawling, socially-suboptimal system of imprisonment.

One of the suggested alternatives is (non-prison) mandatory labor in the highest-value available jobs, combined with monitoring, and also restitution to the victims or the government.

The Economist has two good pieces on India’s Aadhaar card. First, the bright side:

IT TAKES a little over 90 seconds. At the government-subsidised ration shop in Sargasan, a village in Gujarat, Chandana Prajapati places her thumb on a fingerprint scanner. A list of the staples she and her family are entitled to this month appears on the shopkeeper’s computer: 10kg of rice, 25kg of wheat, some cooking oil, salt and sugar. The 55-year-old housewife has no cash nor credit card, but no matter. By tapping in an identifying number and presenting her thumb one more time, Mrs Prajapati authorises a payment of 271 rupees ($4.20) straight from her bank account. It is technical wizardry worthy of Stockholm or New York; yet outside buffaloes graze, a pot of water is coming to the boil on a pile of firewood and children scamper between mud-brick houses.

Like most Indians, Mrs Prajapati would have struggled to identify herself to the authorities a few years ago, let alone to a faraway bank. But 99% of adults are now enrolled in Aadhaar, a scheme which has amassed the fingerprints and iris scans of over 1.1bn people since 2010. With her authorisation, any government body or private business can check whether her fingerprints or irises match those recorded against her unique 12-digit identifying number in its database. When it comes to identification, India has unexpectedly leapfrogged every country with the possible exception of Estonia, a tiddler with a penchant for innovation.

The Aadhaar system has cut corruption and cleaned the rolls of people with fake identities trying to scam fertilizer, food or some other subsidized good. But the government wants the mark of the beast Aadhaar system to be used for just about everything including paying taxes, getting school lunches, buying airline tickets or a cell phone and that makes some people worried:

In theory, the law on Aadhaar passed last year by Mr Modi’s government includes stringent protections against the sharing of information; its rules allowing exceptions on grounds of national security, although vaguely worded, appear well intended. Sweden has required all citizens to have a national ID number since 1947—the year of India’s birth—with little trouble. Most Swedes consider the scheme, which is linked to tax, school, medical and other records, an immense convenience.

But India is not a tidy Nordic kingdom. Mr Modi’s government, with its strident nationalism and occasional recklessness—such as last year’s abrupt voiding of most of the paper currency in circulation—does not always inspire confidence that it will respect citizens’ rights and legal niceties. By sneaking the linkage between Aadhaar and tax into a budget bill, it raises concerns about intent: will the government stalk tax evaders, or perhaps enemies of the state, using ostensibly “fire-walled” Aadhaar data? Many Indians will remember that, following sectarian riots in the past, ruling parties were accused of using voter rolls to target victims.

As the Economist wisely concludes:

…for Aadhaar to fulfil its potential, Indians must trust that it will not be misused. Adopting coercive regulations, ignoring the Supreme Court’s qualms and dismissing critics peremptorily will achieve the opposite.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here are a few bits, these are all highly imperfect metrics:

For much of the 18th and early 19th centuries, under British rule, Indian economic performance was mediocre at best. It has been estimated that the yearly agricultural wage was higher in 1810 than in 1946. It’s difficult to prove how much of that decline was because of the British, but it is hardly a ringing endorsement.


Another way to make the historical comparison is to consider which Southeast Asian economy never fell under colonial rule. That would be Thailand, which has a per capita income in the range of $16,300 by World Bank estimates, compared with India’s $6,100. Again, that single comparison is not dispositive, but it hardly favors the British record in India.


Another possible comparison is between British-ruled India and India’s “native states,” namely the numerous territories and principalities where British involvement in direct rule was minimal. To be sure, those regions still were embedded in a broader nexus of British control, and there is no comprehensive database. Nonetheless, historian Jon Wilson, in his recent book “India Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire,” offered this assessment: “Economic growth and institutional dynamism occurred in the places that were furthest from the rule of British bureaucrats.” For instance, Tata Steel Ltd. put India’s first modern steel plant in Jamshedpur, a tributary area outside of British rule. Another study found that the independent areas had better performance in terms of education and health care during the post-colonial era.

Maybe you can twist all of those back to neutral, but the data make it surprisingly hard to make a case for British rule in India.

Patrick is co-founder and CEO of Stripe, based in San Francisco.  I recently told a reporter he was one of the five smartest people I have known; he is so smart, in fact, that he asked to interview me rather than vice versa, and so he and I created a new episode of Conversations with Tyler (transcript and podcast at that link, alas no video, and note that was recorded in January so on a few points the timeline may feel off).

We discuss whether macro is underrated, what makes Silicon Valley special, optimal immigration policy, whether Facebook is beneficial for society, whether I might ever vote for Donald Trump, how to start a new religion, Peter Thiel, Brian Eno, where I differ from Thomas Schelling, Michel Houllebecq, how to maintain your composure in an age of Trump, the origins of this blog, how I read so much, why Twitter is underrated, and the benefits of having a diverse monoculture, among many other topics.

Here is one bit:

COLLISON: …You’ve written a lot about how the study of economics has influenced your appreciation for the arts, and for literature, and for food, and all of the rest. You haven’t written as much about the influence in the reverse direction. How has your appreciation for and study of the arts influenced your study of economics? And is this a version of that?

COWEN: This is a version of that. Here would be a simple example: If you think about Renaissance Florence, at its peak, its population, arguably, was between 60,000 and 80,000 people. And there were surrounding areas; you could debate the number. But they had some really quite remarkable achievements that have stood the test of time and lasted, and today have very high market value. Now, in very naive theories of economics, that shouldn’t be possible. People in Renaissance Florence, they didn’t produce a refrigerator that we’re still using or a tech company that we still consult.

But there’s something different about, say, the visual arts, where that was possible, and it was done with small numbers. So there’s something about the inputs to some kinds of production we don’t understand. I would suggest if we’re trying to figure out, like what makes Silicon Valley work, actually, by studying how they did what they did in the Florentine Renaissance is highly important. You learn what are the missing inputs that make for other kinds of miracles.

Ireland and writing would be another example.

…COWEN: And I worry now that people in Ireland hear too much American English, too much English English, and that style of writing, talking, joking, limericks, is becoming somewhat less distinct. Still many wonderful writers from Ireland, but again, it’s like an optimal stock depletion problem, and maybe we’ve pressed on the button a little too hard.

COLLISON: The transaction costs should be higher?

And here is another:

COLLISON: Do we just need a sufficiently obfuscated version of the UBI and then we’re fine?

COWEN: We call it “disability insurance.”


COWEN: Well, I voted on each of these hires. I voted for them. For a lot of them, I was on the hiring committee. Robin Hanson’s a good example. When we hired Robin, he was much older than a typical assistant professor would be. And of course, we don’t practice age discrimination, and neither does anyone else, but . . .


COWEN: Robin was going to have a tough time being hired. And I gave Robin some of my papers to read. He came in. He was a little, actually, obnoxious to me. Though he’s one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. He sent me back comments on my papers, that they were all wrong.


COWEN: There was no preliminary politeness: ‘I thought this was interesting, but…’ I thought this was great. So I thought, “We need to hire Robin. Robin is different.” And Robin wrote papers I thought were crazy, but he clearly also was a genius. I pushed very hard to hire Robin, and he made a good impression on a lot of other people. He’s been with us ever since.

COLLISON: Were the papers in fact all wrong?

COWEN: Robin’s criticisms were all good points.


COWEN: But they weren’t entirely wrong.


I agree the man should have left the plane in the first place, the police should not have used violence, the CEO should have apologized right away, United (possibly) should have known earlier it needed to transport the employees, and a bunch of other things.  Perhaps United should have mimicked Ryan Air and charged people fifteen euros (or much more!) for dragging them off the flight.  But let’s put that behind us and consider some analysis:

United policy says:

The priority of all other confirmed passengers may be determined based on a passenger’s fare class, itinerary, status of frequent flyer program membership, and the time in which the passenger presents him/herself for check-in without advanced seat assignment.”

There is also an exception for disabilities.

From the passenger’s point of view, this operates like randomization, as customers were told “the computer will decide.”  An alternative of course is to eliminate the random shuffle and require cash payments to passengers no matter what, waiting until someone volunteers to give up his or her seat at the required high price.

One problem with using money to buy people out of queues is that it encourages more upfront queuing to begin with, and that involves negative externalities for passengers as a whole.  In any model of stochastic demand and fixed capacity in the short run, demand will sometimes be too high, and I don’t know of many retail markets that rely on price alone to ration quantity.  Given that reality, I am not sure why everyone is insisting the airlines should do things this way.  If Nordstrom starts to run out of their blue cooking pots on the day of the sale, so be it, they don’t raise the price toward the end of the day as supplies dwindle.  Paying $5 to each denied pot-buyer just ensures they are more likely to run out of pots the next time around.

You could spend many moons debating whether price-only solutions to short-run shortages lead to higher or lower upfront prices (and thus higher or lower deadweight loss) than price + quality adjustment solutions to short-run shortages.  As far as I know, this question hasn’t been settled, and quality adjustment is well-known as a means of enabling more upfront price discrimination.  If nothing else, it pushes more people into business class.  The subtler mechanism is that the airlines have plenty of reasons to favor their more loyal customers, if only because of market segmentation, and this is one of them.  The market segmentation effects brings more collusion, and higher prices, but the price discrimination effect tends to boost output.

To consider possible analogies, let’s say it was a queue to buy concert tickets, with more people in line than seats for the show.  One option is to give cash to those who can’t get tickets, rather than just turning them away, but I’ve never heard anyone argue this would be efficient.  The cash payments are a tax on product supply and also they encourage too much queuing in the first place.  Instead we send some people home without tickets, even if they have waited in line for a long time.  In essence, randomization is one factor behind who is sent home without a ticket, because no arrival, when deciding whether or not to show up, knows exactly how many other people will have been prior in line.  Don’t be surprised if the airlines sometimes use a similar system.

As Garett Jones points out, sometimes the ATM runs out of cash and you don’t get any bonus afterwards.  There are plenty of other examples.

Maybe United should allow for a secondary market for the doctor to stay on the plane by buying flying rights from some other passenger, one who wouldn’t take the United offer but who might take the doctor’s better offer.  That idea is worth consideration, though arranging the contract could be tricky unless the passengers belong to a common system with pre-arranged arbitration in place (Facebook could run it?  PayPal?)  With tickets this kind of resale works smoothly through StubHub and the like.  (By the way, once the guy proclaimed he was a doctor going to see his ailing patients, did any of the other passengers offer to get off instead?  Hmm…)

The “re-accommodation” seems much worse to many people because the doctor already was seated.  An endowment effect argument therefore might require that the airline use a full auction once seats are taken.  That would increase the incentive of the airline to spot demand-supply imbalances in advance of boarding, and it might well be a good idea.  On the other hand, the presence of an endowment effect can help make “removal” an especially effective pre-emptive demand tax in world-states of potential excess demand.  The more you hate being removed from your seat, the fewer people have to be removed to achieve a greater S-D balancing ex ante.  Furthermore, the highest valuation buyers will make sure to be loyal buyers, which presumably is what the airline wants.

The cynical, who have studied randomization in optimal tax theory (that is not I, I love human rights too much and spent my youth reading the Salamancans), would even say that the higher value are the trips, and the more people fear being manhandled, the more it makes sense to use stochastic pain as a deterrent for overbooking.  Think of it as a way to increase the degree of ex ante price discrimination, and limit cross-buyer externalities, at minimal cost in terms of actual output.

Finally, the United episode gets at a more general problem with algorithms.  Even if the selection of seat loser is “truly random,” it will not always look random to the outside world.  The bumping of the doctor has been a huge event on Chinese social media, and how many of those Chinese are thinking that the doctor was bumped because he was Chinese.  The international loss of reputation here is significant, and it damages the United States as a whole, not just United as a brand name.  In essence, individual companies under-invest in perceptions of fairness, and reliance on “truly random” algorithms can make this worse rather than better.  A deliberate human chooser might well have done better, if only by knowing that a public defense of the choice would have been required, and that might have nudged United back toward the full auction or some other solution.  In essence, companies may be oversupplying “reliance on randomness,” not taking the collective negative externality into account.  Counterintuitively, relying on algorithms can increase perceptions of unfairness, and many of the costs of unfairness come on the perceptions side, even if “the true model” is making choices using a fair process.

Two other factors are worth considering.  First, due to social media it will be increasingly difficult to write and enforce retail contracts with legal meanings very different from their “common sense” meanings.  Maybe I’ll write a separate post on whether that will raise or lower transactions costs, but I suspect a bit of both.

Second, given that the stock of United tanked after the incident, now airline customer service will improve rather rapidly.  In the long run of course that will translate into higher prices too, so the net effect of this shift will prove regressive.  The more you complain, the more you are redistributing wealth — through the medium of preferred price-quality configurations — away from lower earners and toward the wealthy.

I’m not saying that the United rules are efficient, either generally or in this particular case, but I do see many people not even willing to ask the question of under what conditions they might be efficient.  And that is indeed to correct way to start on analyzing this problem.

Addendum: This is also a story of price controls, on that let’s turn the microphone over to Air Genius Gary Leff:

More importantly, United didn’t do it because Department of Transportation regulations set maximum required compensation for involuntary denied boarding (in this case 4 times the passenger’s fare paid up to a maximum of $1350). So they’re not going to offer more than that for voluntary denied boardings, especially since the violent outcome here wasn’t expected and the United Express gate agent had no authority to do more.

The Hijra of India

by on April 11, 2017 at 7:31 am in Economics, Law, Religion, Travel | Permalink

Driving around Mumba one sometimes sees hijra begging at street intersections. The Indian term hijra is typically translated as eunuch but not all hijra are eunuchs or even want to be eunuchs so the term transgender is more accurate. In India, transgendered people are discriminated against, widely disliked, and feared. At the same time their blessings are sometimes sought after on important occasions.

hijraIt’s common for a transgendered person to be abandoned and thrown out of their home. Most then come to live in small communes of hijra headed by a guru and served by chelas (disciples/students).

We chelas must work hard, do the cooking inside the house, and most of the dancing outside. We have an obligation to look after our guru when she grows old, just like we would look after our own mother. In return, when we first become hijras our Chaman Guru teaches us chelas the way of the eunuchs.

(The quote is from William Dalrymple’s wonderful book, City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi. Dalrymple, however, draws too close a connection between hijra and the kind of eunuchs who were forcibly created to guard harems among the Mughals).

The communes of 5-15 hijras are like families but also like firms. The hijra make money by begging and by blessing weddings and births. The guru’s job is to learn the time and place of such celebrations for which she develop informants among midwives, musicians and caterers. A supra-community of hijra divide each city into exclusive territories. Each guru thus has a local monopoly and any hijra thrown out by her guru forfeits the right to work. A hijra thus has little choice but to work as a chela especially since other avenues of work are closed. Thus, the guru is both mother, father and boss.

The woman in the guru makes him feel motherly toward his chelas, but the man in him makes him authoritarian and dictatorial.

The blessings of the hijra are always double-edged. When are the blessed paying for the blessing and when are they are paying for the hijra not to curse them or just to go away? The hijra are not above embarrassing your wedding guests with bawdy and rude behavior.

Times have never been easy for the hijra but times are especially tough now because only the traditional occupations are open to them yet fewer people today believe in either their blessings or their curses. Many people consider them a nuisance. As a result, earnings are down.

Our main occupation is to perform badhai at weddings, or when a child is born. At such times we sing and dance to bless the newlyweds or the newborn. But can badhai alone fill our stomachs? Obviously not, and so we supplement our earnings by begging on city streets, and performing sex work, and dancing in bars and night clubs. Dancing comes naturally to us hijras.

…We are thus destitute. Estranged from family and ostracized by society, people couldn’t care less how we earn a livelihood, or where our next meal comes from. If a hijra commits a crime, the mob rushes to attack him while the police are only too glad to press charges against him. This is not to justify crime, but to reiterate that all crimes have a social dimension, and in the case of hijras this cannot be overlooked. Yet it is never taken into account.

A small trans and hijra empowerment movement works to bring greater acceptance to allow hijra to move into other occupations. On Sunday, I attended a hijra festival. The hijra were sweet and welcoming when I talked with them but it was not well attended.

The movement has found success among India’s liberal “internationalized” elite. India’s Supreme Court, for example, recognized a third gender in 2014, so Indian passports, driver’s licenses and other official documents now include M, F and an Other category. Gay sex, however, is still against the law (although prosecutions are rare to nonexistent). It’s notable that Bangladesh and Pakistan, two other countries not known for their liberalism, also recognize a third gender. The seeming contradiction is in part because sexual categories are different than in the West so, for example, sex between men and the third gender (hijra) isn’t considered sex between two men. As is true everywhere, all these issues are complicated and contested.

Ardhanari 2Intellectuals can also find support for the third gender in Hindu culture. The Vedas, for example, refer to Tritiya prakrti, people of the third sex, and the major Hindu texts treat homosexuality as normal, or at most give it mild admonishments. Hindu gods will often be reincarnated in different genders or even as hermaphrodites (the sculpture at Elephanta island near Mumbai shown at left depicts a hermaphrodite reincarnation of Shiva). The famous erotic carvings at the Khajuraho temples and elsewhere include depictions of homosexual sex.

The relative tolerance of the Hindu classics leads some people to blame Islamic and British influences on Indian society for it’s intolerance but discrimination against the Hijra is widespread. Although intellectuals may find support for tolerance in Hindu classics, the folk do not. Indians by and large are embarrassed about Khajuraho’s depiction of heterosexual sex, let alone anything more challenging.

The willingness of trans and hijra, both in India and the West, to live with discrimination and abandonment is testament to the great drive to live as one feels one is. I wish the hijra good fortune.

Hat tip: Kshitij Batra for discussion.

Hijra festival 2

*Everybody Lies*

by on April 11, 2017 at 2:54 am in Books, Data Source, Economics, Web/Tech | Permalink

That is the new and fascinating book by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, with the subtitle Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.  Here is one of many interesting bits:

Urban areas tend to be well supplied with models of success.  To see the value of being near successful practitioners of a craft when young, compare New York City, Boston, and Los Angeles.  Among the three, new York City produces notable journalists at the highest rate; Boston produces notable scientists at the highest rate; and Los Angeles produces notable actors at the highest rate.  Remember, we are not talking about people who moved there.  And this holds true even after subtracting people with notable parents in that field.

Many of the results in the book are taken from Google data and Google searches.  I was a little chuffed to read this part:

A child born in New York City is 80 percent more likely to make it into Wikipedia than a kid born in Bergen County.

[Actually I was born in Hudson County, but grew up in Bergen.]  And this:

Of the trillions of Google searches during that time [2004-2011], what do you think turned out to be most tightly connected to unemployment?  You might imagine “unemployment office” — or something similar…The highest during the period I searched — and these terms do shift — was “Slutload.”  That’s right, the most frequent search was for a pornographic site.

Here is previous MR coverage of Seth Stephens-Davidowitz.