Category: Current Affairs

Probabilistic profit from UFOs?

Let’s say the rest of the market was undervaluing the chance of UFOs being “something interesting.”  What might be the proper trade?  David S. emails me, and I will dispense with further indentation but what follows are his words not mine:

“Some potential food for thought:

– Going long volatility or long defense stocks seems like the most conventional answer.

– An even more conventional answer would be that it wouldn’t matter since any apocalypse means that even a correct bet is unlikely to have material redeemable value.

– Rather than framing the payout event as the binary of an actual UFO invasion, an alternative framing would be to bet on further government leaks causing the market to move it’s probability of invasion / apocalypse from 0.00% to 0.01%.

  • Should you at least shorten the duration of your holdings on the margin? With interest rates near zero and record(-ish) high PE multiples, shouldn’t you be (marginally) less willing to pay for far-out cash flows? Could this finally fuel a resurgence of the value factor vs the growth factor?
  • To take it a step further, should people consume more today and invest less given that the EV/NPV of these payouts will be somewhat lower?
  • Other than high-dividend stocks and cash, what other trades are short-duration without going to zero if the apocalypse fails to arrive on time?

– My contrarian approach would be to go very long due to the underrated potential of technology transfer and overrated potential of apocalypse (especially in the near-term).  For instance, if we found intelligent life on a planet like Mars (but less intelligent than humans), it would likely be decades between first contact and when humans would muster a military force to extinguish or fully dominate the other species (if ever).  Also, based on the continued existence of thousands of species (many of which are flourishing) on earth in parallel with human existence, its not clear why we would assume that a more intelligent form of life that engages with humans would even try to extinguish. Per Steven Pinker, more intelligent species would likely also be more moral and therefore less likely to be focused on zero-sum extinction.”

TC again: Obviously many short positions would be in order. In terms of longs, my intuitions would be to buy a very diverse bundle of natural resources.  Presumably the aliens have not brought many minerals with them, and they will need some minerals to do…whatever it is they plan on doing.  Maybe lots of minerals.  But you don’t know which ones.

My Conversation with Nicholas Bloom

Excellent and interesting throughout, here is the transcript, video, and audio.  Here is part of the summary:

He joined Tyler for a conversation about which areas of science are making progress, the factors that have made research more expensive, why government should invest more in R&D, how lean management transformed manufacturing, how India’s congested legal system inhibits economic development, the effects of technology on Scottish football hooliganism, why firms thrive in China, how weak legal systems incentivize nepotism, why he’s not worried about the effects of remote work on American productivity (in the short-term), the drawbacks of elite graduate programs, how his first “academic love” shapes his work today, the benefits of working with co-authors, why he prefers periodicals and podcasts to reading books, and more.

Here is an excerpt:

COWEN: If I understand your estimates correctly, efficacy per researcher, as you measure it, is falling by about 5 percent a year [paper here]. That seems phenomenally high. What’s the mechanism that could account for such a rapid decline?

BLOOM: The big picture — just to make sure everyone’s on the same page — is, if you look in the US, productivity growth . . . In fact, I could go back a lot further. It’s interesting — you go much further, and you think of European and North American history. In the UK that has better data, there was very, very little productivity growth until the Industrial Revolution. Literally, from the time the Romans left in whatever, roughly 100 AD, until 1750, technological progress was very slow.

Sure, the British were more advanced at that point, but not dramatically. The estimates were like 0.1 percent a year, so very low. Then the Industrial Revolution starts, and it starts to speed up and speed up and speed up. And technological progress, in terms of productivity growth, peaks in the 1950s at something like 3 to 4 percent a year, and then it’s been falling ever since.

Then you ask that rate of fall — it’s 5 percent, roughly. It would have fallen if we held inputs constant. The one thing that’s been offsetting that fall in the rate of progress is we’ve put more and more resources into it. Again, if you think of the US, the number of research universities has exploded, the number of firms having research labs.

Thomas Edison, for example, was the first lab about 100 years ago, but post–World War II, most large American companies have been pushing huge amounts of cash into R&D. But despite all of that increase in inputs, actually, productivity growth has been slowing over the last 50 years. That’s the sense in which it’s harder and harder to find new ideas. We’re putting more inputs into labs, but actually productivity growth is falling.

COWEN: Let’s say paperwork for researchers is increasing, bureaucratization is increasing. How do we get that to be negative 5 percent a year as an effect? Is it that we’re throwing kryptonite at our top people? Your productivity is not declining 5 percent a year, or is it? COVID aside.

BLOOM: COVID aside. Yeah, it’s hard to tell your own productivity. Oddly enough, I always feel like, “Ah, you know, the stuff that I did before was better research ideas.” And then something comes along. I’d say personally, it’s very stochastic. I find it very hard to predict it. Increasingly, it comes from working with basically great, and often younger, coauthors.

Why is it happening at the aggregate level? I think there are three reasons going on. One is actually come back to Ben Jones, who had an important paper, which is called, I believe, “[Death of the] Renaissance Man.” This came out 15 years ago or something. The idea was, it takes longer and longer for us to train.

Just in economics — when I first started in economics, it was standard to do a four-year PhD. It’s now a six-year PhD, plus many of the PhD students have done a pre-doc, so they’ve done an extra two years. We’re taking three or four years longer just to get to the research frontier. There’s so much more knowledge before us, it just takes longer to train up. That’s one story.

A second story I’ve heard is, research is getting more complicated. I remember I sat down with a former CEO of SRI, Stanford Research Institute, which is a big research lab out here that’s done many things. For example, Siri came out of SRI. He said, “Increasingly it’s interdisciplinary teams now.”

It used to be you’d have one or two scientists could come up with great ideas. Now, you’re having to combine a couple. I can’t remember if he said for Siri, but he said there are three or four different research groups in SRI that were being pulled together to do that. That of course makes it more expensive. And when you think of biogenetics, combining biology and genetics, or bioengineering, there’s many more cross-field areas.

Then finally, as you say, I suspect regulation costs, various other factors are making it harder to undertake research. A lot of that’s probably good. I’d have to look at individual regulations. Health and safety, for example, is probably a good idea, but in the same way, that is almost certainly making it more expensive to run labs…

COWEN: What if I argued none of those are the central factors because, if those were true as the central factors, you would expect the wages of scientists, especially in the private sector, to be declining, say by 5 percent a year. But they’re not declining. They’re mostly going up.

Doesn’t the explanation have to be that scientific efforts used to be devoted to public goods much more, and now they’re being devoted to private goods? That’s the only explanation that’s consistent with rising wages for science but a declining social output from her research, her scientific productivity.

And this:

COWEN: What exactly is the value of management consultants? Because to many outsiders, it appears absurd that these not-so-well-trained young people come in. They tell companies what to do. Sometimes it’s even called fraudulent if they command high returns. How does this work? What’s the value added?

Definitely recommended

Why herd immunity is worth less than you might think

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  The evidence in favor of at least partial herd immunity continues to pile up, but still don’t get too cheery.  One worry is that herd immunity might prove only temporary:

First, many herd immunity hypotheses invoke the idea of “superspreaders” — that a relatively small number of people account for a disproportionate amount of the contagion. Perhaps it is the bartenders, church choir singers and bus drivers who spread the virus to so many others early on in the pandemic. Now that those groups have been exposed to a high degree and have acquired immunity, it might be much harder to distribute the virus.

That logic makes some sense except for one issue: namely, that the identities of potential superspreaders can change over time. For instance, perhaps choir singers were superspreaders earlier in the winter, but with most choral singing shut down, maybe TSA security guards are the new superspreaders. After all, air travel has been rising steadily. Or the onset of winter and colder weather might make waiters a new set of superspreaders, as more people dine inside.

In other words, herd immunity might be a temporary state of affairs. The very economic and social changes brought by the virus may induce a rotation of potential superspreaders, thereby undoing some of the acquired protection.

In other words, the fight never quite ends.  Here is another and possibly larger worry:

Another problem is global in nature and could prove very severe indeed. One possible motivation for the herd immunity hypothesis is that a significant chunk of the population already had been exposed to related coronaviruses, thereby giving it partial immunity to Covid-19. In essence, that “reservoir” of protected individuals has helped to slow or stop the spread of the virus sooner than might have been expected.

There is a catch, however. If true, that hypothesis means that the virus spreads all the more rapidly among groups with little or no protection. (Technically, if R = 2.5, but say 50% of the core population has protection, there is an R of something like 5 for the unprotected population, to get the aggregate R to 2.5.) So if some parts of the world enjoy less protection from cross-immunities, Covid-19 is likely to ravage them all the more — and very rapidly at that.

Again, this is all in the realm of the hypothetical. But that scenario might help explain the severe Covid-19 toll in much of Latin America, and possibly in India and South Africa. Herd immunity, as a general concept, could mean a more dangerous virus for some areas and population subgroups.

There are further arguments at the link.

The classical theory of economic growth, by Donald J. Harris

By Donald J. Harris, here is the abstract:

Focused on the emerging conditions of industrial capitalism in Britain in their own time, the classical economists were able to provide an account of the broad forces that influence economic growth and of the mechanisms underlying the growth process. Accumulation and productive investment of a part of the social surplus in the form of profits were seen as the main driving force. Hence, changes in the rate of profit were a decisive reference point for analysis of the long-term evolution of the economy. As worked out most coherently by Ricardo, the analysis indicated that in a closed economy there is an inevitable tendency for the rate of profit to fall. In this article, the essential features of the classical analysis of the accumulation process are presented and formalized in terms of a simple model.

Here is the full piece.  Here are other pieces by Donald J. Harris, professor emeritus at Stanford, economist, and father of Kamala Harris.  Here is further background on him.

Coming soon, to a country near you

But let’s start with the UK:

The number of people in hospital with Covid-19 has fallen 96% since the peak of the pandemic, official data reveals.

Hospital staff are now treating just 700 coronavirus patients a day in England, compared to about 17,000 a day during the middle of April, according to NHS England.

Last week, some hospitals did not have a single coronavirus patient on their wards, with one top doctor suggesting that Britain is “almost reaching herd immunity”.

In a further sign of good news, the virus death toll in hospitals has also plummeted. On April 10, the day the highest number of deaths was announced to the nation, NHS England said 866 people had died. On Thursday last week, there were just five hospital deaths across the entire country. It represents a fall of more than 99% from the height of fatalities during the crisis.

Note that the pubs and many other venues have been open for over a month, and social distancing protections in the UK remain relatively weak, nor has individual or political behavior in the country been especially responsible.

Here is the Times of London piece (gated).

“Israel Versus Anyone”

That is the title of a new research paper by Kenneth S. Brower, focusing on the capabilities of the Israeli military against various potential adversaries.  I do not myself have particular opinions on these questions, but I found this piece interesting throughout.  Here is one excerpt:

The simple and unarguable truth is that for decades the US military has lacked the ability to quickly project conventional ground and air forces into the Middle East that would be able to successfully defend Israel. This has been true for about 50 years.

The US Army and US Marine Corps combined now have an active force structure of just 39 maneuver brigades, of which only about 13 are combat ready. It would require many weeks to bring a portion of the remaining 26 active maneuver brigades to combat ready status. Achieving this would require cannibalization of about 25% of the remaining active units in order to bring the others to full strength. US reserve National Guard maneuver brigades would each require about five months for mobilization, retraining, and deployment. These National Guard reserve units are thus irrelevant to any Israeli rescue scenario.

The ability of the US military to deploy forces over long distances has declined in the last 30 years because of a lack of investment in large specialized roll-on roll-off ships. Many of the existing US reserve merchant marine ships dedicated to military use are overage and have been poorly maintained. Based on the deployment times achieved during Operation Desert Storm, it is estimated that within about three weeks the US could project two light infantry paratroop brigades into Israel by air, plus one Marine infantry brigade transferred by forward deployed USN amphibious ships and pre-loaded forward-based maritime ships. Given about nine weeks, the US would likely be able to field nine maneuver brigades in the Middle East consisting of three paratroop, three Marine, and three heavy armored brigades. Consequently, it would require about nine weeks for the US military to generate roughly 15% of the IDF’s ground force mobilizable order of battle. These US forces would only deploy about 10% of the number of armored fighting vehicles the IDF can field.

The USAF has a very limited number of combat aircraft currently deployed in Europe. With air-to-air refueling, it is estimated that these aircraft might be able to sustain the generation of about 90 sorties a day in support of Israel. But these few sorties, which only  14 I Israel Versus Anyone: A Military Net Assessment of the Middle East represent 5% of Israeli wartime capability, could only be generated if the host country where these aircraft are based were to allow them to be operated in support of Israel. In the past, this approval has not always been provided. Neither the USN nor USMC currently have any operational combat aircraft based on aircraft carriers or large amphibious ships that are normally deployed in the Mediterranean within range of Israel.

Via Adam K.

Beware of coronavirus moralizing

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Then there is the Swedish experiment, which has been the subject of a raging controversy. Here again, most moralizing is premature, even though the Swedes did make some clear mistakes, such as not protecting their nursing homes well enough. Sweden had a high level of early deaths, but both cases and deaths have since fallen to a very low level, even though Sweden never locked down. In the meantime, the Swedish economy has been among the least badly hit in Europe.

If the rest of Europe is badly hit by a second or third wave, and Sweden is not, Swedish policy suddenly will look much better. Alternatively, if Sweden experiences a second wave of infections as big as or bigger than those of its neighbors, it will look far worse.

In other words, it is too soon to tell.  I love to moralize about the moralizers!  Which I do more of at the link.

The YIMBYs win one, in the UK

The government is determined all the same, in keeping with the prime minister’s desire to “build, build, build”, to loosen our restrictive planning system. His proposed reforms will curb the ability of local politicians to slow down plans that have received initial approval. The requirements for developers to include cheaper housing on their sites will be relaxed. Land will be split into the three categories of growth, renewal, and preservation. Any school, shop or office which meets local design standards will be given an assumed permission to develop in the first two of these three categories. The aim will be for each area to agree a local plan in 30 months rather than the current average of seven years.

Here is more from Phillip Collins at the London Times (gated).  Do any of you know of a good ungated link on this?  Here is The Guardian, in unsurprising fashion, siding with NIMBY.  So far the BBC just doesn’t seem that interested.  Anywhere else to look?

Addendum: From Conor, here are some links:

–          Via CapX, which is a great aggregator plus original commentary: https://capx.co/these-profound-reforms-offer-a-chance-to-build-more-and-build-more-beautifully/

–          Via Conservative Home, here is the housing lead at Policy Exchange: https://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2020/08/ben-southwood-yes-the-current-planning-system-really-is-at-the-root-of-britains-housing-crisis.html

–          Twitter thread from Adam Smith Institute’s Matthew Lesh: https://twitter.com/matthewlesh/status/1291368548590379008

–          A summary and link to the full report itself: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/launch-of-planning-for-the-future-consultation-to-reform-the-planning-system

And longer reads, here are a couple of policy papers from the past that helped inform this report:

–          Policy Exchange paper: https://policyexchange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Rethinking-the-Planning-System-for-the-21st-Century.pdf

–          The Roger Scruton chaired Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/861832/Living_with_beauty_BBBBC_report.pdf

What did the China hawks get right and wrong about China?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is part of the closing bit:

Where does all this leave U.S. China policy? As a rule of thumb: If it is of clear and limited scope and can be conducted technocratically, and can avoid both excess media coverage and political polarization — and, crucially, if it requires no obvious sacrifices from American citizens — then a policy stands a pretty good chance of succeeding. But that is not enough to justify a new global crusade. Over the last year or so, no matter what you might think of the government in Beijing, it has become clear that the government in Washington faces some real limits in responding to it.

I would stress that predictively, in their analysis of China, the hawks got almost everything right and the accommodationists got almost everything wrong.  There is just not so much we can do about that…

The Hawaii bastion has fallen

“We must accept the new reality: The virus is widespread on Oahu,” said Anderson, noting that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for contact tracers to pinpoint the source of infection as the virus grows more and more prevalent.

Hawaii now has seen 2,448 positive cases of coronavirus since state health officials started reporting testing results in March. More than 500 of those cases were reported in the last seven days, and most of them are on Oahu.

Historically, about 1% to 2% of tests conducted in Hawaii have come back with positive COVID-19 results. But in recent days that percentage has crept up close to 5%.

“Any time it gets over 5%, there’s reason for concern,” Anderson said. “Some of the states where they’re having large outbreaks have high rates of over 10%. And, obviously, we don’t want to be there.”

The growing prevalence of COVID-19 in Hawaii could jeopardize the state’s ability to reopen public schools, bring college students back to campus and invite visitors to return to Hawaii, said Hawaii Gov. David Ige.

Here is the full story.  Of course it is much better to have cases now — when superior treatments are available — than back in March or April.  Still, the containment strategies that are supposed to work for the most part…do not in fact work.

Why do some states have such low unemployment rates?

That is for June, Kentucky is at 4.3 percent but West Virginia at 10.4?  Here are the underlying BLS data.  Here is some description of Kentucky in June.  Note that Kentucky cases are now rising rapidly.  Here is the case pattern for Idaho.  The three states with the highest unemployment rates — New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts — have been moving toward relative safety after some very tough times early on.  One interpretation of these numbers is that serious lockdowns were necessary to stem the virus, but those lockdowns caused high unemployment.  More plausible to me is the view that a high initial virus burden led to high unemployment — consumers were scared — but also superior case and death results later on.

Via Nick Clerkin.

The Great Psychometric test continues (U.K. fact of the day)

And the results ain’t always pretty:

The number of high-risk drinkers nearly doubled in lockdown and was worst in groups of higher social class, a government report shows.

Here is the (gated) Telegraph article.  Part of the mechanism of course may be that the “groups of higher social class” have not experienced the most severe income hits.  But I wonder if there is not more at work here.  These same “groups of higher social class” are also those who went around to parties to be feted, traveled the world, gave talks at conferences, “did deals,” dominated meetings and grabbed the good seat, and through various other means received big in-person ego boosts in pre-Covid times.  Now those ego boosts are gone, and…what do they do?  Some of them do very fine things indeed.

Pandemics and persistent heterogeneity

It has become increasingly clear that the COVID-19 epidemic is characterized by overdispersion whereby the majority of the transmission is driven by a minority of infected individuals. Such a strong departure from the homogeneity assumptions of traditional well-mixed compartment model is usually hypothesized to be the result of short-term super-spreader events, such as individual’s extreme rate of virus shedding at the peak of infectivity while attending a large gathering without appropriate mitigation. However, heterogeneity can also arise through long-term, or persistent variations in individual susceptibility or infectivity. Here, we show how to incorporate persistent heterogeneity into a wide class of epidemiological models, and derive a non-linear dependence of the effective reproduction number R_e on the susceptible population fraction S. Persistent heterogeneity has three important consequences compared to the effects of overdispersion: (1) It results in a major modification of the early epidemic dynamics; (2) It significantly suppresses the herd immunity threshold; (3) It significantly reduces the final size of the epidemic. We estimate social and biological contributions to persistent heterogeneity using data on real-life face-to-face contact networks and age variation of the incidence rate during the COVID-19 epidemic, and show that empirical data from the COVID-19 epidemic in New York City (NYC) and Chicago and all 50 US states provide a consistent characterization of the level of persistent heterogeneity. Our estimates suggest that the hardest-hit areas, such as NYC, are close to the persistent heterogeneity herd immunity threshold following the first wave of the epidemic, thereby limiting the spread of infection to other regions during a potential second wave of the epidemic. Our work implies that general considerations of persistent heterogeneity in addition to overdispersion act to limit the scale of pandemics.

Here is the full paper by Alexei Tkachenko, et.al., via the excellent Alan Goldhammer.  These models are looking much better than the ones that were more popular in the earlier months of the pandemic (yes, yes I know epidemiologists have been studying heterogeneity for a long time, etc.).

Emergent Ventures India, second cohort of winners

Praveen Mishra

Praveen Mishra when he was 16 started the Power of Youth, a non-profit aimed at empowering rural students by giving them mentorship and conducting competitions to highlight their potential. He since has been building a ‘YouTube of e-commerce’. He is the founder of ByBuy, an omni-channel retail platform, and he received his EV grant to help with this launch.

Akash Bhatia and Puru Botla

Akash and Puru are the co-founders of Infinite Analytics (IA), a Boston-based company whose proprietary AI platform analyzes customers’ data. They received their EV grant to repurpose their platform for Covid containment to help governments and authorities in India with contact tracing and mobility analyses. They have since helped millions of users, and their Containment Zone analyses are becoming the bedrock for lockdown exit strategy in Mumbai and Pune. Here is a video about the project.

Mohammed Suhail Chinya Salimpasha

Suhail is a 19-year-old senior grade homeschooler. He dropped out of high school to work on finding new ways to quantify protein in serum applied on a faster diagnosis of malnutrition. This is his TedX talk on the project.  He diverted his efforts towards Covid, to create India’s first multi-language Covid symptom checker, which was adopted by some local authorities before the Government mandated an alternative.  He is currently working on solving problems in containerizing applications, Enterprise Cloud, low latency API communication, and 5G In Social Tech Democratization.

Manasseh John Wesley

Manasseh John Wesley is a 21-year-old from Hyderabad, India, studying engineering and technologies like embedded systems megatronics/machine learning/data science/digital communication systems. He is the founder of River Bend Data Solution, a data science company with health care applications. He received an EV grant to create a platform for hospitals to provide X-rays and CT scan images and to use AIML to identify at risk districts in Andhra Pradesh.

Vidya Mahambare and Sowmya Dhanaraj

Dr. Vidya Mahambare is a Professor of Economics at Great Lakes Institute of Management working in macroeconomics as well as cultural and social economics issues. Dr. Soumya Dhanaraj is an assistant professor of economics at the Madras School of Economics, working in Development Economics and Applied Microeconomics. Their grant is to support their work in labor market and migration distortions.

Onkar Singh

Onkar Singh Batra is a fourteen-year-old web developer from Jammu and Kashmir. He developed and published his first website at the age of seven and holds the record for the World’s Youngest Webmaster. Furthermore, his book ‘When the Time Stops’ made him hold the record for the record of ‘World’s Youngest Theoretical Author.’ Recently, responding to the Covid pandemic, he received his EV grant for the web applications named –‘COVID Care Jammu’ and ‘COVID Global Care’, which connects doctors with users and helps users do a free anonymous Covid Risk Assessment test.  Onkar built his website keeping in mind slow internet speed and limited access. He has plans for many future projects, including working on a bio shield for 5G radiation technology.

Nilay Kulkarni

Nilay Kulkarni is a 20-year old software developer and he previously worked on a project to prevent human stampedes at the world’s largest gathering – the Kumbh Mela. His project’s implementation at the 2015 edition of the event in Nashik, with over 30 million attendees, led to the first stampede-free Kumbh Mela in the city’s history. Nilay has also spoken at TEDx New York about the project. He has worked on assistive technology for people with ALS enabling them to control phones using their tongues. He received his EV grant for the tech development of the MahaKavach App, the official quarantine monitoring and contact tracing platform adopted by the state government of Maharashtra. So far, the platform has helped reduce the time needed for contact-tracing from 3-4 days to 25-30 minutes, and he is now working on open-sourcing the platform for greater impact.

Data Development Lab

Drs. Paul Novosad and Sam Asher are previous EV grantees for creating the SHRUG database at Data Development Lab. The SHRUG is an ultra-clean geocoded database describing hundreds of dimensions of socioeconomic status across 8,000 towns and 500,000 villages in India. Everything in the SHRUG is carefully linked, extensively vetted and documented, and ready for immediate application. In addition to continually expanding the SHRUG, they recently received another EV grant for a second platform oriented toward informing the COVID-19 response in India. This platform has a wealth of linked pandemic-related data (e.g. hospital capacity, health system use, agricultural prices) not available anywhere else and is directly feeding several COVID response research and policy teams.

Deepak VS

Deepak VS is a 23-year-old Mechatronics Engineer from Bangalore, India and he has worked on traffic and communications projects. He also founded a college club called 42 Labs that eventually grew into a startup company called Tilt, a shared mobility platform designed for Indian campuses but now in corporate parks, colleges, townships, and cities across India. Working primarily with electric bikes, Tilt is partnering with companies to help provide alternate mobility solutions to people who typically use crowded and unsafe public transport.

Amit Varma and Vivek Kaul

Amit Varma is one of the most influential podcasters in India, and the winner of the Bastiat Prize in Journalism for his writing. He is the host of the iconic longform interview podcast The Seen and the Unseen, my chat with him on Stubborn Attachments is here and Alex’s appearances on the show here and here. Vivek Kaul is a prominent journalist and writer covering finance and economics. His most recent book, “Bad Money: Inside the NPA Mess and How It Threatens the Indian Banking System” was released earlier this month.

Amit and Vivek received their Emergent Ventures grant for their new podcast “Econ Central.” You can find Econ Central episodes here.

Raman Bahl

Raman Bahl is a 2012 Teach For India Fellow. He has worked over the last decade in different capacities to teach students, train teachers, create curricula, and create systems of teaching and learning in the Indian education system. In the light of the pandemic, rural communities in India are not getting access to quality learning at home. In particular, students from poorer and marginalized groups cannot access to remote/online education launched by local schools because they lack internet access, televisions, and/or learning materials. Raman received his EV grant for creating a Voice-based Academic System for students in rural communities, to enable access to learning at home, through mobile phones. He is launching the system in Purkhas Rathi in Haryana and hopes to scale the system to more villages and states.

PickMyWork

Vidyarthi Baddireddy, Utsav Bhattacharya and Kajal Malik are Indian entrepreneurs focused on the employability of graduating students in India. In 2017 they founded Reculta to digitize campus placements. In 2019, they launched PickMyWork, a platform for onboarding gig workers and getting them to complete tasks for client organizations through a pay-per-task model. In light of the manpower crisis during the Covid pandemic, especially on the frontlines, they want to enable matching of volunteers to emergency situations. They received their EV grant for adapting PickMyWork as a local volunteer response system to emergency situations like Covid by using the platform to source, train and deploy volunteers across various projects and locations.

Harsh Patel and Hiten Patel

Harsh Patel is an undergraduate student in electronics and communication engineering; his interests are in components, coding, and robotics. Hiten Patel is an electrical engineer interested in robotics, coding, and designing. They received their EV grant to develop robot prototypes that they call ‘E-Bot: Arogya Sahayak’ to potentially support hospitals, hotels, airports, workplaces, etc., to assist with basic tasks while maintaining social distancing.

Vinay Débrou

Vinay Débrou studied computer science and is a self-taught data scientist interested in psychology, data science, and new applications of network science for collaboration-generating contexts. He has also built resources for aspiring location-independent free-agents including a curated resources library and a weekly newsletter. Vinay received his Emergent Ventures grant to accelerate his ongoing project to build a network visualization/mapping tool (v0.1 here) to catalyze cross-disciplinary expertise-sharing and collaboration in Yak Collective – an open, networked community of 300+ (and growing) independent creators, consultants, and researchers.

Those unfamiliar with Emergent Ventures can learn more here and here. EV India announcement here. To apply for EV India, use the EV application click the “Apply Now” button and select India from the “My Project Will Affect” drop-down menu.

If you are interested in supporting the India tranche of Emergent Ventures, please write to me or to Shruti at [email protected] I believe we are seeing a blossoming of talent from India comparable to that from Central Europe in the early part of the 20th century.

My Conversation with Nathan Nunn

Here is the transcript, audio, and video.  Here is part of the summary:

Nathan joined Tyler for a conversation about which African countries a theory of persistence would lead him to bet on, why so many Africans live in harder to settle areas, his predictions for the effects of Chinese development on East Africa, why genetic distance is a strong predictor of bilateral income differences and trade, the pleasant surprises of visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo, the role of the Catholic Church in the development of the West, why Canadian football is underrated, the unique commutes of Ottawans, the lack of Canadian brands, what’s missing from most economic graduate programs, the benefits of studying economics outside of the United States, how the plow shaped gender roles in the societies that used it, the cultural values behind South Korea’s success, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you try to think, say, within Africa, what would be some places that you would be modestly more optimistic about than, say, a hedge fund manager who didn’t understand persistence? What would a few of those countries be? Again, recognizing enormous noise, variance, and so on, as with smoking and lung cancer.

NUNN: If I’m true to exactly what I was just saying, then southern Africa or places where you have a larger population of societies that historically were more developed. South Africa, you have the Afrikaans, and they have a different descent than others. That’s if I’m true to what I was saying. But that’s ignoring that, also within Africa, you had a very large number of successful, well-developed states, and that was prior to European colonialism and the slave trade. So one could look at those cases.

One area that I worked at, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where you had the great Congo Kingdom, the Kuba Kingdom, a large number of other kingdoms, the Luba for example — that would probably be one country. That country today is pretty much as low as — in terms of per capita income — as you can be, right at subsistence. But if we’re predicting just based purely on persistence and historical state formation, that would be one to pick.

COWEN: What do you find to be the most convincing account of Botswana’s relative economic success?

NUNN: A few things. One is, Botswana is pretty small in terms of population. Anytime you have smaller countries, you can have more extreme outcomes. That’s one, that it’s small. But then related to that, it’s, in general, ethnically homogenous, particularly compared to other countries within Africa. The Tswana are the predominant ethnicity. They also have a historical social structure, and I think that was pretty well maintained and left intact. That’s a big part of the explanation.

And:

COWEN: Is it fun to visit Democratic Republic of Congo?

NUNN: Yeah, it’s great. Yeah.

COWEN: Tell us what’s fun. I need to go once I can.

NUNN: Yeah, it’s really, really great. The first time we went as a team — this is James Robinson, Sara Lowes, Jonathan Weigel in 2013 — we were pretty apprehensive. You hear a lot of stories about the DRC. It sounds like a very unsafe place, et cetera. But one thing we didn’t realize or weren’t expecting was just how lovely and wonderful the people are.

And it turns out it’s not unsafe in general. It depends on different locations. In the east, definitely near Goma, it’s obviously much, much less safe. But I think what, for me, is wonderful is the sense of community. Because the places we go are places that haven’t been touched, to a large extent, by foreign aid or NGOs or tourism, I think we are treated just like any other individual within the community.

And:

COWEN: What’s your favorite movie and why?

NUNN: Oh, favorite movie. [laughs] That’s a good question. Favorite movie — in the past it was Dazed and Confused. I must have watched that in university about a hundred times.

COWEN: A wonderful film.

Recommended, interesting throughout.