The need for specification in safety laws, part 2

So yesterday we had the case of two geniuses and two goats on a motorbike, only one with a helmet (the lead goat, of course).  Now we have the case of India, where the government apparently needs to specify to road workers to make sure that there aren’t any dead (or live!) people in potholes before they fill them.  I would have thought this was common sense but I would have been wrong, at least in this instance.

Indian road workers accidentally buried a drunken man when they filled a large crater in the road with gravel and asphalt.  The mystery of the poor man’s fate may never have been solved except that “villagers noticed part of the man’s hand was visible in the road.”  Wow, that’s a terrifying, nightmare-inducing image.  Probably a good idea to look one more time before you dump asphalt, although it does seem almost impossible that someone would fall dead drunk into the hole in the time it took to get the machinery lined up.  What are the chances?  That poor dude had some seriously bad luck.  Or perhaps the workers never looked the first time?

Somewhat surprisingly, the workers’ negligence seems to have had real consequences in that they were arrested on the charge of homicide.

It’s complicated

A recent report notes that 39% of the world’s smokers hail from India, a number the Indian government is anxious to reduce.  To do so, it has increased taxes on cigarettes precipitously, a move that has worked to disincentive smokers in other countries.

For instance, the article notes that the US increased cigarette taxes by 320% from 1996 to 2013, a period in which the number of adult smokers fell by almost one third.  Nothing is uncomplicated in India though, where the government has increased taxes by “1606% on the shortest non-filter cigarettes available and 198% on the shortest filter cigarettes since 1996.”  Nowadays, the tobacco tax makes up “about 60% of the price of a best-selling pack of 20 cigarettes, against about 43% in the US.”

and, the grand result was that “cigarette smokers in India increased from 25 million to 46.4 million over 14 years.”  So what went wrong?

One of the answers is that India is getting richer.  The article notes that “cigarettes were 175% more affordable in 2011 than in 1990, and tobacco has become 5% more affordable in India since 2008.”  That’s a good problem to have–in essence the government can’t raise taxes fast enough to overcome the income effects.

The second answer can probably be gleaned in the quote above about the tax increases.  Until 2014, India had 7 different taxes on tobacco, depending on how long the cigarette is and whether it had a filter.  Now they have only 6!  The WHO rightly argues that the tax structure is “complicated and, therefore, difficult to administer.”  I would add that it is ripe for corruption too.  It reminds me of when Argentina had 8 different external tariffs, a situation that not surprisingly led to massive problems with corruption.

Indian cigarette manufacturers are more than able to play the tax game.  When taxes increased across the board to 72% in 2014, “consumer giant and cigarette market leader ITC to shorten the length of its cheapest brand, Bristol, to keep prices and sales intact.”  A reduction of cigarette length by 5 mm allowed them to keep prices the same.  Well played ITC!

The Long-Term Effects of Protestantism

I just came across a couple of interesting new working papers on the historical effects of Protestantism.  The first builds on Robert Woodberry’s work on the effect of the printing press in Sub-Saharan Africa. In “The LongTerm Effects of the Printing Press in SubSaharan Africa,” Julia Cage and Valeria Rueda find “that, within regions located close to missions, proximity to a printing press significantly increases newspaper readership today” and that there is “a strong association between proximity to a printing press and contemporary economic development.”

Rossella Calvi and Federico Mantovanelli, in a paper titled “Long-Term Effects of Access to Health Care: Medical Missions in Colonial India” also find some positive long-term effects of Protestant missions, but this time in India.  They show that “a 50% reduction in the distance from a historical medical facility increases current individuals’ body mass index by 0.4.”  The path dependence “is not driven by persistence of infrastructure, but by improvements in individuals’ health potential and changes in hygiene and health habits.”

Aspirations of being a flailing state

Lant Pritchett has a working paper called “Is India a Flailing State? Detours on the Four Lane Highway to Modernization,” which is wonderful wordplay on the more commonly used failed state.  In it, he defines a flailing state as one where “the elite institutions at the national (and in some states) level remain sound and functional but that this head is no longer reliably connected via nerves and sinews to its own limbs.”

I was reminded of this new categorization when I read about the Nepalese government’s failure to spend any of the $4.1 billion donated after the earthquakes four months ago. Reuters reports that 9,000 people died in the quakes and that 10% of the population is still “living in plastic tents, preyed upon by flies and mosquitoes, with muddy paths and no drains.”  

So what has this incredibly dysfunctional government been doing instead?  First, they cannot agree on a plan of aid distribution and second, the government is spending all of its time trying to “pass a contentious constitution that will create a new political system and divide the country into new regions, a decision that has led to deadly clashes.”  I’m guessing those two points are closely related.  In short, the government is so divided that they have decided to focus on politicking and sowing political violence rather than distribute the money to the tens of thousands that desperately need it.

Makes me think that Nepal is a flailing state in its dreams. We apparently need a new category between failed and flailing.

Culture Shock, India edition

Traveling to foreign countries always involves some culture shock, but this sign from Air India really take the cake.  Is this really a problem that the company is having?  Is there a culture that eats carpeting?  I’m hoping it was a translation error, although the proliferation of English speakers in the country would make you question that.


h/t The Poke

livin’ high in Mumbai

Very cool Instagram of custom designed cab interiors in Mumbai. I really like this.

Here are a couple of examples_jJiPJK0kvMOuS61_UGF9gNrHDE7l9aFKcu1xpQ2RSs

mubai cab

Local designers make the patterns and they are digitally printed and installed. The photos of the cabbies with the designers on the instagram are awesome.

Hat tip to Mental Floss

The (Mis) Allocation of Talent?


Hat tip to@PankajPachauri for this interesting table.  I had a couple of thoughts on it:

1. Very disconcerting that the DOD is the #1 employer in the world.  Great stagnation anyone?

2.  The UK only has a population of 63 million people.  How can 1.7 million of those work for the National Health?  That’s over 2.5% of the total population!  And that doesn’t account for children and old people.

3. For a still poor country, China’s Defense Department employs a lot of people, making me wonder what the implications of this are for the country’s future productivity.

“India inside Bangladesh, inside India, inside Bangladesh,” or the absurdity of borders

N+1 has a great piece called Borderlands by Kai Friese. It is about the longest border fence in the world, constructed by Indian authorities.  The article notes that it is “still a work in progress” and given the fact that construction started in 1989, it may be an infinite work in progress.  It has cost taxpayers $600 million, which seems like a heck of a lot of money in India, where there are so many areas of desperate need.  So what is the purpose of this fence.  According to authorities, it is stop “illegal immigration and other anti-national activities from across the border.”  First, I never realized that so many people were dying to get into India.  and second, I love the addition of “anti-national” activities at the end there.  Very vague.

The article is relatively long but well worth reading in full.  I learned something on almost every page.  Here are some of my favorite bits:

1.  The relationship between Modi and the border is an interesting one.  For instance, last year when he was campaigning, he threatened to “send all illegal migrants “back to Bangladesh”—although, he reassured his audience, those who worshipped the Hindu goddess Durga would be “welcomed as sons of Mother India.”  What about illegal immigrants not from Bangladesh?  Do they still have to go there?

2. The city of Petrapole is known as “Asia’s largest customs station.” And while the government has tried to speed up the processing of goods, many are not impressed.  The author notes that “the clearing agents must still make the rounds to customs officials and border guards to lubricate their transactions. “It was actually faster without computers,” one of them tells me.”

3. The biggest business on the border (around $500 million every year) is the illegal cattle trade between Bangladesh and India.  The reason is simple economics: “India has a surplus of cows but relatively little demand for beef. In Bangladesh it’s the other way around. The price of a cow in India can range from Rs 500-3,000. In Bangladesh: Rs 20,000-40,000.”  The border patrol is often bought off in advance, but if they haven’t, then traders try to divert their attention by “releasing a couple of cows in one direction while the rest of the herd crosses on the other side.”

4. The border becomes really bizarre in places.  On the northern border with Bangladesh there are 200 tiny regions called chhit mahals which means something like “the droplets,” or “the crumbs of land.”  106 of them are little crumbs of India that are totally encircled by Bangladesh, 92 of them are exactly the opposite.  There is one called Dahala Khagrabari # 51, which is actually “India inside Bangladesh, inside India, inside Bangladesh.”  Wow.

Living in these droplets is no picnic.  The author writes that “People here have lived their entire lives “in India,” but they aren’t entitled to ID cards, rations or any of the rights of citizenship: water, electricity, schools. And of course they have no contact with Bangladesh, which is a mile away. They have no way to register their property in Indian courts, so the value of land in the chhits is one tenth of the usual local rate. Some tell stories of people who linger in the jails of Calcutta long after they’ve served their term because neither India nor Bangladesh will acknowledge them as citizens. The local word for this purgatory of stateless incarceration is Jaan khalaas, or “Life Finished.”

Like I said, a great article with many examples of the absurdity of government border policies.

The least subtle example of cheating ever

In what seems like a natural follow-up to Kevin’s post yesterday about the poor state of Indian public education, QZ documents the blatant cheating that has been going on “students taking the state’s class 10 standardized test.”  According to the article,

“Because the government has such low incentive to invest in education, there are limited seats in class 11 and a miniscule acceptance rate at India’s most competitive colleges. So in order to get one of those seats, it’s not enough to just study and do well on these tests, you have to be the best.”

So the parents (putting more faith in the infrastructure of the building than I would), climb the walls of the school and pass the answers to their kids.  Here’s a photo:

India Education

Apparently it isn’t much better at the university level, at least not in Bihar.  Amitava Kumar, the author of a book called  A Matter of Rats, writes that “In Patna University, a faculty member told me, it is entirely possible for examinations to be delayed by two or three years, and when examinations are finally held, everyone feels free to cheat.”  

If everyone can cheat anyway, why the years-long delay?