Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Not so shocking: trade leads to development

Again reinforcing that what's needed for economic development is trade, not aid - when a random group of small rug producers was given the opportunity to export handmade carpets to high-income markets (study by Atkin, Khandelwal and Osman, via Chris Blattman):

Treatment firms report 15-25 percent higher profits and exhibit large improvements in quality alongside reductions in output per hour relative to control firms.

These findings do not simply reflect firms being offered higher margins to manufacture high-quality products that take longer to produce. Instead, we find evidence of learning-by-exporting whereby exporting improves technical efficiency.

First, treatment firms have higher productivity and quality after accounting for rug specifications. Second, when asked to produce an identical domestic rug using the same inputs, treatment firms receive higher quality assessments despite no difference in production time. Third, treatment firms exhibit learning curves over time.

Finally, we document knowledge transfers with quality increasing most along the specific dimensions that the knowledge pertained to.

Friday, December 05, 2014

The Japanese economic recovery that wasn't

Inspired by the acolytes of Keynesian economics, Abenomics doesn't appear to be working out so well (Cato):

The government spending of tens of billions of dollars into public works projects — “investments,” as President Obama calls them–caused the Japanese debt burden to catapult from 19 percent of GDP, among the lowest in the industrialized world, to over 142 percent, among the highest.

Meanwhile Japan keeps printing money, as if it can devalue its way out of the crisis. From the late 1980s through 2000, the central bank’s balance sheet more than doubled — a precursor to the “quantitative easing” carried out by the U.S. Federal Reserve. And since 2000, the balance sheet has doubled once again.

But where is the promised recovery?

The expected Keynesian “multiplier effect” from spending and a flood of yen into the market never arrived.

Housing starts in Japan are still lower than the level nearly 25 years ago. Unemployment is still low by international standards, but wages have been flat.

It’s all a tragic story of economic playmaking that has gone all wrong. But don’t tell that to Paul Krugman of the New York Times, who predicted Japan “may end up showing the rest of us the way out” of stagnation.

Joseph Stiglitz, a fellow Nobel laureate of the Keynesian variety, advised American politicians to use the same strategy: “What we really need in the U.S. is expansionary policies that Abenomics is bringing into Japan.”

Friday, November 28, 2014

Differentiating between democracy and freedom

A useful quote (FoxNews):

Real freedom means doing what you choose as an individual, not waiting for the rest of society to vote on whether you can.

What comparing the growth of students from India and China says about their respective development

From WSJ:

China’s rise to the top—it had 200,000 more students last year to the U.S. than it did just eight years earlier—reflects the growing incomes and increasing globalization of the country’s citizens, analysts say.

Chinese students were much more likely to go to the states for undergraduate studies than Indian students. Only around 12% of Indians that study in the U.S. were there for undergraduate studies during the past school year, compared to 40% of Chinese students, the IIE study showed.

It makes sense, said Akhil Daswani, chief operating officer of OnCourse Vantage, an education consulting company in India, an undergraduate degree is a luxury few Indians can afford.

“If you are going to spend $250,000 over four years you have to have a considerable amount of disposable income,” Mr. Daswani said. “Undergraduate schools are marketing heavily (in China). It is the first place they want to go because they are getting so much business.”

When they go for an international degree, Indians prefer to get more bang for their rupee, they tend to go for two-year graduate courses that lead to high-paying jobs.

Estonia's e-residency: the end of the nation state?

Estonia's new e-residency (Australian broadcasting corporation):

For 50 euro - about $70 - you can apply for the digital ID card with a couple of PIN codes that will make you an e-resident of the country.
With a population of just 1.3 million people, they're looking at allowing up to 10 million 'e-Estonians'. An experiment to watch. Compare and contrast (Reuters).

Introverts and Extroverts

Apparently one is better than the other (Time).  Not terribly surprising - though that's speaking as an introvert who sometimes tries to emulate extroverts.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

"The White Savior Industrial Complex"

For the record, despite a history of failures, I don't think the problem is "trying to save the world" (New Republic via Alan L. on FB). It's the arrogance and preconceptions but also the ignorance of how to make small innovations scale:

This isn’t a criticism of the projects themselves. This is how social policy works, in baby steps and trial-and-error and tweaks, not in game changers. Leave the leaps and bounds to computing power. If a 49-cent deworming treatment really does produce a $30 increase in wages for some of the poorest people on Earth, we are assholes for not spending it.

And this is where I landed after a year of absorbing dozens of books and articles and speeches about international development: The arguments against it are myriad, and mostly logistical and technical. The argument for it is singular, moral, and, to me anyway, utterly convincing: We have so much, they have so little.

If we really want to fix development, we need to stop chasing after ideas the way we go on fad diets. Successful programs should be allowed to expand by degrees, not digits (direct cash payments, which have shown impressive results in Kenya and Uganda, are a great candidate for the kind of deliberate expansion I’m talking about). NGOs need to be free to invest in the kinds of systems and processes we’re always telling developing countries to put in place. And rich countries need to spend less time debating how to divide up the tiny sliver of our GDP we spend on development and more time figuring out how to leverage our vast economic and political power to let it happen on its own.
Hitting the point a bit more aggressively - a hilarious parody (mic.com):

Sunday, November 09, 2014

From outcast to CEO: Gabriel Bristow, Intelicare Direct

A remarkable story (inc):

It was 1989. He was 19, freezing on the streets of Lansing, Michigan, giving blood for money. A runaway. Homeless.

[...] "Throw the faggot in the river!" shouted one boy. Several other kids chimed in, and two boys grabbed Bristol. Before they could finish the job, he struggled free. Traumatized by the episode, Bristol stopped going to school shortly thereafter. Following a particularly bad fight with his parents, he got on a Greyhound bus to the first big city he could think of: Lansing.

[...] In 2012, he replied to a listing for a call center manager job at Instant Checkmate, a background-check website that, for a monthly subscription fee, lets users perform public records searches. The site, created by San Diego entrepreneurs Joey Rocco and Kris Kibak, already had a call center, but "it was poorly managed," says Kibak. "The quality control was not there."

Bristol came into the interview and promised to fix those problems. "He was very much a salesman," says Rocco. "I remember smirking in the interview, like, wow, he's good." They all agreed that he should run the customer service department as a standalone company and bring in his own clients and revenue.

And so, for the first time, Bristol was running the show. He leased new office space in Las Vegas and built another location in San Diego. He'd build call centers the way he thought his people deserved.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Jonathan Rothberg's chip that could disrupt medical imaging

Not sure whether it's bravado and whether Rothberg can deliver, but given his track record, this is something to watch which could also significantly reduce the cost of healthcare (Wired):

Rothberg says he has raised $100 million to create a medical imaging device that’s nearly “as cheap as a stethoscope” and will “make doctors 100 times as effective.” The technology, which according to patent documents relies on a new kind of ultrasound chip, could eventually lead to new ways to destroy cancer cells with heat, or deliver information to brain cells.

[...]Rothberg says he got interested in ultrasound technology because his oldest daughter, now a college student, has tuberous sclerosis. It is a disease that causes seizures and dangerous cysts to grow in the kidneys. In 2011 he underwrote an effort in Cincinnati to test whether high-intensity ultrasound pulses could destroy the kidney tumors by heating them.

What he saw led Rothberg to conclude there was room for improvement. The setup—an MRI machine to see the tumors, and an ultrasound probe to heat them—cost millions of dollars, but wasn’t particularly fast, more like a “laser printer that takes eight days to print and looks like my kids drew it in crayon,” he says. “I set out to make a super-low-cost version of this $6 million machine, to make it 1,000 times cheaper, 1,000 times faster, and a hundred times more precise.”

The problem with central planning: "the information problem"

It doesn't really matter if it's socialism, communism or fascism... the problem is the same - but it's also why even in a perfect world, socialism can't work (reason.com):

In order for us to have cooperation on a massive scale-cooperation on a scale of millions or tens of millions-we need some sort of signal that tells us what's going on in the economy. It turns out we get that signal in market societies and it's in the form of prices. We're all making all these private decisions and it modifies prices a little bit and then we respond appropriately. We don't know what's causing scarcity. We don't know what other peoples' desires are or demands are, we can just see that the price of strawberries is cheap over here and it's expensive over here and that tells me everything I need to know as a consumer about what to do. The problem with socialism on a mass scale is that they don't have a substitute for prices.

[...] In principle, there are cases where an omni-benevolent, omniscient dictator could come in and fix the market and make it better. It's rarely going to be the case in actuality that a person knows when and how to intervene. Given the limits of human knowledge, given the limits of peoples' ability, and also just given their biases and so on and the fact that they're likely to use this power selfishly rather than for our own good, I think it's better not to empower them to do these things.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Why is New York trying to contain school choice?

In a world that's becoming increasingly global, with the persistent rhetoric on the importance of giving kids the best possible education, New York is going to close the doors to any new charter schools that parents are clamouring for, despite a few facts:

Of the city public school system’s 717 high-poverty public schools enrolling a large number of black and Hispanic students, only 3.6% of them have a proficiency rate in either math or English that is above 50% (and seven of those high achievers select their students). In contrast, fully one-third of similarly situated charter schools meet that bar, a rate almost 10 times higher.

When charter schools are compared to district schools in the three areas in which they are concentrated — Harlem, Central Brooklyn and the South Bronx — charters once again far outpace their district counterparts in both subject areas, with proficiency rates more than double in math, and in English higher by between seven and 14 points.

Some 50,000 parents applied to a charter school and did not get in because there simply aren’t enough charter-school seats. Those parents are sitting on waiting lists and too often their children are sitting in struggling public schools where their future is slowly disappearing before them.

Opponents imply that charters are selective, that they gin up their test scores by systematically cherry-picking the most motivated students and forcing out kids who don’t measure up.

That’s wrong. Not only is admission by open lottery, but over the past several years, charter schools have taken important steps to enroll populations of students that more closely reflect their neighborhoods.

The number of special-needs students and English Language Learners now attending charters has gone up. And what’s more, the results show many charter schools are having tremendous success in not just enrolling but educating them.

Is Amazon really like ISIS?

You have to hate competition a lot in order to make stupid pronouncements like this. Book agent Andrew Wylie Calls Amazon An "ISIS-Like Distribution Channel" (TechCrunch).

Friday, October 31, 2014

The fears entrepreneurs have

Yep (inc.).

What developing countries need, but the West can't give...

Economic liberty (JewishWorldReview):

Poverty is not a cause but a result of Africa's problems. What African countries need the West cannot provide. They need personal liberty. That means a political system in which there are guarantees of private property rights, free markets, honest government and the rule of law. Africa's poverty is, for the most part, self-inflicted. Some people might disagree because their college professors taught them that the legacy of colonialism explains Third World poverty. That's nonsense. Canada was a colony. So were Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. In fact, the richest country in the world, the United States, was once a colony. By contrast, Third World countries such as Ethiopia, Liberia, Nepal and Bhutan were never colonies, yet they are home to some of the world's poorest people.
Other than this tendency to lump all of Africa in as a group, I'd wholeheartedly agree.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Minimally invasive surgery through a patient's cheeks

This is amazing - using a robot to perform corrective epilepsy brain surgery in a way that takes less time, reduces risk and reduces recovery time (cnet):

The working prototype involved the development of a shape-memory alloy needle -- that is, an alloy that can remember its original shape and return to it when heated after being deformed -- that can operate along a curving path. The robot also needed to be able to operated from inside an MRI machine, which creates a strong magnetic field.

The resultant needle is created from nickel titanium, also known as nitinol, an alloy that has both shape memory and is non-ferromagnetic, making it compatible with MRI machines. The 1.14mm needle operates like a mechanical pencil, consisting of a series of concentric tubes, some of which are curved so as to allow the tip to follow a curved path to the brain.

It is inserted in tiny, millimetre steps that allow the surgeon to track its position by taking MRI scans every step of the way, and its accuracy, the team said, is better than 1.18mm.

The best day to buy airline tickets has now changed... to Sunday

Useful to know... (WSJ):

One factor behind the change: Airline executives come into work Monday looking to raise fares, not discount them with sales to fill seats. Just this week airlines put through a $2 each-way across-the-board fare hike, even though prices for oil—the largest expense for airlines—have been plunging. Prices are still going up due to increasing demand for the limited number of available seats.

The lower Sunday and Saturday prices also result from the ability social media has given airlines to throw discounts in front of consumers at any time. That turns vacation shoppers surfing the Web on weekends into ticketed passengers without discounting tickets business travelers might buy while at work. And the findings reflect the lack of corporate sales over the weekend, since business travelers typically fly on more expensive tickets than vacation buyers.

When searching for the lowest fare, don’t give up on Tuesdays. It’s the day with the most frequent price drops, leaving the door open for good deals.

Using markets to regulate scarce resources like water

Governments have a significant role to play to ensure property rights support markets and competition (WSJ):

A major overhaul of Western water law is overdue, but implementing such reform would take years. In the near term, states should authorize short-term leases of water, build basic market institutions, deploy risk-mitigation tools such as dry-year options, and implement basic controls such as regulating how much water can be pumped. The current absence of viable market opportunities and incentives is producing perverse results.

[...] Even though federal and state policy fosters the export of agricultural commodities, Western water law generally inhibits trade in the water used to grow the commodities. States should open up the market by eliminating or streamlining legal barriers that effectively block transfers of water.

A market in water would encourage efficiency by stimulating innovation, promoting specialization and allowing water to move from lower-value to higher-value uses. Farmers who have an opportunity to trade a portion of their water have an incentive to take measures, such as installing more efficient irrigation systems, to free up water for trade. It would also create opportunities to deploy market-based tools, such as dry-year options, to help mitigate water risks to farms and cities.

For example, under a dry-year option, a water user with a low tolerance for water shortages—such as an almond farmer whose trees would quickly die without water—can contract with a seasonal agricultural user, such as a broccoli grower. In dry years, the almond producer would have the right to use the broccoli grower’s water. The almond producer pays a yearly premium to guard against times when water shortages would result in the loss of his orchard. The proceeds from the option give the broccoli grower a guaranteed revenue stream and thereby provide a hedge against a drought that might destroy his annual crop—mitigating risk for both parties.

What happens when you serve McDonald's to food snobs and tell them it's organic

Heh (Slate via Instapundit). I'm not ashamed to say it's one of my favorite restaurants... I think it's objectively delicious and it's practically a comfort food for me!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

India: How not to revive an economy...

I suppose progress is made incrementally, but I was hoping for more with India's new PM Narendra Modi. Maybe what's sadder is that this potentially is a step forward from the previous state of these government owned factories:

At British India Corporation’s textile factory in northern India, four men sit in a control room watching computerised gauges eight hours a day. When they are done, another group takes over, and then another, for 24 hours a day - much as they might at any major industrial plant.

The problem is, nothing is produced there.

The strange tale of British India Corporation is an example of how political patronage and India’s strict labour laws keep publicly owned companies going long after they are insolvent.

Now Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who campaigned in this year’s general election on a promise of “minimum government, maximum governance”, is preparing to invest more taxpayer money in ailing state-owned factories in a bid to turn them around.

While the government has announced the closure of six publicly owned companies, Minister for Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises Anand Geete said last month that about two-thirds of 64 loss-making firms can be revived with more money.

Interview with Marc Andreessen

Interesting interview with a storied entrepreneur/venture capitalist at New York Magazine. One highlight on education:

The one other thing that people are really underestimating is the impact of entertainment-industry economics applied to education. Right now, with MOOCS,11 the production values are pretty low: You’ll film the professor in the classroom. But let’s just project forward. In ten years, what if we had Math 101 online, and what if it was well regarded and you got fully accredited and certified? What if we knew that we were going to have a million students per semester? And what if we knew that they were going to be paying $100 per student, right? What if we knew that we’d have $100 million of revenue from that course per semester? What production budget would we be willing to field in order to have that course?

Walmart: Bringing price competition to primary healthcare?

Something to watch - Walmart delivers low cost primary healthcare to the poor (WSJ):

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. pushed down prices for some generic prescription drugs to just $4 eight years ago, setting a new industry standard. Now it is trying to do the same for seeing a doctor.

Wal-Mart now operates a dozen clinics in rural Texas, South Carolina and Georgia and has increased its expectation for openings this year to 17. On Friday, a Walmart Care Clinic opened in Dalton, Ga., six months after Walmart U.S., the retailer’s biggest unit, entered the business of providing primary health care.

An office visit costs $40, which Walmart U.S. says is about half the industry standard, and just $4 for Walmart U.S. employees and family members with the company’s insurance. A pregnancy test costs just $3, and a cholesterol test $8. A typical retail clinic offers acute care only. But a Walmart Care Clinic also treats chronic conditions such as diabetes. (Walmart U.S. also leases space in its stores to 94 clinics owned by others that set their own pricing.)

“It was very important to us that we establish a retail price in the health-care industry because price leadership matters to us,” said Jennifer LaPerre, a Walmart U.S. senior director responsible for health and wellness, in an interview.

Walmart U.S. hasn’t yet decided whether to roll out the clinics nationally. It so far has limited itself to markets where people are uninsured or underinsured, have a high rate of chronic diseases or struggle to get access to medical care, as well as places where it has a large number of employees. About 40% of the patients seen at the clinics so far don’t have a primary-care provider, Ms. LaPerre said.

The unintended consequences of self driving cars?

Nah. The unintended consequences of the commons - ie subsidizing public roads. From Wired:

As driving becomes less onerous and computer-controlled systems reduce traffic, some experts worry that will eliminate a powerful incentive—commuting sucks—for living near cities, where urban density makes for more efficient sharing of resources. In other words, autonomous vehicles could lead to urban sprawl.

It’s simple, says Ken Laberteaux, a senior scientist at Toyota. If you make transportation faster, easier and perhaps cheaper, then people won’t mind commuting. “What a consumer is expected to do is see what they can gain by moving a little further from the job centers or the cultural centers,” he says. That’s bad news: Urban sprawl is linked to economic, environmental, and health hardships.
As usual though, it's elites who seem to be wringing their hands over the poor(er) improving their lives in tangible ways.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Will autonomous driving start with transport trucks?

It would make sense as a path to consumer adoption (Wired):

Autonomous driving is nothing new for trucks in agricultural and military applications, and should be available for passenger cars by 2020. But trucks that share our highways are tempting candidates for shedding their human component: Highway driving is easy for computers but dangerous for us, especially when big machines are involved. In 2012, according to NHTSA, 333,000 large trucks were in crashes in the US. Those accidents killed nearly 4,000 people, the vast majority of whom were riding in passenger vehicles. Regulators have trouble ensuring that drivers get adequate rest, and the trucking industry has fought back against regulation.

With the idea that humans who drive less cause less trouble, Mercedes equipped the Future Truck 2025 with the “Highway Pilot” automated system. “It never gets tired. It’s always 100 percent and sharp. It’s never angry; it’s never distracted,” says Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard, the Daimler board member for trucks and buses. “So this is a much safer system.”

Friday, October 10, 2014

Mark Cuban: Fix the economy by putting a $10k cap on university loan guarantees

This would accelerate some of the radical changes in education that are happening already (but given the entrenched interests I can't see it happening any time soon) - from Inc.com:

The best way to get the economy back on track, according to Cuban, involves solving the student loan bubble that has saddled millions of recent grads with loans that will take decades to pay back. One of the reasons reversing this trend is so important is that college tuition has been skyrocketing for years.

"It’s easy for the colleges to ask for more, because then the potential students just take out bigger loans," Cuban said at Inc.'s GrowCo conference, adding that rising tuition costs have resulted in more than $1 trillion in student loan debt.

"That’s the same money that, when you graduated, you used to move out of the house or you went out and spent money that improved the economy and helped companies grow. It created more revenue and spending power. Instead, it’s going to build a better fitness center at your school."

So what's Cuban's plan to stem this problem?

"If Mark Cuban is running the economy, I'd go and say, 'Sallie Mae, the maximum amount that you’re allowed to guarantee for any student in a year is $10,000, period, end of story,'" he said.