Pandemics and Inequality

Economic History, UPDATES

Economic Historian Guido Alfani, who studies long run trends in inequality, posted a series of tweets on pandemics and inequality this week.

To sum up:

  1. Some pandemics in history helped reduce inequality, but it would be wrong to say that all pandemics reduce inequality.
  2. 2. Some pandemics may not have macro impact but can still have “major local distributive effects”.
  3. 3. If inequality reduced, it did because also because the pandemics killed more poor.
  4. Modern pandemics increased income inequality.

Now, the tweets:

To cite from the paper shared above:

The history of plague shows that severe pandemics can deeply affect economies, and that their consequences can be persistent and be felt for centuries. However, as these consequences depend to a large degree upon mortality rates (the percentage of the overall population dying), we must be careful when drawing comparisons with Covid-19.
Despite its devastating immediate effects in fact the fourteenth-century Black Death had mostly positive consequences in the long run, for example by reducing inequality – but this did not happen on the occasion of later plagues, and there is no reason to believe that Covid-19 might reduce inequality (quite the opposite).
A lesson from history which does, however, apply to Covid-19 is that the final economic (and social) consequences of pandemics depend upon the initial conditions and are very difficult and maybe impossible to foretell.
As the consequences of pandemics are potentially deep and persistent and cannot be confidently foretold, collective solutions to the crisis and policies which aim at solidarity, both within countries – for example between regions – and internationally, constitute the rational choice for risk-averse governments, and are highly advisable  

Alfani’s blog post here further argues:

The Black Death might have  positively influenced the development of Europe, even playing a role in the Great Divergence. Conversely,  it is arguable that seventeenth-century plagues in  Southern Europe (especially Italy), precipitated the Little Divergence. Clearly, epidemics can have asymmetric economic effects. The Black Death, for example, had negative long-term consequences for relatively under-populated areas of Europe, such as Spain or Ireland. More generally, the effects of an epidemic depend upon the context in which it happens.

He goes on to discuss how institutions shaped the spread and the consequences of plagues:

From the late fourteenth century permanent health boards were established, able to take quicker action than the ad-hoc commissions created during the emergency of 1348. These boards monitored constantly the international situation, and provided the early warning necessary for implementing measures to contain epidemics. From the late fourteenth century, quarantine procedures for suspected cases were developed, and in 1423 Venice built the first permanent lazzaretto (isolation hospital) on a lagoon island. By the early sixteenth century, at least in Italy, central and local government had implemented a broad range of anti-plague policies, including  health controls at river and sea harbours, mountain passes, and political boundaries. Within each Italian state, infected communities or territories were isolated, and human contact was limited by quarantines.

EconHistorienne #4 The Outsider

UPDATES

In this edition, you will read –

What the death of an actor tells us about inequality in India

My experience of discrimination

Inequality of opportunity that arises out of discrimination

Go here to read.

If you missed issue #3 last week, read it hereQuestions? Comments? Ideas? Email me: econhistorienne@gmail.com

EconHistorienne Issue #3 is Out

UPDATES

Issue #3 of EconHistorienne, a newsletter to help us make sense of inequality, capitalism and globalisation around the world, is out today. Last week, EconHistorienne followed a doctor at a hospital in India’s national capital New Delhi to chronicle his regular day at work and the worsening health inequalities during Covid-19 pandemic. Just as I was preparing to write issue #3, mass protests over the killing of George Floyd in United States exploded globally. The piece I promised in the last issue now has a more urgent purpose – to talk about race as we talk about inequality because #BlackLivesMatter.

Read Issue #3 here.

The Understanding Money Mechanics

Economic History, UPDATES

mises.org/library/understanding-money-mechanics-0

I am a big sucker for economists explaining things, and an over sharer of all such knowledge made public.

After Arjun Jayadev and Franko Milanovic’s free online video lecture series on Inequality, here is another one worth your time (link above) – The Understanding Money Mechanics series – by Robert P. Murphy.

This is all going to be part of a book, an abridged version of each chapter releasing here over a period of time. Do check out the post on Mises.

Video lecture series on Inequality

Economic History, Top Reads

Economics professors Arjun Jayadev and Branko Milanovic have collaborated on a video lecture series on Inequality – the five vidoes, free to watch, clearly and succinctly explain what Inequality is all about, why you should care and other fundamentals you have been wondering about for long. It’s cut-the-clutter stuff that you shouldn’t miss.

Watch here: https://www.ineteconomics.org/perspectives/videos/inequality-101

‘Good research is vital’

Narratives, Top Reads

This very interesting interview with Alpa Shah is a must-read for anyone aspiring to write narrative non-fiction. Shah, a professor of anthropology at my alma mater London School of Economics, speaks beautifully and honestly about her writing process while working on ‘Nightmarch’ and has great messages for both academics as well as writers of the non-fiction genre. Her photo is taken from her website, alpashah.ac.uk.

Here is the piece on this blog as well:

Literature in narrative non-fiction is undergoing an academic shift, lending to works in the genre richness of ethnographic research and multi-layered narratives. From Pulitzer-winning author and academic Matthew Desmond to more recently, Alpa Shah, works of narrative non-fiction by academics in recent years have contributed remarkably to our understanding of the most critical challenges facing the world. Embedded research, which often accompanies work in the genre, creates an intimate view of communities caught in the midst of unfolding complexities, offering a rare and empathetic understanding of not just compelling issues but also the people at the crux of it all through masterful storytelling.

Alpa Shah, author of Nightmarch: Among India’s Revolutionary Guerrillas, spent 18 months in the forests of Jharkhand and Bihar between 2008 and 2010, living among the tribals in huts without electricity and water. Shah, who was raised in Nairobi, read Geography at Cambridge and is currently a professor of anthropology in London at the London School of Economics, sought to understand how and why the tribals—mostly belonging to the Scheduled Tribes, often neglected by the local administration and the state and central governments—were picking up arms to create a “different world”.

The book’s lucid prose sensitively straddles the world of Naxals to tell stories of conflict, hierarchies, inequality and inherent contradictions in the movement with compelling takeaways for everyone. Nightmarch is an insightful exploration of conflict and its origins, and how the understanding of both eludes politics and policies for tribals in India. The book has been shortlisted for the 2019 Orwell Prize for Political Writing and the New India Foundation Book Prize. It was also on the longlist for the Tata Literature Live Nonfiction Award. Shah spent four and a half years doing anthropological fieldwork among Adivasis – one stint in 2008 to 2010 but also a longer one earlier – and draws on all of this experience for Nightmarch.

She is also the author of In the Shadows of the State’ and co-author of Ground Down by Growth.

In an email interview, Shah discusses her thoughts on writing non-fiction as an academic and whether she thinks the trend is going to catch on:

Pallavi Singh (PS): Your book has been acclaimed for its superlative craft in political writing. What are the key elements in your writing style that you think makes the book so immersive?

Alpa Shah (AS): Thank you. I’m not sure I have a style as such. I think most important (to the process) was a feeling, a compulsion if you like, of the need to share widely the knowledge I have been fortunate to attain. What was happening in the guerrilla strongholds had been silenced for the world outside. Meanwhile, a lot was being written on the Naxalites, which was either falling one way into those who radically opposed them, or the other, into those who tried to counter that position. This created polarising views. Adivasis were shown to be joining the rebels because they were forced to, because they were gaining utilitarian benefits, or because the insurgents addressed their grievances. My fieldwork had shown that the reality was more complex and that it was important for the world to understand that because so many lives were at stake. Many of the people I knew – those who lived in the jungles and those in the cities who could have brought light to their stories – were incarcerated if not killed. The responsibility of the uniqueness and significance of the stories I carried with me weighed heavily and I realised that I could not let the unexpected insights that I discovered through them be confined to the ivory towers of the university. I had to touch the hearts of people who read the book – as many as possible – in the way that the people I met, during the course of my research, had touched mine. I had to try to reach as wide an audience as I could, but without simplifying the analysis or dumbing down my scholarship. How to do this was the next question. I think a lot of my inspiration came from George Orwell, for whom the initial motivation for writing was similarly to get a hearing because there were lies to expose, facts to draw attention to, but to also make that process into an aesthetic experience. Writing, then, must be thought of as art.

PS: How different do you find narrative non-fiction from academic writing and in what ways?

AS: Academics these days are mainly trained to write for each other and not the general reader. It wasn’t always like this but over the years, there has been a kind of scholarly enclosure, especially in the West. It is partly to do with how neoliberalism has materialised itself in the university context. Austerity narratives have brought pervasive marketisation and the ethos of business into universities, determining how we monitor ourselves, bringing crude evaluation criterias of promotions rankings and research evaluation frameworks to bear on our writing. A kind of scholarly enclosure has advanced as academics are encouraged to address whatever conversation seems to be in vogue in a particular moment, and this is often the one that others can’t understand, and all of this becomes further validated through the inwardly looking practices we perpetuate of recognition, citation and promotion. Our writing is sapped off its vigour. Indeed, academics have increasingly ceased to be public intellectuals, the spaces of which are claimed mainly by people outside of the academy. So really, today, academics have a lot to learn from writers of narrative non-fiction, in finding ways of communicating the complexity of their scholarship to reach beyond elite audiences. I hope Nightmarch can create greater space for other scholars who want to make the wealth of their scholarship accessible to people outside the academy.

PS: How long did you take to write Nightmarch? What were the key challenges before you as an academic as you set out to write a book focused on narrative non-fiction?

AS: A very long time! The fieldwork for Nightmarch ended in 2010 and the book was published eight years later. It took me all that time to figure out what the significance of the stories I carried were and then what to do with them. I had to rework much that I had learned, the habits I was trained into, the traps of mystification common in academic writing. New concerns filled my imagination. Character, dialogue, journey, cliff hangers, audience and how to show and not always tell. But at the same time, it wasn’t all just about telling a story but also about drawing out the complexities of the analyses, the contradictions and tensions, thinking through the lessons for different kinds of audiences, including the Naxalites themselves.

PS: Do you foresee possible shifts in academic writing so it could be made more approachable for the masses? A number of academics – right from Matthew Desmond to yourself – have now written award-winning books in narrative non-fiction.

AS: Yes, I do.

Change is enabled partly through continuity. Despite the overwhelming insularity of so much of academic writing, there have always been those who bucked the trend, tried to reach beyond to a wider audience. Change is also enabled by the fact that serious conversations about writing itself were kept alive in academia. And then, there are contradictions in the way the pressures from above work that can be utilized as a force for change. Today, top university presses are feeling the financial crunch; books need to sell. Editors are encouraging us to move beyond academic prose in favour of compelling, clear writing. Bringing about change is also helped by the fact that those who have taken the risks to write jargon free books engaging broad publics are being rewarded with prizes.

But also, change is coming from ‘below’. Perhaps, it is the very pressure of decades of professionalism, the knowledge that years of tenure criteria and academic ranking have dumbed potential brilliance into mediocrity in writing, that we feel the need to push back. Perhaps it is because in this era of rising inequality and authoritarianism, we feel Orwell’s sense of political and artistic purpose in writing more than ever to keep alive the spaces of democracy, hope of justice, and demands for a more equal world. I think a collective will, across generations, will be a force for overall change for giving more room for writing that matters, and matters beyond the academy.

PS: Nightmarch was not just a book of engaging narratives, it was also the result of years of research on the field. What is your advice to researchers and academics aspiring to write narrative non-fiction in future?

AS: I think there are no blueprints, no models, no prefigured ideals. But one question we should all ask ourselves, is the simple one, ‘Why Write?’

What is at stake? Who is our audience? What is our intent? What makes us tear up our pages and rebuild? What is our political purpose? Our historical impulse? Are we aware of it? Why, if at all, does it matter that we are writing as scholars and researchers? What are the consequences?

Another important issue to bear in mind is to first and foremost be committed to good research itself. Don’t go about the research just in order to write a good story, or with preconceived ideas of what you may find. Always challenge your own ideas, seek hidden truths and unexpected insights. Never forget to be critical, including, of yourself.

In terms of writing, I think it is important to be committed to the insights you have gained from the people you have been lucky to study. There’s also something very special about doing deep immersive field research in communities, which allow researchers to draw upon the affective resonances that are born of intimacy with the people we meet to make our writing more engaging and effective. Keeping the lives of those we have studied close to us at all times, including when we are back at our desks, will help us make our analysis in writing more compelling.

tiktok, technology, culture, social media

Don’t Let TikTok Play You!

BLOG, Economic History, UPDATES

I couldn’t resist my curiosity to find out more about TikTok, the social media app that’s bringing the mass following for scores of people from India’s hinterland. Watching all those TikTok people for a couple of days, I am left with an overpowering sense of fatigue. I know I qualify to be judgemental, elitist and parochial purely because I am saying that I am tired of TikTok. But if this is the new form of a culture shaped by an app that makes you while away your time creating nothing but millions of crassly funny videos, I say, God save us.

It’s not a question of moral trepidation, though: In an economy where jobs have been shrinking and an education system that doesn’t focus on skills but mere degrees, I couldn’t blame these teenagers out to have some fun on TikTok. Perhaps, they don’t have anything better to do. Many users are from small towns of India with luxury to bunk colleges where nothing much happens except irregular classes and absentee teachers. However, must these people still not show some enterprise and find out ways to find meaning in their lives instead of acting like small children obsessed with dumb toys?

TikTok, after all, is no YouTube. There is no window of originality here – you aren’t a hero here because you are a great singer or a dancer or actor. But even popular artists today are on TikTok – from singers to actors to dancers. TikTok has amassed great audiences and everyone seems to want a pie of this. Its appeal lies in the ease with which it allows users to film and edit musical videos or to lip-sync to popular film dialogues which can be picked from its database of songs, visual effects, or sound bites. Everyone else with originality is here because they want the audience, but the popularity of second-rate content creators far exceeds the original folks here. This is what TikTok does – a user may be from any place on earth but if one can appeal to the taste of audiences on TikTok, that’s what matters. And I am all for little known talent to splash all over us, but there is a problem of quality with popular taste and TikTok exhibits it only too well.

Some of the videos are so tasteless, yet shockingly popular, that it makes you wonder if we are hurtling towards an apocalypse where it would no longer matter if any good art exists as long as it has a million views.

TIkTok world is a strange world – strange and sometimes pretty faces keep staring at the screen lip-syncing to a song or some humor and millions watch it and want more. It’s all aimless because it’s not going anywhere. These 15-second videos are hurting eyes, attention spans, our idea of time and our sense of propriety. In any other universe, this would be abnormal. But what TikTok has done is create its own alternate universe where no one has to face the real world anymore. The real world where stalking girls isn’t funny and sexist jokes can’t pass as internet-breaking humor! Of course, there is hardly any political correctness in TikTok stars, most of them teenagers, which is even more worrying given these folks will eventually someday walk into the real world far different from the virtual reality they create and inhabit. The sheer scale of TikTok is terrifying: it is not just the most popular social app on the planet but also a fast-growing one, promising to distort reality as it exists.

To start with, there are tools to distort, conflate or deflate you physically; then there are tools to always beautify your world no matter where you are dancing before your camera in dingy surroundings or next to a nullah. And there are always Bollywood songs to sing, no matter whether you understand music or not.

This is not the real world but is TikTok better than the grim facts of life? Maybe not, as its users have complained of abuse and harassment on the platform with the app management doing nothing at all. But when TikTok meets the real world, it can get fatal. A boy died while making a video for TikTok, a man killed his wife for being active on the app, and another woman committed suicide after her husband reprimanded her for being on TikTok; TikTok stardom sometimes leads to grim murders, and we don’t like these at all.

Rape Victims Are Being Silenced. Will We Just Watch?

Narratives

Often, I shut myself down when I hear of heinous crime against a woman. Like when Nirbhaya was raped. And now when his girl in Unnao has been raped and seeking justice. But her story is almost like the dirty, scary Bollywood movie you watched and hated: Girl is raped and in no particular coincidence, her family members are wiped out. Oh, I actually have a movie in mind: Damini. Sometimes, life can be stranger than fiction.

Last heard, Unnao girl’s father and two aunts were killed in road accidents, and the victim’s lawyer and the victim herself survived a fatal accident (and it’s anybody’s guess if it was a murder attempt to silence her) – both are badly injured. Police were quoted as saying that even though the victim has police protection, one of the constables deputed for her security were present at the time of the accident. I don’t want to say more because this should say enough. The accused happens to be someone in power, a BJP MLA.

I would rather discuss what this could do to rape victims across India. It’s no secret that reporting and protesting rape has been a difficult effort for women in India. Our rape laws have come a long way today but they once had deeply sexist provisions such as the “two-finger test”. One look at the history of rape judgements in the past would give a sense of how deeply patriarchy has entrenched itself even in ways justice has been delivered. It’s not surprising then that talking about rape too is like breaking open a wound that doesn’t heal. The approach towards dealing with rape survivors  (I reported on this for Mint ) may have changed, but our political and social system ensures that fighting for justice remains a battle fraught with dangers.

Democracy versus Growth?

Economic History, Top Reads

CapturevIs democracy dying?

This question seems to be back on the mind of economists this week. I live in the world’s largest democracy but it often confounds me. It confounds me when I see people voting for leaders who don’t do justice to their roles. It distresses me when politicians make policies that are in conflict with basic economic reasoning, but they do because they want votes from certain sections of voters. I get worried when, in the name of democracy, parties appease certain sections of people with regressive, anti-development policies. I have said enough but economists have been arguing for long if democracy is good for development, development being a difficult word here and much debated as well on its intent and purpose. Anyway, let us focus on democracy and growth for today, which seems to be the focus on this February 2019 publication by  Acemoglu, Naidu, Restrepo, and Robinson in which they argue that there is substantial evidence that democracy impacts GDP per capita positively with as much as 20% increase in GDP per capita of democratizing nations.  They add that the positive effects are driven by greater investments in capital, schooling, and health.

Yet, in his critique Alex Tabarrok argues that the academic literature has at best weakly established the causal effects of democracy on growth. Examples beyond academics to question Acemoglu et al’s research exist and the biggest one is non-democratic China’s rise as an economic superpower. Tabarrok argues the recent research’s contention of 20% growth may not be attractive enough for non-democracies to want to switch to demoracies and that there must be something more to democracy than the GDP per capita link. Read more of his thoughts here.

However, for the first time in three years, the decline of democracy stopped in 2018 according to The Economist’s Democracy Index. According to this index, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, and Denmark are the top five democratic countries in the world, whereas Chad, Central African Republic, Dem. Republic of Congo, Syria and North Korea are the bottom five. India is on number 45. Hmm!

Here is another interesting piece which talks about the queer contradiction that even as freedom the world over is in decline, the appeal of democracy endures! Yet, a conflicting report from Freedom House suggests otherwise primarily because of the rise of autocratic leaders such as Donald Trump.