Sunday, July 27, 2008

Friday, July 25, 2008

My Wordle

This is kinda cool. It let's you generate your own word cloud for a bunch of text. Here's mine:

It generates the cloud for the current posts in the home page if you give your blog address, you can play with the colors and fonts. Here's one for Kottu :

Go Play.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

We report, You Decide Alliance.

Fox News is now on MTV Channel one. I Just watched O’Reilly Factor, which I used to follow through Fox's site earlier. It's good to see good old American-Conservatism on TV, really. Both channels are undoubtedly partisan, one on behalf of the GOP and the other one on behalf of the UNP, GOP's local buddy.

I think that's ok, all media is biased for something. Why not have it in the open. U.S. newspapers endorses candidates, Sri Lankan ones should do the same.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


July usually passes me by without too much notice, beyond the vague worry that there might be a Tiger attack on Colombo, and a few flashbacks to that weekend in 1983. But this time it’s been a bit different. I’ve found myself reliving that day a lot more this year. It isn’t the fact that this is the 25th anniversary of the carnage which most people see as the starting point of our war, though that has been the focus of a lot of attention. What did it was a phone call a couple of weeks ago.

My mobile rang with an unfamiliar number, and an equally unidentifiable male voice asked for me. When I confirmed that it was indeed yours truly, the voice asked whether I was an old boy of Wesley College. I groaned inwardly, and confirmed this too, expecting to be hit by my school’s OBU for a donation or offer of membership of some committee or whatever. However, it wasn’t any of these things, and the next question blew me away.

“My name is Cedric,” he said, “do you remember me?”

And after twenty-five years, I did.[..]
That's David Blacker. Read the whole thing. It's simply the best blog post on the '83 riots, ever.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

SAARC eviction and Property Rights

(Pic courtesy: The Daily Mirror)

In view of the SAARC summit, the Sri Lankan government decided to demolish the homes of a bunch of poor people living in 'unauthorized dwellings'. Apparently aesthetics are more important for the government than life and property of people. Writing on the topic, last Sunday's The Island makes a few interesting observations :
The houses that have been broken down were certainly unauthorized and built on state land by people who had no title to such property. But the responsible authorities permitted not just their construction but their consolidation. Water and electricity have been connected. The Colombo Municipal Council, the victims say, even made rating assessments! The occupants of these houses were not Johnnies come lately, some claiming to have lived there for 30 and 40 years. They had sunk roots in that neighbourhood, got their children into schools in the vicinity and had probably been even buying and selling houses there. [..]

The reality is that while those evicted are wrong-doers, if they have long been permitted to do what they have done, then the State and its various agencies are complicit. Out in the countryside when villagers encroach on state land and cultivate crops, such encroachments are often regularized by the authorities as it is recognized that these farmers really deserve the land they till. [..] [link]
The whole episode reminds me of the work of Hernando de Soto, the influential Peruvian economist who studied why capitalism didn't work so well in the developing world as it did in the west. His ultimate conclusion, articulated in his book, The Mystery of Capital, is simple. The reason why capitalism worked well for the west is because of it's legal institutions, or more specifically -- property rights. Much of the poor in the developing world doesn't have property rights. They may occupy a land, own a house, but they don't have the title to that property. This means that they can't get credit, can't make long-term contracts and they can't formally enter into business. De Soto argues the world's poor is essentially locked out the system while sitting on a mass of 'dead capital' which they can't profitably use, simply because, they don't own the right to property.

What should have happened then (and what De Soto has done in number of countries) is to come up with a systematic way which formalizes property based on existing understanding and "social contracts" that exists among people. What happened last week was the opposite -- instead of giving them a hand up in the ladder to prosperity, the government destroyed whatever little they had. It's a crime of the highest order.

Update (27/07/08) : Via see this video of the police destroying the houses.

Note : I Don't have time to make a longer case for this. But do see the work of Darin Gunasekara, who created a stock market housing exchange in Sri Lanka along the same lines which de soto articulated. For more on De Soto's work check out his wikipedia page, and see this excellent speech by him in the ILD website, or better yet read his book.

In related news, I'm hitting two unbelievably busy weeks. Blogging will be slow.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Peanuts and other nuts

We have had lots of nutty regulations recently. But there's room for comfort, at least Sri Lanka is not the only place with nutty regulations. Here's a peanut packet from the U.S:

The packaging says : produced in a factory producing peanuts and other nuts. Inevitable result of silly food processing regulations.Sigh. Democrats..

[pic via Don Luskin]

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Uncertainty SAARCs?

Everybody's been bitching about the SAARC summit. The government is spending some 2.8 Billion, Colombo is (supposedly) under a draconian security plan, as a part of which a bunch of poor people kicked out from their homes and while their houses were demolished (more on that later). Not a great start for the SAARC.

Unnoticed in all this the cost of uncertainty. Just the last few days, I postponed at least three meetings. People just can't plan for things in the coming week, which means stuff gets canceled postponed or done at sub optimal levels.

More SAARC pun at Indi's.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

For inflation targeting

Ajay Shah has yet another article on India's inflation. Here's an important one-liner,
Professional economists agree with professional politicians on the importance of low inflation.
I think that sums up the case for inflation targeting.

I have previously been an advocate of currency boards, as the best institutional reform we can go for in the face of spiraling inflation in Sri Lanka, joining the camp of guys like Fuss-Budget and Steve Hanke. I have since changed my views, not so much because I have suddenly have faith in Sri Lankan institutions. I still think they are crap and I have have knee-jerk sympathy for abolishing government institutions (in this case, the central bank). But I think inflation-targeting regulation would better stand the political economy test than currency boards.

As Ajay points out, in this rare case, both politicians and economists (and the general public) agree on something -- low inflation is good. So a mandated low-inflation target for the central bank should be workable.

But I digress. This is the same country which removed inflation alcohol from the CPI index due to moral reasons and has perhaps the only central bank chief who thinks of more than a 9% of 'Core inflation' as being rather low. If there is an inflation target, perhaps the Central Bank would resort to Index manipulation. I guess I am taking a leap of faith afterall.

Despite that, I don't think abolishing the central bank will hold very well with both the electorate and most political parties. I can already hear the JVP and other lefties shouting that our monetary policy is set by Washington (in the case of a dollar-pegged currency board, this might actually be true!). Also, as the currency spate of monetary expansion in the U.S. shows currency boards are not without their problems.

Inflation-targeting on the other hand goes well with most economists I have met and seems to have stood the test of time globally, assuming it survives the current commodity hike. Realistically, this might be the best institutional reform we can get.

Mahinda's biggest lie?

For the past few years, despite high inflation, despite the war, there's one statistic that the government had been harping about -- Sri Lanka's GDP growth has managed to hover at around 7%.

Writing for her regular column in the DM Financial Times, Anila Dias Bandaranaike, the former Asst. Governor for the central bank thinks that figure is fake. Here's a few choice excerpts :
Currently, the Department of Census and Statistics (DCS), the national statistical agency, is solely responsible for compiling and publishing these statistics. In the past, both the Central Bank and the Chamber of Commerce released their own estimates, and DCS was in the happy position of being able to cross check its own information with that of others, thereby leading to stronger and more robust estimates. Unfortunately, since the other two organisations no longer compile these data, this verification process is no longer possible. [..]

DCS, which was an independent institution directly under the President some years ago, currently falls under the Ministry of Finance. I understand that the present ST holds meetings with DCS officials to discuss preliminary GDP estimates, at which senior Treasury officials provide feedback before the estimates are finalised and released to the public. [..]

First, let’s compare agriculture production with prices. The food sub-index of the CCPI(N) rose by over 30%, rice prices rose by unprecedented levels and the Central Bank’s monthly monetary policy reviews specifically referred to the adverse impact of “domestic supply constraints” on inflation in 2008-Q1. Yet, GDP statistics recorded that production of - paddy, other field crops, vegetables, fruits and livestock - rose by between 2% and 8%. [..]

Second, although inflation rose so sharply and FMCG companies reported declining volumes in most categories, domestic trade recorded 5.5% growth in 2008-Q1. Throughout 2007 too, while agricultural and manufacturing sectors producing domestically traded goods had grown at lower rates and paddy output had declined, it was inconsistent that domestic trade had grown by a much higher rate than the goods to be traded! [..]

Fourth, road transportation reported 8% growth, although registration of new vehicles had declined by 17%, indicating lower growth in private transportation. With rising fuel costs, tightening security and road closures, what drove such high growth? [..]

The whole thing here. (unfortunately, the DM site changes the location of pages rather frequently, so if this link is broken, it's their fault.)

Interesting. Looks like somebody's being creative with their statistics.

(un)free enterprise

Recently, Sri Lanka's government decided to impose severe restrictions on the use of mobile phones citing 'Security reasons'. Anything fly in Sri Lanka these days, if you say 'national security'.

The regulation dictates that all Sri Lankans must carry a certificate confirming they own the phone connection. The new regulations will also stop people from sharing mobile phones, and restrict mobility of CDMA phones which most lower-income groups use in both businesses and at home, the law requires users to use them only at a specific address. Much more at Lirneasia.

But even with such idiotic regulations, entrepreneurship reigns. One Sri Lankan mobile operator, Tigo, has already adjusted to the regulations by issuing a plastic ownership cards. The company aims to package the card with other perks for the users.

It's great to see spirit of enterprise alive and well, despite the government. But that's no justification for stupid regulations.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Lies, Damned lies and Naomi Klein

Cato's Johan Norberg has a detailed rebuttal on Naomi Klein's superficial claims about Milton Friedman and free-market policies made in her book, The shock doctrine. Here's a video of Norberg explaining how Ms Klein misrepresents what Friedman said:

Also see this follow up video.

I have leafed-through Klein's book. No one who has actually read Milton Friedman, will take Klein's claims seriously.

Klein's main ammunition is in the from a out-of-context quote by Friedman, who said that real change happens on a crisis, and that it will be led by ideas that are lying around at the time will be implemented. Friedman said this to emphasis the importance of working towards ideas which doesn't seem plausible right now, but might be some day, when people are looking for new ideas, such as in a financial crisis. He didn't mean this in the sense of a natural disaster nor did he advocate disaster.

This is clearly an ideologically neutral statement. If in the current financial mess in the U.S., ideas of more regulation holds sway, that will be implemented. In the face of high commodity prices, if someone is able to convince policymakers that price-controls are a good way of handling the 'crisis' there is a chance of that happening. The former is already sort of happening, the latter doesn't seem to be, thankfully.

It is also true that most important market-reforms did happen in financial crisis, like that of Sri Lanka in 1977, when the economy was squeezed through central-planing by the previous socialist government, or in the case of Indian reforms in the early '90's. Thanks to those reforms millions today are out of poverty. But if a different set of ideas were on the table, things might have gone in another direction.

Obviously, the likes of Klein doesn't have the cognitive power needed to understand this. See Norberg's full rebuttal and also see, Tyler Cowen's take.

$500 Oil, are the Liberals happy?

Williem Buiter writing for Maverecon blog paints a gloomy picture about a world with $500 oil. He thinks when it comes to Oil prices, "sky is the limit". With ever increasing demand from places like India and China, he thinks Oil prices will continue to rise in spite of a global economic slowdown, all of which he thinks will adversely affect the poor.

I find that plausible. High oil prices may not be the driving factor behind Sri Lanka's inflation, but it does have a say in everyone's cost of living.

This reminds me of an exchange between me and Indi, where he (and a surprising number of my liberal tree-hugging friends, I might add) think that this high oil prices is actually a "good thing". Their argument is that high oil prices will lead to behavioral changes towards less energy use and incentivise alternative energy use. I certainly agree, but I don't think that's is enough to call high oil prices a "good thing". You will have to consider adverse consequences on the poor and commerce in general before coming into such conclusions. Forgetting all of that is succumbing into the church-of-gore global warming hysteria, which by the way, I don't think of as being "hippie", but simply, elitist. American-liberals shouldn't impose their values to people who cannot afford them. The same goes for democrat obsession about imposing environmental and labor standards in trade agreements for countries which can barely afford them.

For my part, I don't think of high oil as being either good or bad, high prices just are. In some ways, we should be happy about it. This means that millions of Indians, Chinese (and even some Sri Lankans) are climbing out of poverty and able to afford automobiles and in general, more quality of life. For some reason, this part of the story is often neglected.

However, I'm not as optimistic about the benefits of high oil rise, particularly for developing countries. There are several reasons for this,

First, thanks to high taxes and inefficient refinery, we already have higher gasoline prices at the pump, compared to the U.S. even without considering the heavy subsidies given to cover the daily losses of the state-run Ceylon Petroleum Corporation.

Secondly, any breakthrough from alternative-energy research is unlikely to be spawned by places like Sri Lanka, although my Indian friends might beg to differ. So while global price rise may indeed help incentivise alternative energy research and adaptation, it doesn't justify high taxes in places like Sri Lanka.

Thirdly, behavioral changes in the magnitude that we are seeing in the U.S. and other developed countries are unlikely to be seen in places like Sri Lanka. This is because, high consumption of gasoline in the U.S. is partly due to exuberance -- air travel, SUVs, long trips, so on. and when gas prices rise, Americans change their behavior. So SUV sales are down and Americans are driving less. But consumption of gasoline in places like Sri Lanka has more to do with necessity. Most Sri Lankans use public transport, which doesn't have good alternatives. As for people who are used to driving cars, public transport won't be appealing, given it's poor quality. So even if behavioral changes come (and it will) they will be smaller compared to the U.S. and at a greater cost in terms of living standards of average Sri Lankans.

So no, I don't think high oil prices are a good thing.

But I do have faith in human ingenuity, that when price of oil becomes unsustainable we will find alternatives. I don't know what that alternative is, I don't know whether it's solar, wind or nuclear. I don't know whether we will drive electric cars, or cars which runs on water or hydrogen. But what I do know is we will keep on driving.

For much of human existence, petroleum was a useless, gooey, waste product, until we figured out we can use it for energy. Similarly, we will find something else which can serve the same purpose. Humankind got out of the stone age, not because we ran out of stone, but because we found out new and better things. Similarly, we will come out of the oil-age, with something new and better. But in the meantime, let's be rational about the benefits of high priced oil.

See more stuff about Oil on deaned.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Creative Capitalism

Inspired by Bill Gates' speech at the World Economic Forum, someone has created a creative capitalism blog with an impressive list of contributors, ranging from Gates to Buffet to this latest piece from Jagdish Bhagwati. Even the late Milton Friedman makes a reappearance. Do Check it out.

Monday, July 14, 2008

What about legalizing hard drugs?

Prompted by my earlier post on legalizing marijuana, Jack Point thinks that a good way of tackling the problem of hard drugs, such as heroin is for government to give it away for free for addicts and encourage them to voluntary enroll themselves to treatment. I think that has some sense to it and better than our current policy.

I'm generally skeptical of government programs, once it's passed through the parliament and other bureaucratic processes, it wouldn't be nearly as optimal as one would want to design it. Given budgetary constraints, poor service delivery in places like Sri Lanka, there would inevitably be restrictions on accessible quantity nor would most taxpayers be too thrilled for the fact that they are financing someone else's doping habits. I think the market would do a better job in the goals Jack Point outlines, except in extreme cases where the addiction is uncontrollable.

None of this, including marijuana legalization, will happen anytime soon. At least in places like Sri Lanka where we (or at least the politicians and other intellectual types) like to pretend some sort of morally superior to the west. Even in the U.S. where marijuana usage is rampant -- Barack Obama of all people admitted he "inhaled frequently" both cocaine and marijuana. He even put it in his book. But once the changes comes in the west, not just in terms of attitude, but particularly in marijuana policy and eventually hard drugs, I think you will see changes starting happen here as well.

On the question of whether or not this will significantly reduce crime, I recall this interesting exchange between Tyler Cowen and Megan McArdle.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A great Obama Poster

Despite vowing to oppose unauthorized wiretapping legislation, senator Obama decided to flip-flop on the issue and support wiretapping bill anyway. This is now one of many 'policy shifts' by Obama scrambling to center of the spectrum after taking a ride on to the left to get not-so-well-off democrat votes to win the primaries. So much for "Hope" and "change" the way washington does business. See This NY Times editorial and the economist article for more of Obama's centrism. This doesn't come as a surprise for me, but should be clear to everyone there is a huge difference between the real and the imaginary Obama.

Also see Why not Obama and more on Obama on deaned.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Are Libertarians ready for the mainstream?

Some observations from the TIME magazine,
Libertarians are getting ready for the mainstream, and mainstream America may finally be ready for them.
The whole thing here.

If you are sober, you are a c**ksucker

That's according to Dialog, Sri Lanka's largest mobile service provider. They offer a SMS dictionary service, so Poojitha of TimesEye decided to test it with the word 'sober'. Here's what dialog sent him:

More at TimesEye. They seem to have fixed it though, when I tried I get the standard explanation. Maybe Dialog was trying to do a pimped-up version of the Urban Dictionary.

Legalizing Marijuana in Sri Lanka

I was recently reminded by a friend that Sri Lanka actually does have legal access medical Marijuana (Ganja). The practitioners of traditional Ayurvedic medicine are allowed to carry 1kg (figure unconfirmed) amount of Ganja to be used for medicinal purposes. Unfortunately, the government doesn't extend the same courtesy to medical doctors in the western tradition.

I am told the veda mahathays (ayurvedic doctors) have access to the best quality stuff, which they often sell for other um, recreational purposes. Don't ask me why, but I believe him.

A dilemma I often face is whether advocating for decriminalization or legalization of Marijuana in a place like Sri Lanka is actually worth it.

Obviously, there is very little case to ban the substance in the first place. Not only because Ganja has medicinal properties, but the risk of addiction is comparatively low, there's also no evidence that it's any more harmful than tobacco. Most arguments for prohibition is based on some notion that this is 'risky'. Well yes it is risky, so is tobacco, alcohol or for that matter, living in Colombo. Should most motorsports, or professions which has risk in it's job description -- policing, security guards, army personnel -- also be banned? I think not. What we have is a social stigma against using stuff like Marijuana. There is almost no objective case.

But now that it's illegal, does it make sense to advocate for legalization? From a purely consequentionalist standpoint, I think the answer leans on being 'No'.

I haven't been to a party in Colombo with late-teens or twentysomethings which didn't have someone lighting up Ganja. Even if you are caught using or carrying moderate amounts of ganja, you can pay the market-price for the bribe in most occasions (unless you really F up). Same goes for most other victimless crimes like prostitution. If you want the service, you can get it. When enforcement is weak like we have in Sri Lanka, does really it make sense to fire up the debate and actually make this an issue? from a user-perspective, I think the answer is No.

However, critical to the overall consequentionalist argument for the status quo is whether keeping marijuana illegal has other consequences, like providing revenue streams and upkeep for criminal gangs. Economics of prohibition is simple. If you ban something that's in high demand, it simply goes underground. Think prostitution, think kassipu (illicit liquor), think almost anything that has wide appeal, and is banned. These things don't disappear, they just fall into the black-market operated by goons and criminals.

People familiar with the Indian scene might remember the case of Scarlett Keeling, the 15-year-old British girl who was raped and murdered in Goa by a few drug dealers. Soon after the incident, I remember Jug Suraiya's article in TOI which hinted that perhaps Scarlett would have survived, had drugs in Goa was legal. In the article (I recommend a read) he presented the following statistics:
UN has estimated the international drug trade at $400 billion a year, a sum larger than the US defense budget and which constitutes 8 per cent of all global trade (textiles account for 7.5 per cent and automobiles for 5.3 per cent). [link]
Most of this trade is not Marijuana, it's probably other drugs. The critical question is how much exactly does Marijuana contributes to crime. This is difficult to answer, since marijuana dealers don't exactly report their accounts to the Inland Revenue Department. But for what it's worth, legalizing may be a good way of cutting down revenue potential for criminals (including perhaps the LTTE) and getting entrepreneurs in to the business of ganja.

If we require a debate at all on this issue, it's this one we should be having. But what are the chances of that happening?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Books & Things

Crosswords in Bangalore. Pic courtesy:Kishore

This last post reminded me how much I rue the fact that Sri Lanka doesn't have good book stores. The Vijitha Yapa is not really a book store, it's a small book-shop. There's no place to just chill, read a few pages of the book you want to buy while you sip a cup of coffee.What's my ideal book store? It should have preferabaly, the following:
  • Lots of books (duh! - but a good collection of politics/econ books is a must and for that to hapen your book store must be large) 
  • Comfy places to sit around and read, your book store should double as a sort of a library.
  • Coffee.
  • Wi-fi or a way in which you can read reviews. (same goes for my ideal DVD-store)
  • Some things other than books -- DVDs, and other little 'things' you can buy (not essential really, but good business stratergy)
Sady, I haven't found this place yet. The closest I've been to something like this is Books & Things, in Gurgaon, in one of the malls.Gurgaon is this up and coming place just outside of Delhi. Fun place. the store didn't have any coffee or internet, but it had almost everything else right. In fact, India is a good place for book-people. Not only can you find pirated books on the street, if you are someone on a student-budget, but you'd find places like Books & Things or Crosswords. For all the Hindi-movies/Soaps they copy, I wish a few Sri Lankans copied some of that.

There maybe reasons for this though, India (according to some) has the world's largest English speaking population. With 350 million speakers, that's more than the combined populations of the U.S., U.K, Canada and Australia put together. Sri Lanka's whole population is about 20 million, about the same as Mumbai's total population. Fortunately or unfortunately, laws of demand and supply apply to everything. But then again, given all those coffee houses and up-market cafe's, I'm sure there is a market for a decent book store.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Striking is for Loosers

That's part of my Gtalk status today. The inability of the (allegedly) Marxist JVP and (supposedly) the main opposition UNP to mobilize enough 'working class' for the country-wide strike today told it's own story. Truth be told, thanks to the financial might of the Rajapakse administration, both opposition parties have been rendered useless. Their own incompetence doesn't help them either.

I'm more than happy, if this signals the demise of the JVP. Which, I think it does to some degree. We will have to wait till the next parliamentary election to see whether the party can be resurrected, most right-minded Sri Lankans will be hoping it doesn't.

The other part of my status was asking Mahinda to fire the workers. This is partly to provoke a JVPer on my list. In reality, despite my constant complaints about this world's largest government, I don't advocate one-day reforms. The last time JR Jayawardene did this, some 30 workers , I'm told, committed suicide.

Now I'm no fan of trade unions, but their existence, or powerfulness is because their wage is a function of political power rather than market forces. You don't see three-wheeler drivers going on strike nor do you see people at McDonald's on strike or really, any private sector workers on strike all that often. We all know, what needs to be done. But where are the incentives?

On The Logic of Life (A review)

Ever since Stevens, Levitt and Dubner broke into the scene with their enormously popular Freakonomics, there has been a multitude of popular economics books. Books that uses the tools of economics -- the study of incentives, laws of supply and demand, trade-offs -- and apply them to everyday life. The result is often a fun, counterintuitive explanation of how the world works. Dubner and Levitt's most memorable contribution being attributing the decreasing crime rates in the U.S. to legalizing abortion.

Tim Harford wrote the first of these pop. econ. books -- the undercover economist. A popular book among economics students, perhaps not so much outside the discipline. With his latest work, The Logic of Life : the rational economics of an irrational world, Harford takes on the mainstream.

If you are interested in finding out why your boss is overpaid, why racism is still persistent or why teenage girls are increasingly giving blow jobs to their boyfriends, this book is for you.

Fundamental to Harford's book, is rational choice theory. His argument is not so much that “people are always and everywhere rational”. He admits they aren't. His contention is that people are "rational nearly enough and often enough" to make rational choice, a useful framework to understand the world. "Earth isn't a perfect sphere", writes Harford, "But it's nearly a sphere, and for many purposes the simplification that the Earth is a spherical will do nicely."

If you are thinking Harford imagines human beings as absolutely rational beings, along the lines of the infamous "homo economious" or the "economic man" capable of sophisticated reasoning, you are wrong. Harford is deeply aware that human beings are motivated by all kinds of human emotions. He writes, "These motivations are not financial, and not always selfish -- but our responses to them are national. As any teenager will remind you, no less planning, calculating, strategizing goes on about maters of heart than about the matters of the wallet."

Harford surveys the the work of number of economists, experiments involving human beings to lab rats, and data involving house prices to blow-job rates to answer the most interesting of questions. Why do more women live in the cities? why do racial minorities self-segregate? Why do voters choose bad politicians? and why do more and more teenage girls go down on their boyfriends? To all of this, there is a rational answer.

Ask that last question from any Sri Lankan TV-intellectual and they would give the standard western-culture-destroying-our-culture explanation. Social scientists might similarly offer more sophisticated versions of the same story. Ask an economist (or at least Tim Harford) and the explanation is simple. The American "blow job epidemic", according to Harford, is a rational response to changing incentives. When costs or benefits of something change, people change their behavior. Thanks to sex education, many teenagers (at least in the U.S.) know that regular sex has real risks -- they are much more aware of not just about the risk of pregnancy, but the risks associated with sexually transmitted diseases which comes with penetrative sex. Comparatively, oral sex has less risks or as Harford puts it, "The costs of oral sex are, quite simply, lower than the costs of regular sex". Teenage girls weigh these costs and benefits -- not always consciously -- before going down on their boyfriends. The result is while the rate of penetrative sex among teenagers in the U.S. is going down, the popularity of oral sex is on the rise.

The Logic of Life, is full of this type of fun and provoking ways of explaining things based on hard data. You might think that much of the stories in the book doesn't apply to places like Sri Lanka. Certainly, some of it doesn't, but a lot of it, (especially the chapter about "rational racism" and politics) does. Harford's logic of life is smart, well-written and a joy to read. I you liked Freakonomics, you'll love this one. Even if you didn't, you'll still like it.

For more (admittedly better) reviews, visit the Book's website. Harford, like many economists of this genre maintains an engaging blog, which I read often. Unfortunately, I haven't seen the book in Sri Lanka as yet. You can order it from amazon. For some excerpts from the chapter about love and marriage, see this slate article.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Where your taxes go (chep tea edition)

According to a reliable source at the University of Colombo faculty of law, a cup of tea at the University canteen is Rs.2 (less than $ 0.02 USD). He told me this just before purchasing a 100-times more expensive cup from Barista's.

It's bad enough we have to pay for their 'free' education. But cheap tea?? I want my money back!

More about taxes.

Your mobile phone can save you from rapists

Sri Lanka's new IGP is an innovative chap. According to the Khaleej Times,
Inspector General Jayantha Wickremeratne, who assumed duties last week, says camera phones could play a bigger role in crime busting.

“If someone comes to rape you, use your mobile phone to record it,” he said addressing journalists in Sri Lanka’s hill capital, Kandy yesterday.[link]
This is the problem with technology in the hands of government-people. They find new and innovative ways to do idiotic things with it. Sanjana has more.

Monday, July 07, 2008

What's so "alarming" about the trade deficit?

I'm usually skeptical of obsessions about trade deficits, which is (to be a bit simplistic) the difference between exports and imports. I think most such worries about the trade deficit comes from the old mercantalist notion which holds that "exports are good" and "imports are bad", which economists as far back as Adam Smith tried to explain, is nonsense. The only reason we export is to get imports, if everything came in for free, why on earth should we produce anything?

Given this, I was a bit surprised to read the the Sunday Times economics column titled "An alarming growth in the trade deficit". The columnist goes into detail on what type of goods lead to this deficit. Now, trade deficits are in it self not really a problem, but it could be (but not necessarily is) a symptom of a problem, depending on how the deficit is created. The U.S. (among other developed countries like Australia) has run a huge trade deficit for a very long time, doesn't seem to have affected them too much.

Now, I'm not saying SL trade deficit is not a problem, but the ST economist doesn't really make the case as to why it is and worse, why this is an 'alarming' situation. His only claim is that 'spending' on imports has increased largely due to high oil prices and the growth of industrial exports is "quite inadequate to finance the increased expenditure on imports".

I'm at odds with this argument. I don't know about you, but the likes of MAS and Brandix, doesn't exactly pay my fuel bill. In reality, countries don't really trade, people do. To pay for the increased Oil prices, I don't necessarily need to export stuff overseas, I can "export" my products/services/labor to my neighbor which doesn't really have an effect on the trade deficit. We don't fret over the trade deficit of Colombo or Kandy, why should we fret over the trade deficit of Sri Lanka unless someone there is evidence to that effect. But then again, he's the economist and I'm the student. So please, anyone, enlighten me, what exactly is so alarming about the Sri Lankan trade deficit?

Related links : Adam Smith on balance of payments, John Stossel on trade deficits, Russ Roberts on Why we Trade.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Don't tell Cabraal

Apparently the German government is doing Zimbabweans a favor by stopping the Munich-based company which provides the 'high quality' paper for the Zimbabwean central bank to print it's bank notes which helps create the countries' million percent inflation. The WSJ has more.

Incidentally, it's the same company behind the Germany's own hyperinflation in the 1920s. With such an impressive record and with Sri Lankan inflation hovering at around 30% (modified index rate), no doubt the company is looking at Sri Lanka as it's next big client.

Much more at Marginal Revolution including a pointer to a very relevant paper by Greg Mankiw for the Sri Lankan context.

p.s. -- for the unintiated, Cabraal is Sri Lanka's governer for the central bank. More on inflation at Deaned.

Friday, July 04, 2008

A Marraige Proposal (Chintana Style)

I thought one WTF story would do for the day. But no, look at what Anar got herself into this time. According to the Daily Mirror,
Popular actress Anarkali Akarsha has complained to the Kollupitiya Police that Western Provincial Councilor Duminda Silva’s men had forcibly taken her to his office on Thursday evening and threatened her to get married to him soon. She had also said that she and her mother were taken by armed men carrying semi automatic weapons and they were later dropped near a five-star hotel in Colombo. [link]
This is how the Chintana-types, propose to their girl friends. Get a gang to abduct her and stick to a gun to her head and ask, "will you marry me?" So much fun.

Getting back to the story, The Government in a statement, has denied any knowledge of this incident and vehemently condemned this horrendous act. The president, speaking at a meeting in siyambalnduwa, said that this is the work of a systematic gang trying to discredit the government. Some in the government have pointed out, that all of this is fiction, staged by Anarkali herself to become the her stated goal to be the Paris Hilton of Sri Lanka.

Ok Ok, not really. But they just might say something like that.

WTF story of the day : pregnant man has baby girl

BBC has the story. See this for more stuff on pregnant men.