Scientific Sense Podcast

Monday, September 30, 2013

Downward mobility

A recent article in Sociology Mind, demonstrating that check cashing outlets strategically target high crime neighborhoods, is an indication that analytics and targeted marketing are kicking into top-gear. Demand for goods and services will be met with supply at prices that will clear the market. The providers of services will maximize profits by selecting the most desirable locations, consumers, products and prices. This is true for crime, guns, prostitution, check-cashing and other such entities. From a policy perspective, however, this has societal implications.

If the reduction of crime has a net economic value to society, then regulating agents that aid crime may be optimal. However, this is an analytical (and empirical) question as regulation adds costs to society by introducing artificial constraints to market clearing mechanisms, resulting in dead-weight losses. The positive spill-over and long-term beneficial effects of crime reduction has to be evaluated against the likely cost of regulations. Both the benefits and costs are uncertain and thus, policies that are staged, introducing flexibility to future course corrections are optimal. Since crime almost always has a perpetrator and a victim, the question is how to shut down access to resources for those who commit the crimes. This is not unlike cutting the blood supply to certain types of cancers. This is, however, a complicated problem as the victims rely on the same mechanisms to live.

Policies have to have a temporal dimension – possibly starting with a severe action (such as government controlled access) with a well laid out plan to move toward a full market based mechanism. The most beneficial policy is not a stagnant one but rather a system with clear and well-articulated transition from necessary regulation to solve the issue at hand to market based mechanisms.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Uncertain governance

As the politicians in Washington battle for their beliefs and brownie points, the coming generation has to seriously consider effecting a transformation in the current governance system. The two-party dysfunction has reached its peak and the halls of the capital are now filled with ignorance and incompetence. The “representatives” simply do not represent the knowledge and capabilities of the population, as over half of them never cared to even vote in recent elections. It is time to move to the future. It is time to break the shackles of irrelevant rules and regulations and equally antiquated law making procedures.

The representative form of democracy is already obsolete in the presence of contemporary and emerging technologies. The elections, controlled by a minority, almost always result in a choice that could be marginally better than the alternative presented, but never the best. Unless the participation in the electoral process can be substantially increased, it will remain to be a sham – an inefficient process to control the damage. The current process elects a handful of people, completely disconnected from the present and with obscene incentives to perpetuate the past. They are ill-equipped to understand the choices in front of them, let alone select the best alternative. Most likely still have fax machines in their offices even though they may not know how to use them. To expect them to effect the best policies for the country is irrational.

The best way to get out of this nightmare is to move to a form of direct democracy – using technology. There is no need to create an inefficient layer between the people and the policies. Alternatives can be easily presented to the people and voted on by the entire country. Perhaps then, the “representatives” can return to their homes and towns and start collecting social security, if it is still available.

Thursday, September 26, 2013


The failure of science to propel thoughts and the failure of religion to lift humanity have left most in the dust – some yearning for meaning and others for food, to sustain themselves. Humans have demonstrated irrationality by living while some attempt to concoct grand theories to explain the inexplicable. In the noise of segmentation – countries, colors and beliefs – homo-sapiens shall sub-optimize and possibly destroy a fantastic quirk in space-time, that is habitable.

They had done it before, erasing sophisticated Neanderthals and running over their cousins across the continents to the South.They had done it before, by pretending superiority and waging wars to prop up their own egos. They had done it before, by travelling far and wide, by injecting diseases and false hopes to the indigenous. They had done it before, by raping and pillaging what is not theirs and then asserting meaningless theories to justify their actions. They had done it before,  by allowing the stupid to rule them and then becoming submissive in their own homes and valleys. They had done it before, by asserting privilege to be talent and initial conditions to be inevitable. They had done it before, by beauty, strength and ignorance.

The failure is irreversible in the presence of societal inflexibility.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Regulatory obsolescence

A recent article in Anesthesia & Analgesia points out that iPhones can already be equipped with Pulse Oximetry – currently only available through expensive and rather bulky equipment in the OR and preparation rooms. However, these devices on smart phones are not yet approved for use. This regulatory overhang is holding back the application of cutting edge technologies in medicine and other areas.

Regulatory agencies with rigid and prescriptive rules are ill-equipped to move at the speed of technology. In such a regime, regulations are likely to constrain the population to antiquated, costly and more risky methods than what may be afforded by contemporary technologies that are more effective but are not proven in the traditional tracks. Unfortunately, the education, skills and knowledge of regulators are unlikely to keep pace with rapidly changing technologies. Thus, decisions made by humans are increasingly less efficient in the creation and implementation of regulations.

A better regulatory regime may be one that describes the expected outcomes in quantitative terms and let technologies, that satisfy such end points, to be automatically approved.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Chandra’s coma

Recent observations from NASA’s Chandra observatory that shows the enormous scope of the Coma cluster of galaxies leave the amateurs dumfounded. The features of this epic structure, spanning over half a million light years, cannot be easily explained. The marriage of at least two giant elliptical galaxies has resulted in a structure of fantastic scale, held in shape, apparently by gravity.

The observation of such structures, ironically, raises more questions than answers. The paradoxical information loss in a black hole, sometimes explained away by the pasting on the surface, leading to the possibility of the universe being a hologram, may need to be revisited. The question is whether peeking into the past is a fruitful activity – does it provide new information or just cloud already established ignorance?

It may be time to look to the future, for the past is too dull or inexplicable with available tools.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Rajan : Intellect to spare

As I walked up to the shabby building in downtown Chicago, battling the bone chilling wind from the lake in 1992, I was looking forward to Rajan’s class. I made the trip from Hyde Park in anticipation of new information and I was never disappointed. Albeit being contemporaries at IIT, my engineering path left me distinctly ignorant of economics and he gave me more than I was bargaining for.

Freshwater economics was refreshing as it provided a robust framework, not unlike the engineering I was used to. The young professor was already showing brilliance as he systematically explained traditional finance from 6 PM to 9 PM. My first peek into research was also instructive with an empirical study into decision-making in financial markets. I attempted to soak the knowledge in with unreliable results. It sounded interesting but it was unclear if managers in firms made decisions that way. Later,I would find that managers were worse, much worse.

The theory was clear – but in practice it turned out be nearly useless. Chicago’s tendency to be enamored by deterministic models is its Achilles heel, as it argued what should be without asking why it is not so. Not many make decisions discounting cash flows but most do calculate an NPV that is swept aside by decision-makers as either irrelevant or incorrect – and for good reasons. Decisions were never that simple – neither in companies nor in the macro economy.

It will be interesting to see if he can bring back an economy in shambles, driven to hell by socialistic and ignorant policies for over five decades.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Mad, fast and dumb

Recent research from the University of Miami warns that the emergence of the “ultrafast machine ecology,” – referring to algorithmic trading - may create more market crashes. This “predatory” behavior, the author argues, is reaching a stage of instability and may need to be regulated. These arguments, based mostly on an engineering view of financial markets seem to be suffering from a lack of understanding of what markets are. Assuming that regulation is the only medicine for any symptom is problematic for many reasons.

First, let’s look at what financial markets are for. They are set up for the trading of standardized paper that represent the value of real assets. Nobody is forced to buy or sell such instruments and markets fundamentally mean that anybody is able to buy and sell those at any time and ideally at any place. The rules that govern such markets are simple – everybody is allowed to analyze publicly available information and make decisions for herself. Granted, the simple rules – equal access to information, no insider trading and no preferential access to trading are not consistently implemented – but that is a different issue.

Second, application of technology to trade is an innovation – but such innovation has not resulted in risk adjusted excess returns (alpha). Nobody has cornered all the wealth in the world yet by algorithmic trading. So in spite of the mad, fast and dumb bunch that shout from the TV screens every evening, the many supercomputers and light years of cable wrapping around the exchanges and the brilliant physicists and mathematicians who fine tune the algorithms continuously – academic studies show that none of these create alpha. Finally, the presumption that “regulation” will solve these “problems” implicitly assumes that the regulators have perfect information to make the optimal rules. If the last decade is any indication, one cannot imagine regulators are that smart.

Analysis of financial markets and trading behavior based on engineering rules is unlikely to provide any insights. Further, assuming that regulation is needed over the application of emerging technologies for trading is wrong, philosophically and practically. It would be a lot better if regulators focus on implementing the rules that already exist consistently and sending the offenders to jail quickly.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

An economic loss to society

The passing of Ronald Coase makes us poorer in our ability to conceptualize complex problems that affect society at large and solve them elegantly. He made two invaluable leaps in economics, while teaching law at the University of Chicago and those insights stood the test of time. “The nature of the firm",” survived through industrial revolution into information revolution providing a simple and complete framework to analyze and understand scale and scope of firms. He will repeat it again in “the problem of social cost,” with a clear articulation of the cost of blind government intervention, with normative prescriptions for auctions and allocations.

The elegance of these observations was astonishing and they left mere mortals, yearning for intellectual stimulation. It has influenced a wave of innovation in economic thinking under the umbrella of Chicago school, where frameworks based on a set of principles yielded tools with broad applications to every aspect of society. This ability to solve problems top-down, uncluttered by data and anecdotes, is a skill that is waning. In the contemporary world of “big noise,” where academics and practioners scramble to create and prove hypotheses, such insights are very rare.

A true economic loss to society - perhaps educators and policy-makers may take a moment to look back and see the brilliance.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Dropped call

As the world’s largest democracy attempt to grapple with the problems of its own creation, one has to wonder if the last decade was yet another failed start. From its recent independent beginnings, its incompetent leaders consistently made bad policies – from soft socialism to fully planned societies, with the hope that failed policies elsewhere will work in India. It should be clear by now, that they do not.

Three primary vectors have always held the country back. First, its political elite, with compassion clearly worn on the long sleeves of their home made garments, have always been corrupt – top down. Such a corrupt system simply cannot make optimal policies and a country that claims to be a democracy goes to the poll, mesmerized by a few last names as if it is in some sort of hypnotic trance, and keep electing the same corrupt and incompetent bunch. And second, the one-sided education handed out to the politicians from a few choice institutions in Europe, have sufficiently brain washed even those who may have wanted to do something good. And, finally – a disconnected set of kingdoms, packed into a country for the convenience of the World, still hoards endemic discrimination across classes, regions and sexes.

Central planning does not work, markets do. This simple idea is yet to penetrate those technocrats in charge, still burning the midnight oil to optimize resource allocation and to engineer optimal growth, as if they are the only ones who know how to drive a ship with over 1 billion people to their certain heavenly destiny. The basic idea that past performance is no indication of the future has never been explained to the entire country, that seems to cling to its illustrious past, as if godly intervention will return it to its past glory. It will not.

The prescriptions are simple – open markets, trade freely, shed cronyism, punish corruption and implement a true democracy. Opening markets means clear and consistent implementation of rules – those regulating market failures such as monopolies and those implementing fair taxation and minimal subsidies. Trading freely means it has to get stronger in areas of comparative advantages and not drive its educated populace to industries of fleeting cost advantages, afforded by a protected currency. Shedding cronyism means that it creates organizations that compete on merit and intellectual property and not those manufacturing profits by connections and handouts. Punishing corruption means that it has to get tougher on white collar crime and use powerful disincentives to remove this issue that is eating into its core. And, implementing a true democracy means that the system is able to understand available choices and elect representatives who are the best leaders, irrespective of where they come from and what their last names are.

It is a long shot.