How 2ab explains net neutrality

So Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set off this little storm on Twitter by talking about the relationship between India and Canada being similar to the “2ab term” in the expansion of (a+b)^2 .

Essentially, Modi was trying to communicate that the whole of the relationship between India and Canada is greater than the sum of parts, and it can be argued that the lack of a “cos \theta” term there implies that he thinks India and Canada’s interests are perfectly aligned (assuming a vector sum).

But that is for another day, for this post is about net neutrality. So how does 2ab explain net neutrality? The fundamental principle of the utility of the Internet is Metcalfe’s law which states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of entities in the network. In other words, if a network has n entities, the value of these n entities being connected is given by the formula k n^2 . We can choose the unit in which we express utility such that we can set k = 1, which means that the value of the network is n^2.

Now, the problem with not having net neutrality is that it can divide the internet into a set of “walled gardens”. If your internet service provider charges you differentially to access different sites, then you are likely to use more of the sites that are cheaper and less of the more expensive sites. Now, if different internet service providers will charge different websites and apps differently, then it is reasonable assume that the sites that customers of different internet services access are going to be different?

Let us take this to an extreme, and to the hypothetical case where there are two internet service providers, and they are not compatible with each other, in that the network that you can access through one of these providers is completely disjoint from the network that you can access through the other provider (this is a thought experiment and an extreme hypothetical case). Effectively, we can think of them as being two “separate internets” (since they don’t “talk to” each other at all).

Now, let us assume that there are a users on the first internet, and b users on the second (this is bad nomenclature according to mathematical convention, where a and b are not used for integer variables, but there is a specific purpose here, as we can see). What is the total value of the internet(s)?

Based on the formula described earlier in the post, given that these two internets are independent, the total value is a^2 + b^2. Now, if we were to tear down the walls, and combine the two internets into one, what will be the total value? Now that we have one network of (a+b) users, the value of the network is (a+b)^2 or a^2 + 2 ab + b^2 . So what is the additional benefit that we can get by imposing net neutrality, which means that we will have one internet? 2 ab, of course!

In other words, while allowing internet service providers to charge users based on specific services might lead to additional private benefits to both the providers (higher fees) and users (higher quality of service), it results in turning the internet into some kind of a walled garden, where the aggregate value of the internet itself is diminished, as explained above. Hence, while differential pricing (based on service) might be locally optimal (at the level of the individual user or internet service provider), it is suboptimal at the aggregate level, and has significant negative externalities.

#thatswhy we need net neutrality.

Comments { 5 }

Other airlines to bail out Spice Jet?

In a rather bizarre move, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has directed airlines to not charge “exorbitant fares” for passengers stood up upon cancellation of Spice Jet flights. This is a rather bizarre idea and effectively amounts to asking other airlines to partially bail out Spice Jet.

Essentially when an airline is in trouble, passengers are loathe to book tickets on it, for they know that the chances of their flight getting cancelled is high. A cancelled flight usually means either cancelling the trip itself or rebooking on another airline (sometimes airlines have arrangements with each other for taking on passengers on cancelled flights, but currently no other airline in India will give credit to Spice Jet). Either ways, it is a costly affair for the passengers.

By directing airlines to not charge “exorbitant fares”, and assuming that such a directive will be followed (very likely that this directive is meaningless for this is the busy season and other airlines are likely to be booked out), the total cost of booking a ticket on Spice Jet actually comes down, for the charge a customer will have to incur for re booking on another airline for a cancelled Spice Jet flight is likely to be reduced. And thus passengers will not abandon Spice Jet at the rate at which they normally would. And since other airlines are taking a hit on the spot fares they could potentially charge (in the absence of this directive) they are effectively subsidising and “bailing out” Spice Jet!

The other problem is that in the absence of market mechanisms (which the price cap effectively curb), how will other airlines allocate their remaining capacity among all the passengers who have been stood up by Spice Jet? Some arbitrariness is likely to ensue and passengers are likely to be left more disappointed!

The government had started off by handling the Spice Jet case rather well, as Devika Kher has argued here. However, of late, the wheels of the DGCA seem to have come off in his aspect, and there seems to be a concerted attempt to let Spice Jet stay afloat against the wishes of the market. The Airports Authority of India and oil companies have been asked to extend credit for fifteen days.

It seems Devika spoke too soon!

Comments { 0 }

Uber, Meru and Service Taxes

The use of arbitrary barriers in regulation, like the Rs. 10 lakh limit on Service Taxes is counterproductive and can lead to a non-level playing field. More importantly such barriers encourage small-scale operations which can act against efficiency

A couple of months back, the Service Tax Department slapped a notice on Uber, demanding that the cab aggregation service pay service tax on its revenues. Cab services fall under the service tax net, and recently other cab service providers such as Meru and Mega have started adding a service tax component to their bills.

What queers the pitch in the case of Uber is who pays, and whether they pay at all. Uber claims to be an aggregation platform, bringing together cabbies and passengers, and says that it is the cabbies who are in charge of paying service tax on the revenues they make through the platform. From the Tax Department’s perspective though, going after thousands of cabbies demanding taxes is not very feasible, so they are trying to get Uber to pay the service tax.

More importantly, Service Tax becomes payable only if the annual revenues from the service cross Rs. 10 lakh and it is unlikely that too many of Uber’s cabbies will cross that threshold. So if we were to look at Uber strictly as an aggregator (which it actually is), it is unlikely that any service tax can be collected on its services!

What it also means that this gives platforms like Uber an unfair advantage over companies such as Meru which own their taxis – the latter’s revenue is much more than Rs. 10 lakh per annum and thus service tax has to be paid on the entire revenue! And this means that the playing field when it comes to taxi services is not level – for it is cheaper for an individual running a single taxi to offer service rather than a company offering a fleet.

This is similar to regulations in manufacturing that make it much more expensive (in terms of enhanced labour regulations and disclosures for companies beyond a certain size) for larger companies to operate vis-a-vis smaller ones. Even in the proposed relaxation of labour laws, a number of relaxations are to do with the minimum size of a company for doing the disclosures, and not with the easing of regulations themselves. All that it means is that just the threshold is raised – it becomes easier for companies to grow beyond their current levels of inefficiency, but they will soon hit a new level of inefficiency!

The problem for all this is the arbitrary fixing of slabs. An ostensible reason for fixing the minimum slab for service tax at Rs. 10 lakh is that enforcement for people earning less is going to be difficult. But as can be seen in the Uber case, this can lead to inefficient structures of industrial organisations, by keeping them small, and is hence not prudent. The government would do well to remove such arbitrary numbers from its regulation!

The other thing about service tax is that once your income crosses Rs. 10 lakh, you pay service tax on your entire income rather than the excess over 10 lakh, which is how income tax is structured. This is again inefficient, for someone who is making Rs. 9.8 lakh is now dissuaded from taking new business since it can literally subtract value! Another reason for arbitrary barriers to go.

Comments { 0 }

Batch size at IIMB

A few days back I had written about how the new IIMs with a sanctioned batch size of around 60 and a faculty strength of 20 are unviable and need to scale up quickly. My argument was that one of the big strengths of the older IIMs is its faculty size which leads to a large number of electives, which allows students to shape themselves the way they best feel. In this context it would be interesting to compare these IIMs to one or more of the older IIMs.

I recently received a mail by the IIMB Alumni Association asking me to reach out to batchmates who are not part of the association. This mail had been sent to all IIMB Alumni who are registered with the association, and the purpose was to increase membership and reach of the association (and no, there are no membership fees). And the mail came with a very interesting data set, and one of the fields was the size of each graduating batch at IIMB.

Source: IIMB Alumni Association

Source: IIMB Alumni Association

It can be seen that IIMB also started rather small, with about 50 students graduating in the first batch in 1976. By the end of the decade, the number was close to a 100, which is where it stayed through the 1980s. Around 1990 was when the batch size increased to about 150, and the number stayed within the 150-200 range for another decade and a half (the 2004 batch was bigger than the ones around it, possibly due to the IT slowdown in 2002 when this batch entered IIM).

And then after 2006 (when I graduated), the batch size increased. My batch had three sections as would have the 15 batches prior to that (based on this data; IIM sections normally consist of 60-70 students). In fact, the “quantum” nature of the increase in batch size at IIM can be put down to the concept of sections – so the increase from the 100 to 150 level was a function of addition of a third section, and so on. After 2006, though, the batch size has exploded, and the current batch (2013-15, who I’m teaching) has a strength of almost 400 students (divided into six sections).

A good addition to this dataset would be some data that could show the prominence or measure of success of IIMB Alumni who graduated in each  batch, which can then allow us to examine whether batch size has had anything to do with continued career success of the students. It would be interesting to examine how this additional data can be collected.

Comments { 1 }

Environmentalism and the Discount Rate

Alex Epstein, in his new book “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” has a fantastic quote (HT: Bryan Caplan). Epstein writes:

It is only thanks to cheap, plentiful, reliable energy that we live in an environment where the water we drink and the food we eat will not make us sick and where we can cope with the often hostile climate of Mother Nature. Energy is what we need to build sturdy homes, to purify water, to produce huge amounts of fresh food, to generate heat and air-conditioning, to irrigate deserts, to dry malaria-infested swamps, to build hospitals, and to manufacture pharmaceuticals, among many other things. And those of us who enjoy exploring the rest of nature should never forget that energy is what enables us to explore to our heart’s content, which preindustrial people didn’t have the time, wealth, energy, or technology to do.

Or, as Caplan puts it in his annotation,

Epstein’s second key claim is normative: Human well-being is the one fundamentally morally valuable thing.  Unspoiled nature is only great insofar as mankind enjoys it:

This allows us to characterise environmentalism and other conservationist movements through one simple factor – the Discount Rate. Let me explain.

Essentially, let us assume that we are optimising for aggregate human well-being. So we are optimising for the aggregate of the well-being of all humans today, all humans tomorrow, 10 years from now, 100 years from now and so forth. Now, if we try to optimise for short term well-being beyond a point (extracting too much oil, for example, or burning too much fossil fuel or cutting down too many trees), the well-being of future generations gets affected in a negative manner. If we are more conservative (and conservationist) now, future generations will get to enjoy greater well-being.

So, looking at the problem from the assumption that we want to “maximise aggregate human well-being”, the problem boils down to one “simple” tradeoff between well-being of human beings today and well-being of human beings at a later point in time. And it is precisely for answering questions on such inter-temporal tradeoffs that the world of economics and finance introduced the concept of a “discount rate”!

Finance assumes that rational human beings like to consume today compared to tomorrow, but only up to a point – you don’t want to consume so much today that there is nothing left to consume tomorrow. This leads us to indifference curves between today’s and tomorrow’s consumption, and if we add to this the resource constraint, we get the “discount rate” (the actual derivation is beyond the scope of this blog post).

The discount rate essentially gives us a tool to compare consumption today to consumption at a point of time in the future and make a decision on which one is more valuable. The higher the discount rate, the greater importance we give today’s consumption vis-a-vis tomorrow’s. A lower discount rate gives greater weight to tomorrow’s consumption compared to today’s.

So coming back to conservationism, the question finally boils down to “what is our discount rate”, or to track back one step “how do we value today’s well-being vis-a-vis well being at a point of time in the future”. If you assume a high discount rate, that means you give more importance to today’s well-being. A discount rate of zero gives equal importance of well-being today compared to well-being a few generations down the line. The discount rate in this case can even be negative – where you give greater importance to the well-being of humans of a future generation than to current well-being!

So the debate on fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions and suchlike can be characterised by this one factor – what is our discount rate? And it is a disagreement on this that leads to most debates on this topic. Conservationists usually have a very low (or even negative discount rate), and they tend to play up the risks to well-being of future generation humans. The opposite side works with a much higher discount rate and argues that we should not ignore the well-being of current generations vis-a-vis the future. And the battle rages on.

Comments { 4 }

Targeting government transfers

Bryan Caplan, quoting from Greg Mankiw, puts out some very interesting numbers on government transfers to households in the United States.

Source: Econlog

As Caplan puts it, this table shows a pattern “neither liberals nor conservatives will expect”. Some points to be noted:

1. government transfers per household to the top quintile is much more than to the bottom quintile. While the former pay taxes and the latter don’t, this is simply bizarre and shows how ill-targeted transfers in the US are

2. The bottom 60% of households in the United States pays negative tax! The “middle quintile” pays taxes but gets transfers from the government of twice the amount.

3. The net taxes paid by the 4th quintile is negligible ($700 per household). So effectively in the US, only the top 20% pays tax.

I wonder if it is possible to get such data for India, and if we can, what it will look like. If we manage to tack on all subsidies to the “transfers” thing (food, fuel, etc.) it should present a very interesting picture. My guess is that the “effective tax base” in India will be much lower than that of the US.

Any data sources that can help us construct one such table for India?

Comments { 0 }

Uber and the narrative bias

Following the alleged rape of a Delhi woman by a cab driver who she’d engaged via the Uber app, the Delhi government has banned Uber. Union home minister rajnath Singh has issued a notification to other state governments to do the same though union transport minister Nitin Gadkari has rightly called it a silly idea.

Irrespective of whether the service gets banned, fewer people are likely to use it. A survey conducted by Mint newspaper has shown that nearly half the people surveyed will not use an Uber following the incident (the survey doesn’t mention how many of those surveyed are existing users of Uber).

About a year back, two buses of the Volvo make (one travelling from Bangalore to Hyderabad and the other from Bangalore to Pune) caught fire, resulting in passenger deaths. While the government of Karnataka mercifully didn’t ban Volvo buses (instead simply subjecting them to safety checks and insisting on emergency exits), there was a large backlash from the public who eschewed travel by Volvos in favour of travel by other means of transport.

In 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, Americans eschewed air travel in favour of driving. Gerd Gigerenzer, a specialist in risk, has estimated that 1595 additional people died in the year following 9/11 on account of driving rather than taking flights.

The question that arises is what those current users of Uber who don’t want to use the service any more are going to do – surely they must resort to alternate means of transport to commute? The question they need to ask themselves is If the new chosen means of transport is safer than Uber!

People abandoning Uber in droves following last weekend’s incident is due to what I can the “narrative bias”. Last weekend’s incident has introduced the narrative that Uber is not necessarily safe – at least it is not as safe as people assumed it to be prior to the incident. And this narrative is likely to lead to people reacting, and in a direction that is not necessarily better for them!

So if people abandon Uber, or if it gets banned (the proposal is to ban other app based cab services too ), what is the alternative, and is it safer than Uber? Extremely unlikely, If the answer is auto rickshaws for example. We might as well end up in a situation like what happened on the highways in the US after 9/11.

News by definition is spectacular and spectacular incidents are much more likely to be reported than unspectacular ones (a favourite example I use is – how many times do we see a headline that says ” Ashok Leyland bus catches fire. Passengers dead “? The fact that we seldom see such headlines doesn’t mean that Ashok Leyland buses never catch fire). This, however, doesn’t mean that policymaking, too, be based on spectacular events only.

Any regulation, and decisions by people, should be based on rational expectations and not be biased by narratives and the spectacular. There is always pressure on the policymaker to ” do something “. This however doesn’t mean that anything will do. Decisions need to be based on reason and not narratives!

PostScript: I’ve written this post sitting in the back of an Uber taxi in Bangalore

Comments { 0 }

Why app based taxi services should not be banned

The move towards banning Uber and other app-based taxi services is devoid of logic on several counts

Writing during the Takshashila Hudson conference on India’s growth I had argued that an easy way to increase the level of business activity in the country, and thus GDP was by means of reducing transaction costs. Transaction costs are costs borne by buyers of a good or Service which don’t accrue to the seller.

The thing with transaction costs is that they introduce friction in the market – the cost ends up reducing both the market clearing price (as it accrues to the seller) and the market clearing quantity. And transaction costs are usually to no ones gain and thus reducing them is a quick and pareto optimal method of boosting GDP.

In this regard, the government must encourage all means that result in reduction of transaction costs. For example better road and rail network significantly reduce the transaction cost of moving goods and people. Removal of interstate taxes on goods and services results in more optimal setups of warehouses and plants.

Similarly apps such as Uber play an important role in reducing transaction costs in the local taxi market. By reducing the distance and time to be traveled by the driver, and by reducing the amount of the the passenger has to wait for the cab, these services significantly reduce the cost of local transport and benefit drive and users alike.

Thus moves such as banning such services are utterly brainless and devoid of logic. Moreover such moves will dampen investor sentiment in India and kill off any positive vibes that have been generated ever since the current government came to power.

I hope better logic prevails and the government focuses on improving law and order (a public good that can further reduce transaction costs) rather than knee jerk actions like banning taxi services which seek to reduce transaction costs.

Comments { 1 }

Implementation and rule of law

Draconian laws coupled with lax implementation deliver too much power to regulators. This makes the business environment unpredictable and makes it harder to do business.

Following the arrest for rape of a taxi driver who was hailed using the Uber app, the Delhi government has gone on to ban Uber. Not satisfied with that, it has gone on to ban all other app-based taxi hailing services (Ola and TaxiForSure are the other big ones). Following the incident last weekend, the government has suddenly decided to throw the rule book at these aggregators and accused them of running taxi services without a license. The point to note here is that until the weekend’s alleged rape, it seems that these businesses were all kosher.

A few months back Mint had an excellent piece (I hope I’ve got the link right) on the absurdities of some of India’s labour laws, and pointed out that most companies are in the breach of such laws. Essentially while the labour laws in India are not very short of being Draconian, what allows businesses to do business and people to go about their lives is lax implementation. And it seems that this issue of draconian laws and lax implementation is not restricted to labour alone.

The iconic Bangalore Club in Bangalore has had its liquor license withdrawn following a raid by the excise department last week. The trigger for this raid is alleged to be a case where a security guard of the club refused to let in the car of a police officer who was not carrying his membership card. This is alleged to have led to a series of cases which finally led to the excise raid and the cancellation of the license. It seems that before the police officer’s car was stopped, there was no violation of excise rules.

In a recent dispute on VAT, the Karnataka government has forced Amazon to stop storing third party goods in its “fulfilment centres”. There has since been back and forth on this and the commissioner of commercial taxes who implemented the order has since been transferred. It was initially expected that the Karnataka government would take the legislative route to clarify this tax dispute in the current Assembly session at Belagavi, but that seems to now be put on hold. Instead, it is likely that the laws are going to remain the way they are and Amazon will by “spared” on account of lax implementation.

Lax implementation of laws is a major impediment to doing business, for it removes predicability. Clear laws which are implemented well set down clear rules for businesses and there is little in terms of what is right or wrong. Such laws make it possible for businesses that choose to be “100% legal” to take a path where there is no ambiguity on their activities. Lax implementation, however, biases the playing field in favour of players who are willing to play on the borders of legality and who rely on lax implementation and benevolence by regulators to continue doing business which is technically illegal. Soon, this results in an equilibrium where everyone is in violation of some rule or the other and remains in business only due to the “benevolence” of regulators.

This implies that regulators who are in charge of implementing these draconian laws have enormous powers over the business they regulate, for any move by the business that the regulator does not like can be responded to by a throw of the proverbial rule-book. This places these businesses at the effective control of these regulators and helps perpetrate what Amit Varma calls the “mai-baap sarkar” – where you function solely due to the benevolence of the government or people acting on behalf of it.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stated that one of his goals is to improve the ease of doing business in India. As long as we do not have predictable and rule-based implementation of law, it results in giving significantly higher powers to the regulators, which makes the business environment unpredictable, and makes it harder to do business. If we have to improve our ease of doing business ranking to 50 (as stated by Modi), a necessary step is to implement each of our laws in letter and spirit, without any room for ambiguity. Of course this will lead to the diminishing of power of the regulators over their “regulatees”, but solving that is a political problem which the government ought to solve.

Comments { 1 }

Educating at scale

You can’t run a high-quality business school with 20 faculty members

In the course of a twitter discussion yesterday, journalist Mathang Seshagiri quoted numbers from a parliamentary reply by the ministry of HRD (on the 24th of November 2014) on the sanctioned faculty strength and vacancies in “institutes of national importance”. While his purpose was to primarily show that even the older IITs and IIMs have massive vacancies, what struck me was the sanctioned faculty strength of the newer IIMs. Here is the picture posted by Mathang:

Source: Parliamentary Proceedings (Rajya Sabha). November 24th 2014. Reply by MHRD

Look at the second column which shows the sanctioned faculty strength in each IIM. Once you go beyond the six older IIMs, the drop is stark. The seven newer IIMs have a sanctioned faculty strength of about 20! The question is how one can run a business school with such a small faculty base.

About ten years back, when I was a student at IIM Bangalore, I had gone for an event where I met someone from another business school in Bangalore whose name I can’t remember now. During the course of the conversation he asked me how many electives he had. I replied that we had about 80-100 courses from which we had to pick about 15. This he found shocking for in his college (from what I remember) there were only three or four electives!

The purpose of an MBA is to provide broad-based education and broaden one’s horizons. Thus, after a set of core courses in the first year (usually about fifteen courses), one is exposed to a wide variety of electives in the second year. It is a standard practice among most top B-schools to fill the entire second year with electives. In fact, in IIM Bangalore, electives start towards the end of the first year itself.

With 20 faculty members, there are only so many electives that can be offered each year. For example, in the coming trimester, IIM Bangalore is offering students (about 400 in the batch) a choice of about 40-50 electives, of which each student can pick four to six. This gives students massive choice, and a good chance to tailor the second year of their MBA and mould themselves as per their requirements.

By having 20 faculty members, the number of electives that can be theoretically offered itself is smaller (given research requirements, most IIM professors have a requirement to teach no more than three courses a year, and they have core and graduate courses to teach, too), which gives students an extremely tiny bouquet of choices – if there is any choice at all. This significantly limits the scope of what a student in such a school can do. And the student has no option but to accept the straitjacket offered by the lack of choice in the school.

In the ensuing twitter conversation this morning, Mathang contended that it is okay to have a faculty strength of 20 in schools with 60 students per batch. While this points to an extremely healthy faculty-student ratio, the point is that for broad-based education such as MBA, faculty-student ratio is not a good metric. What makes sense is the choice that the student is offered and that comes only at scale.

Thus, the new IIMs (Shillong “onwards”) are flawed in their fundamental design. It is impossible to run a quality business school with only 20 faculty. One way to supplement this is by using visiting faculty and guest lectures, but some of the new IIMs are located in such obscure places (where there is little local business, and which are not easily accessible by flight) that this is also not an option.

Merging some of these smaller IIMs (a very hard decision politically) might be the only way to make them work.

PS: Here is the sanctioned faculty strength and actual faculty strength numbers for IITs (same source as above). I might comment upon that at a later date.

Source: Parliamentary reply by Ministry of HRD; November 24th 2014

Comments { 2 }