Protests in Modi’s India

Finally got around to the much-lauded New Yorker story on Rana Ayyub ’s heroic work reporting on India’s Hindu supremacist turn under the leadership of Narendra Modi. The piece enjoyed a second wave of circulation in my Western bubble amidst the highly visible nationwide demonstrations against the discriminatory citizenship laws and a third wave as a violent backlash against the protests endangered university students at Jawaharlal Nehru University .

A feeling of despair has settled in among many Indians who remain committed to the secular, inclusive vision of the country’s founders. “Gandhi and Nehru were great, historic figures, but I think they were an aberration,” Prasad, the former Outlook editor, told me. “It’s very different now. The institutions have crumbled—universities, investigative agencies, the courts, the media, the administrative agencies, public services. And I think there is no rational answer for what has happened, except that we pretended to be what we were for fifty, sixty years. But we are now reverting to what we always wanted to be, which is to pummel minorities, to push them into a corner, to show them their places, to conquer Kashmir, to ruin the media, and to make corporations servants of the state. And all of this under a heavy resurgence of Hinduism. India is becoming the country it has always wanted to be.”

See also Arundhati Roy’s essay from November, which I saw her deliver at the Cooper Union and this correspondence between Pankaj Mishra and Mirza Waheed.

Kashmir became the jewel in India’s crown. And like India in the British imagination, the natives became an obstacle to the act of self-cherishing that Kashmir facilitated. They had to be edited out of this incredibly exotic and desirable place, or be degraded to menial status.

It is remarkable to me that as several outlets have been publishing articles towards the theme of “political trends to watch for in the 2020s” at the turn of the decade, not one I read mentioned the tide of anti-Muslim subjugation occurring in the two most populous countries in the world, each of which are detaining millions of Muslim minorities and with the Rohingya crisis occurring adjacently. It has plainly not been recognized as a trend in mainstream opinion columns, certainly not to the extent that “strongman electoral victories” have been lazily grouped together.

Economics does not always assume rationality. Just almost always .

As Abaluck says, pointing to the Thaler Nobel and referring vaguely to the field of behavioral economics is too exonerating. Likewise for awarding a climate change Nobel.

  • Related: Cass Sunstein at the time of this writing is being ratioed on Twitter for a tone-deaf tweet numerating Modi’s successes the weekend after hundreds of thousands of Indians took to the streets. The context is that his partner in nudge, Richard Thaler, met with the prime minister. It is part of the conceit of the ‘rationality’ crowd that their non-emotionality and willingness to engage with “those with which they disagree” (that self-serving euphemism somehow so frequently referring to advocates of ethnicity-based cruelty) is a measure of their civility and impartiality.

    A pattern I’ve recognized is their looking out for cases wherein they can come to the defense of ideas from the ‘other side’ so as to demonstrate that their only loyalty is to the strength of arguments. In staking such a contrarian stance (or, for maximum self-preservation, just promoting Quillette’s existence without mention of its editorial track record), they earn contrarian credits for their apparent unbiasedness and detachment from ideology. But they never really pay for these credits. In the above case, they risk nothing in possibly conferring some legitimacy to a prime minister with genocidal ambitions. The cost is entirely paid for by the faceless Indians resisting a violent tide of ethno-religious nationalism.

Economics and Uber’s academic program

I enjoyed the second of three EFiP panels from the ASSA weekend, which was moderated by Dani Rodrik and featured presentations by Suresh Naidu, Sam Bowles, and Luigi Zingales. A bit hard to summarize, but follows in the network’s theme of purportedly course-correcting economics.

Zingales mentions it briefly, but Tim pointed me to this guest post from Zingales’ ProMarket blog calling out Uber’s academic program. Should probably be a bigger deal? I’m inclined to agree that academics should collaborate and engage with the private sector more, but work like this that is so reliant on proprietary data and susceptible to ‘contamination’, that I don’t feel any professional obligation to believe any resulting analysis.

Uber’s employees co-authored academic papers with brand name scholars that were then used to back the company’s PR and lobbying strategy. Published in respected journals, those articles are based on proprietary data and non-replicable analysis. Moreover, they all don’t discuss the subsidies that make it possible for Uber to pursue market dominance despite its endless losses.

How the lateral academic job market works

At least in legal academia. The economics job market—wherein every graduating PhD meets in one city over one weekend to run around different hotels meeting with prospective employers—understandably seems insane to outsiders (and insiders). But this seems wilder.

A history of The Economist being on the wrong side of history. On like everything. Like all the time.

Pankaj Mishra is reviewing ‘Liberalism at Large’ by Alexander Zevin, which takes an interesting approach to assessing the track record of liberalism, a notoriously difficult task given how slippery it can be to define:

Using The Economist as a proxy for liberalism enables Zevin to sidestep much conceptual muddle about the doctrine. His examination of The Economist’s pronouncements and of the policies of those who heeded them yields, in effect, a study of several liberalisms as they have been widely practiced in the course of a hundred and seventy-five years. The magazine emerges as a force that—thanks to the military, cultural, and economic power of Britain and, later, America—can truly be said to have made the modern world, if not in the way that many liberals would suppose.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one year in

We’ve gotten so accustomed to her I think we understate the political ingenuity of her rapid ascent to influence. The article does a good job of complementing this by-now well-trodden narrative by demonstrating that underlying her methods is an intentional theory of politics.

The meat-substitute industry

The science of recreating the taste of beef sounds straight out of Bertie Bott’s:

Impossible’s first prototype burgers contained the “off-flavors” characteristic of their foundational protein, soy or wheat or pea. (Pea protein is sometimes said to evoke cat urine.) So the company’s scientists had to learn how to erase those flavors, even as they were learning the subtleties of the aroma and taste they were trying to emulate.

“You have to bunny-sniff at a very high rate, often trying to characterize molecules you’ve never smelled before.” He looked at a handwritten list from the last assay: “You might say, ‘We’ve got to get rid of “Band-Aid,” or “skunk,” or “diaper pail” ‘—but don’t judge, because all of those together make up ‘burger taste.’ “

There’s also an interesting account of how competitors to Pat Brown’s Impossible Foods like Beyond Meat are premised on starkly different theories of meat consumption, some evolutionary, some behavioral, and some sociological. And taste-wise, do you want your substitute to taste like meat or like a better version of meat? The latter risks creating a complementary product rather than a substitute:

“Early on, we had two goals that were fully aligned: to be identical to a burger from a cow, and to be much better than a burger from a cow. Now they’re somewhat at odds, and we talk about the chocolate-doughnut problem. What if what people really like in a burger is what makes it taste like a chocolate doughnut, so you keep increasing those qualities—and suddenly you’re not making a burger at all?

It’s hard to predict whether customers will adjust more easily to meat made from plants or meat grown in enormous vats. In a recent survey by the investment bank Barclays, plant-based meats have a tiny edge among American, Indian, and Chinese consumers. Tetrick believes this will shift in time, as people in the developing world eat more meat. “If the objective is to get to a billion dollars in sales in seven years, I would do plant-based meat,” he told me. “And every time I’m in San Francisco, L.A., or New York I think, Why aren’t we doing plant-based? But every time I’m in Shanghai, where meat is all about cultural arrival, I think, We can only change the world’s system of animal agriculture by doing cultured meat. So I think Pat Brown is wrong. Of course,” he added, “I could also be wrong. Or, guess what, we could both be wrong!”

Pat Brown on academics doing unimportant stuff :

“Eating meat, publishing in Nature, and other asinine things you dumb fucks keep doing.”

Given its relevance to climate change, the industries it affects, and its potential to entirely transform entire ways of life worldwide, I wonder why the meat substitute industry isn’t as high-profile in the public sphere as, say, Tesla is. Brown seems to be much more charismatic than Elon Musk but isn’t close to a household name.

Fun reviews of bad pop science

Turns out I’m a fan of when book reviewers are exhausted by a book’s gimmick. A review of a book on the history of women’s pockets from 1660-1900 :

There is a mock-heroic aspect to object-driven history of the kind practised in The Pocket, too: its language is strangely excessive in relation to the things it is describing. Very large or loosely defined theoretical claims are made on behalf of objects which cannot possibly live up to what is required of them. ‘Bringing back to life the shapeless dreams and untold stories once entrusted by a real, rather than a fictional, woman to her pocket can be a challenge,’ we are told in this book; it is also ‘vital’. But how is this challenge to be tackled? The Pocket gives us little sense of how to bridge the gap between a small thing and a sketched series of broad arguments about gender, society and history. Instead we have general statements concerning ’the power of pockets to subvert’, ’the role of pockets as sites of resistance’ and (rather less audaciously) the ‘major role’ played by pockets ‘in the clothing strategies of large numbers of people’. Confusingly, we are invited to treat ’the pocket as a lens’ (how would that work?).

Likewise for overdoing the pop in pop science. Here on a book positioning mosquitoes as at war with humans (which I briefly referred to in a previous post):

His new work is imposing in scope and martial in tone, as its opening sentence announces: “We are at war with the mosquito.”… This is broad-brush history, for people who like heroes and villains and big, easy metaphors. But mosquitoes aren’t warriors, nor are they predators upon humans, not in any true ecological sense, notwithstanding Winegard’s subtitle. (During their immature stage, in water, some mosquito larvae attack and eat other mosquito larvae—real predators.) A few kinds don’t even drink blood, not even the females, ever. Let’s get this straight: the most troublesome mosquitoes for humans, such as members of the Anopheles group or the species Aedes aegypti, are vectors, not predators. That means the females inadvertently take in, carry, and deliver disease-causing microbes of various sorts in the course of their biting activity. Otherwise both sexes feed on nectar and other plant juices.

But the predator trope is important to Winegard’s enterprise, which involves not only showing that mosquitoes have brought immeasurable harm to humans (quite right) and served as major determinants of human history (case well made), but also melodramatizing his material with suggestions that they have done it—she has done it, that demon female—intentionally and fiendishly. “She has no purpose other than to propagate her species and perhaps to kill humans,” he writes. “If I didn’t know better, I would say she is satisfying her sadistic and narcissistic impulses at our expense.” He does know better, but mentions it anyway.

And this on a paleontologist’s overmodernizing dinosaurs:

But Brusatte is also a writer of what he calls “pop-science,” and we are its victims. Here he is on the life-span of Tyrannosaurus rex: “You could call T. rex the James Dean of dinosaurs: it lived fast and died young.” And when it matured, in Brusatte’s words, “the Rex was all man, all woman, and ready to claim its throne.”

This kind of writing isn’t merely exuberant nonsense, the metaphorical stumblings of an excitable scientist. It’s language that works against the grain of the science it’s trying to explain. To say, as Brusatte does, that acidifying oceans, capable of dissolving the shells of sea creatures, are “why we don’t bathe in vinegar” is ridiculous. So is calling the feather “nature’s ultimate Swiss Army knife.” But to write these words—“dinosaurs at the top of their game, doing as well or better than they had ever done, still in control”—is to violate something basic in our understanding of how life actually works. “Still in control” of what, exactly? Or consider this sentence, describing the effects of the asteroid strike: “The reign of the dinosaurs ended and a revolution followed, forcing them to cede their kingdom to other species.” Whatever forces were at work as that old world changed, they’re overwhelmed and obscured by the accidental forces unleashed in this terrible sentence, which sounds as though the histories of the Bourbons and the sauropods were somehow intertwined. However thoughtful he may be as a scientist, Steve Brusatte has created a lost world of his own, where metaphors war anachronistically in defiance of what scientists understand. He didn’t invent this kind of writing. He grew up on it, and sadly we’re surrounded by it.

That dinosaur book review also contemplates the limits of our understanding of dinosaurs. Not just the now popularly known unknowns like feathering, diet, and coloration, but also their ecological context:

It’s still far easier for us to imagine a dinosaur somehow visiting the world we inhabit today—like the T. rex model newly on display at the American Museum of Natural History, fleshed and feathered and with eyes wet and baleful—than it is to imagine the many worlds that the many species of dinosaurs inhabited over their roughly 180 million years on Earth. We can marvel at the size of one of the giant sauropods, but can we imagine the air it breathed or the plants it ate or the soil they grew in? Can we picture its moon circling nearer than ours to an earth spinning faster than ours? Can we really grasp how differently the land masses were arranged and the effects that would have had on climate? Or the consequences of extensive volcanism or the flipping of magnetic poles?

We’re a long way from understanding those ancient worlds as ecosystems… The more clearly you picture the history of life as an unbroken series of ecosystems, and not just a line of related species, the more clearly you understand the tragedy of what we’re doing to Earth, the consequences of depleting the planet we like to claim we’ve inherited.

As a third bullet point on that article (it’s a broad one for one for a review of dinosaur books!), there are these interesting questions:

How did it happen that museums began pursuing vertical integration—controlling the fate of fossils from their first discovery—just when American corporations were beginning to do so? Is it possible to create symbolic value and legitimize “status and wealth” by removing objects like dinosaur bones from the market? Are dinosaurs “a fitting emblem for modern capitalism” or do they depict “the poverty of an older, laissez-faire model of social organization that much of the economic elite had already come to regard as obsolete”?