Public Policy Review #2

PolicyWTF, The Not So Evil YouTube Recommendation Engine, Delhi Pollution, and More

Why do I need to subscribe for another newsletter, you ask?

A good question. But consider the thought that this newsletter is really a weekly public policy thought-letter. Also consider that while excellent newsletters on specific themes within public policy already exist, this thought-letter is about frameworks, mental models, and key ideas that will hopefully help you think about any public policy problem in imaginative ways.

It seeks to answer just one question: how do I think about a particular public policy problem/solution?

If you’re still with me, this attempt is based on an unsubstantiated insight that the newsletter is the new blog. Blogging is dead because the opportunity costs of reading and writing a blog post are too high. A thought-letter, at least the model I have in my mind, instead is several blog posts rolled into one and delivered to your email inbox.

If you’re still with me, read on for this week’s review, the second edition. Read the first edition here.


This section looks at egregious public policies. Policies that make you go: WTF, Did that really happen?

In today’s PolicyWTF are Food Control Orders of the 1960s in Delhi and Bombay. Essentially, the government riding a narrative of food self-sufficiency legislated restrictions on the maximum number of guests that could be served food at weddings and funerals! Sample this from a paper Feeling the rules: Documentary practices of rationing and the ‘signature’ of the official:

... these Control Orders were a definitive feature of the 1960s food regime with its pillars of austerity, agricultural productivity and rationing controls. These Control Orders while they sought to regulate parties of all kinds – official parties, funeral parties and festival parties – were however mainly aimed at the opulent displays and lavish hospitality of Indian weddings and more than anything else, the wonton cooking and consumption of rationed items and the unrestrained social impulse to invite hundreds of guests. The central administration in both the 60s ((when the Delhi Guest Control Order and the Delhi Food (Restriction on Service of Meals by Catering Establishments) Order were issued in 1968)) and in the 70s (where the Delhi Guest Control Orders were put in place again once in 1972 and again in 1976) looked to its lieutenants, the Food Inspectors to report overindulgence at social gatherings.

On the lines of Anticipating the Unintended, a colleague informed that to get around such policies, hosts started issuing prepaid coupons to their guests for nearby restaurants. For more, read this ethnographic account of these egregious food control orders on

A Framework A Week

Tools to think about public policy

The name of this thought-letter itself comes from a powerful insight: Not every consequence of a policy that’s unintended is also unanticipated.

This differentiation is important because policies that don’t work as intended are often spared serious critique under the excuse that some effects were unintended and hence unanticipated; the intention was good after all. Think demonetisation and the reasons that were used to justify it.

This framework argues that sound policy design can, in fact, anticipate some unintended consequences in advance. These anticipated-unintended consequences must be taken into account in the policy design process itself.

Table 1 illustrates this insight:

De Zwart explains:

The left bottom cell is empty because what is intended cannot be unanticipated, and vice versa. Intended consequences can only be anticipated (A). But unintended consequences can be either anticipated or unanticipated (B or D). The focus when theorising unintended consequences has been on A and D. A represents the rational ideal—purposive action realises intentions; D is the realm of unexpected outcomes, the core subject of social sciences according to many. Our concern here is B, unintended but anticipated outcomes. Like D (unintended and unanticipated), B consists of “things nobody wants,” but unlike D, things under B are foreseen. Category B effects are real and common, and, as noted, in need of separate attention.

The conceptual disambiguation of the unanticipated and the unintended is useful for policy analysis. The key idea is that experience, economic reasoning, and an understanding of the local context can help an analyst move many consequences initially listed under D to B in Table 1. The next time someone proposes a price cap on movie tickets, you can anticipate this unintended consequence in advance: popcorn packets and other such complementary goods will become a lot costlier.

Further reading and our modification to this framework is here.

India Policy Watch

Insights on burning policy issues in India

How can I talk of anything else this week but Delhi’s struggle with pollution? One attempted policy solution to this problem was the odd-even programme. Thus far, there was little reliable evidence on the intended impact of this policy. An HT op-ed this week cites a few studies to conclude that the odd-even programme can provide some relief during peak pollution episodes. The best experimental result showed that PM2.5 levels were lowered by 14-16% on average during 8 am-8 pm during the odd-even scheme in January 2016. However, it remains only an emergency provision to be applied in conjunction with several others for it to be effective. But the real solutions lie elsewhere. The op-ed goes on to say:

Is odd-even a silver bullet to avoid the winter peak? No. For one, we need to address stubble burning holistically. Data suggests that stubble burning was lower in 2018 than in previous years. These government efforts need to continue, ideally moving towards more sustainable agriculture practices in the long term.

Ultimately, we need accelerated progress on longer-term measures, targeting each of the major sources of pollution, implemented around the year. We must tackle household biomass burning, power plants, industries, waste burning, transport emissions (especially trucks), and road and construction dust in parallel. For reducing transport emissions from private vehicle use in cities, public transport investments are critical. Delhi needs more buses that it currently has. This has to be taken up on priority.

As a second-order cause, this tweet thread links pollution to poor water management.

On the same note, Niranjan Rajadhyaksha posted an interesting question on Twitter:

How would you design a Coasean solution to reduce high levels of pollution in New Delhi because of crop burning in neighbouring states, or would transaction costs make it impossible?

We’ll tackle this question in a podcast episode soon.


Big fish eating small fish = Foreign Policy in action

What explains the varied responses to dealing with Huawei on 5G?

Much of the commentary on this question identifies two reasons. One, allowing 5G would expose citizens to Chinese surveillance. Two, Huawei has close links to the Chinese Communist Party. And since it is required to comply with the Party’s demands, it will act less like a corporation that places shareholder profits before everything else and more like an agent of the Party.

If reason 1 (surveillance) were the only cause, many nation-states would have prioritised investment into their own 5G systems. In any case, it is well-known that many nation-states besides China engage in surveillance over mobile networks.

If reason 2 (Huawei’s party links) were the only cause, a company with much weaker links to the CCP (to the extent that is possible) would have received a more positive global response. But many Chinese companies are facing pushback, not Huawei alone.

So my argument is that neither reasons sufficiently explain the variety of responses that Huawei has received. From a structural realist lens, the responses have a lot to do with China’s power rather than with Huawei itself.

The US sees China as a challenger to its greatest-power status. Hence the opposition to Chinese companies. The US can also shape the global narrative against China and that is another reason why we see articles trying to induce more fear about Chinese surveillance. This Bloomberg article The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate U.S. Companies, for example, hasn’t been substantiated after it was released but has introduced enough Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt in many countries.

Germany and many European states do not see China as a challenger because China is simply too big for them. Hence, Germany has stopped short of banning telecom companies from buying Huawei equipment. It instead has opted for a conditional yes approach with strengthened liability clauses.

For India, China remains its biggest adversary. Moreover, China is in India’s neighbourhood and there’s a history of unresolved tensions between the two states. Hence, from a structural realist lens, India’s response should be more on the lines of the US and less on the lines of Germany.

My colleagues have a more nuanced take here.

Radically Networked Societies

When networks meet pyramids

It is folklore to blame the YouTube recommendation engine for polarisation. Yet, very little proof substantiated this claim. Finally, we now have a study which analyses the claim and finds that Maybe It’s Not YouTube’s Algorithm That Radicalizes People. Researchers instead found that a supply-demand framework explains polarisation much better. The latent demand for polarising videos already existed but the audience was constrained by a limited supply of such channels. This contradicts the view that supply of this media by YouTube recommendations was ‘radicalising’ an otherwise moderate audience. The entire paper is here.


Reading and listening recommendations on public policy matters

  1. Those interested in urban planning will find this myth-busting episode of Conversations with Tyler extremely helpful: Alain Bertaud on Cities, Markets, and People. I’ll capture the insights of Bertaud’s book Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities later.

  2. Mike Beckley has several insightful articles challenging the dominant narrative that China will catch-up with the US soon. The article The Power of Nations: Measuring What Matters falls in the #mindblown category. His latest The United States Should Fear a Faltering China is a follow-up of that view.

  3. A policy agenda to meet India’s steep employment challenges in which V. Anantha Nageswaran, Gulzar Natarajan argue that India must enable small businesses to grow since these hold the greatest potential for job creation.

That’s all for the week, folks. 再见 👋