Economics Science & technology Society

[2917] Urban life will not go away with WFH and digital technology

Last week, I participated in a discussion panel on urban poverty and urbanization. Over the course of the session, a fellow discussant highlighted the potential of working-from-home phenomenon in reducing the need for urban centers.

I am unsure if I could agree with the suggestion.

First off, such decentralization is possible. It is not out of this world. The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted discussions on living away from cities. We could work from everywhere now. Some have even thought perhaps it is time to go rural altogether. There is a logic behind it.

Beyond the panel, there is a rethinking about high-density area. As it goes, maybe we should spread it out a little to make our society more resilient against future outbreaks. WFH is one of the ways that could be achieved. We can work remotely, and therefore we do not need a place in the city. Ditch the city, the slogan might sound.

If pandemic is the only thing to worry about, sure. Decentralizing the population into many smaller low-density towns would be the way forward.

But cities are not just about working culture, and pandemic is not the only thing that concerns us.

If I remember my lesson back in university, there is such a thing as agglomeration. If enough companies—and indeed people—gathered together, they would enjoy some kind of economies of scale in more than one way.

In terms of services, the more people there are in a place, the cheaper it is to deliver those services. This is relevant to both public and private services. Think of mass transit, or better city trains. Super-expensive to build and operate. Having it in Kuala Lumpur might make sense with its 2 million-4 million people depending on the definition used to define the city along with its satellites. Less so in smaller cities such as Kuantan that does not even hit one million population mark. Malacca Town with its low population city has a monorail, but we all know it is a bad, expensive joke.

And it is not just mass transit. Think about utilities. Think of roads or better in these days of interconnectivity, fiber optics network. It is cheaper to lay the cable for city use, like in Kuching, than in the interior of Sarawak. Indeed, communication tower is generally the preferred cheaper method of expanding internet services into rural areas.

There are plenty of examples across many sectors. Cost consideration alone make cities capable of providing services rural areas struggle to provide.

Large population is also a theme central to growth theory. As one growth theory puts it, beyond capital accumulation and technological progress, population growth is really the ultimate driver of growth. With population, comes new ideas. Edmund Phelps long ago wrote the following that pretty much summarizes mainstream growth theory:

One can hardly imagine, I think, how poor we would be today were it not for the rapid population growth of the past to which we owe the enormous number of technological advances enjoyed today… If I could re-do the history of the world, halving population size each year from the beginning of time on some random basis, I would not do it for fear of losing Mozart in the process. [Edmund Phelps. Population Increase. Canadian Journal of Economics. August 1968. Page 511-512]

To put it simply, technological progress itself is a function of population growth.

Good stuff tend to be created when people congregate in a place. New observation, innovation, idea exchange and all that happen more often among large population located in a dense area than in a sparsely populated space. The residents of large cities also make sophisticated demands arising from urban life. Without these demands, nobody would think of the solution and no progress would be made.

There might be an optimal population size. But for Malaysian cities, I think we could make it denser. I prefer denser cities not just because of the factors mentioned above and more, but also because the toll sprawls exert on the environment. Big cities tend to share resources better.

Finally, it is true that the pandemic lockdown has proven that we have the technology to work from home.

But it also proves we do not enjoy being stuck at home.

We do not just live within the space of our four walls. It is the culture, the connections and the values that matter as well. We yearn society. I yearn the city.

Many options available in the cities are available on the internet not because online services are taking over those services previously provided physically. Rather, the internet accommodates the provision of those services. It does not make cities irrelevant. Ultimately, those very services are made possible by cities.

Economics Science & technology

[2897] Two-tier regulations to enhance ridesharing as a shock absorber in the Malaysian labor market

The gig economy can be many things but within the realm of ridesharing, I see it primarily as a shock absorber in the labor market. That means ridesharing is a temporary fall back plan if you have trouble in the formal market or in between jobs.

Here is an example of ridesharing as a shock absorber: if someone lost an income through job loss, he or she would not suffer 100% immediately because he or she could go to ridesharing without much cost. This shock absorber can be a minor alternative to unemployment benefits, except it comes as no cost to the government.

Because of this, I prefer to have flexibility in the ridesharing sector. Regulations could reduce the flexibility and reduce the effectively of the ridesharing sector as a shock absorber.

Yet it is quite clear that there is a need for labor protection. Regulations do have a role, especially since there is an asymmetry of bargaining power between those driving and the owner of the platform, driving by technology. In the case of food delivery, which is also a part of the gig economy, Foodpanda has market power over its food delivery workers and that market power was only matched with its deliverers’ union-like organizing successes.

When it comes to ridesharing, it does seem current regulations are reducing such flexibility and hurting the role of the sector as a labor market shock absorber. This inflexibility is caused by the need to register with the government if a person wants to participate in the ridesharing economy by driving.

Grab certainly blamed the new ridesharing regulations for reduced number of drivers on the road. This seems to be backed by complaints made by passengers over longer waiting time and higher fares. I personally I have suffered longer waiting time and higher fares, compared to before the regulations came into place. Talking to former drivers have also convinced that there are those who chose to cease becoming participants in the ridesharing sector. These point towards greater barrier to entry and hence, reduced flexibility.

I think as a compromise between the need for regulations and flexibility, perhaps there should be a two-tiers regulation:

  • For those earning below a certain threshold per month over x months, they could be exempted (partially?) from registration.
  • For those surpassing that threshold, they should be covered by current regulations fully .

The threshold is there to differentiate those doing ridesharing as a part time job and those doing it full time (or simply heavy participate of the gig economy). The shock absorber factor is more relevant to the part-timers than to the full-timers.

Admittedly, this will make implementation more complex and open the grounds for some non-compliance. There will be grey areas but I think in making the gig economy as a shock absorber, we should be tolerant of such non-compliance within some margins.

Implementation issues aside, theoretically this should be improve the role of ridesharing as a shock absorber in the labor market. It allows part-timers to join the gig economy without much cost, and making ridesharing sector as a temporary fallback.

Economics Politics & government Science & technology

[2894] Free Breakfast Program: Welfare aid, targeting, social status and social stigma

As technology progresses with information becoming richer and more accessible, it is easier and easier to do targeted policy. Governments, especially those with conservative economic leanings compromising with democratic pressures, love targeting because in theory, it is cheaper and it avoids wastage. In fact, going back to basic microeconomics, it might even eliminate deadweight loss. I also love targeting, up to a point.

But just because we are able to do targeted policy does not mean we should do it. There are other considerations to be taken into account.

Targeting can create social stigma and that can be damaging in other ways. It does so through signaling, which means it lets other people know that a person is being targeted for some policy. This is something policymakers need to be mindful of, beyond the dollars and cents.

In a society where social status does matter, assistance could lower a person social status.

This is why government cash assistance program via automatic bank transfer is good, among other things. It keeps transactions private, and therefore gives no signaling to other people. So, it has minimal effect on social status if any.

But not all assistance policy can be private. Many do necessarily give out signaling affecting social status. The Free Breakfast Program for students to be introduced by the Ministry of Education in 2020 is one of such un-private assistance policy.

As a result, a program like the FBP cannot be targeted. This is especially so when it comes to kids who may take signaling from targeting wrongly, leading to bullying and social estrangement. At schools, we need to make learning as easy as possible, not harder for whatever reasons. Giving free breakfast for certain groups, which are the neediest, send signals to other better-off students that the beneficiaries are of a certain social class.

Schools at the elementary level are grounds for inculcating values. Some of the values we should inculcate is egalitarianism. And this makes signaling something to be thought of in designing policy relevant to the education system.

Our country is already divided in so many dimensions. We probably do not want to impress on our younglings of social divisions through yet another dimension. Targeting at this cost is not worth it.

In our specific FBP case, a blanket policy is better than a targeted policy. It muzzles the signalling, and fights the creation of social stigma that is the seed for future division in our society.

Books & printed materials History & heritage Science & technology

[2784] Romancing philosophy

Traditions and dogmas rub one another down to a minimum in such centers of varied intercourse; where there are a thousand faiths we are apt to become sceptical of them all. Probably the traders were the first sceptics; they had seen too much to believe too much; and the general disposition of merchants to classify all men as either fools or knaves inclined them to question every creed. Gradually, too, they were developing science; mathematics grew with the increasing complexity of exchange, astronomy with the increasing audacity of navigation. The growth of wealth brought the leisure and security which are the prerequisite of research and speculation; men now asked the stars not only for guidance on the seas but as well for an answer to the riddles of the universe; the first Greek philosophers were astronomers. “Proud of their achievements,” says Aristotle, “men pushed farther afield after the Persian wars; they took all knowledge for their province, and sought ever wider studies.” Men grew bold enough to attempt natural explanations of processes and events before attributed to supernatural agencies and powers; magic and ritual slowly gave way to science and control; and philosophy began. [Will Durant. The Story of Philosophy. 1926]

Science & technology

[2741] There is a dice

In general, quantum mechanics does not predict a single definite result for an observation. Instead, it predicts a number of different outcomes and tells us how likely each of these is. That is to say, if one made the same measurement on a large number of similar systems, each of which started off in the same way, one would find that the result of the measurement would be A in a certain number of cases, B in a different number, and so on. One could predict the approximate number of times that the result would be A or B, but one could not predict the specific result of an individual measurement. Quantum mechanics therefore introduces an unavoidable element of unpredictability or randomness into science. Einstein objected to this very strongly, despite the important role he had played in the development of these ideas. Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for his contribution to quantum theory. Nevertheless, Einstein never accepted that the universe was governed by chance; his feelings were summed up in his famous statement “God does not play dice.” Most other scientists, however, were willing to accept quantum mechanics because it agreed perfectly with experiment. Indeed, it has been an outstandingly successful theory and underlies nearly all of modern science and technology. It governs the behavior of transistors and integrated circuits, which are the essential component of electronic devices such as televisions and computers, and is also the basis of modern chemistry and biology. The only area of physical science into which quantum mechanics has not yet been properly incorporated are gravity and the large-scale structure of the universe. [Stephen Hawking. A Brief History of Time. 1988]