Demonetization: Too Much Too Soon

Length Estimate: Long (words > 1000)

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Sorry for the absence last week. I was derailed by an event of world-historical proportions – the American election results  the conclusion of my research on Indian land reforms and colonial peasant revolts. I actually wrote the following piece on the Great Indian Demonetization last Monday and sent it out to various online news outlets as a contribution. Due to the lack of response I have decided to post it below. A week has passed since this piece was written and many of the concerns that are outlined below have been vindicated in the meantime. The long-running tropes of administrative inadequacy and legislative myopia were baked into the demonetization cake and many commentators were similarly skeptical about its likely outcomes. Although I don’t want to ascribe more importance to this event than it deserves by making it the subject of an article, its resonance with the themes covered in this blog makes it fair game.

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Using Cheat Codes

Length Estimate: Long (words > 1000 )

Anyone who played video games in the era of the early Grand Theft Autos and Warcraft remembers the amazing power of cheat codes. Here was a way to transcend all the grinding and hard work through a simple keyboard or controller combination to progress further in the game. I recall punching in “allyourbasearebelongtous” to advance through nearly all of Warcraft III just to get through its incredibly compelling storyline. The problem with cheat codes, quite obviously, was that they didn’t make you better at the game at all; I realized that after I got comprehensively beaten in almost every Warcraft game I played online. Cheat codes unlinked the theoretical relationship between game completion and player competency that made video games a nominally productive exercise. On the other hand, being competent at Grand Theft Auto makes for rather low stakes.

The purpose of this labored meditation on cheat codes is to set up an analogy. Continue reading “Using Cheat Codes”

A Technical Issue

Length Estimate: Medium (500 < words < 1000)

In his books Thinking Like A State and Two Cheers for Anarchy, the scholar James C. Scott writes extensively about how high-level bureaucratic actors like governments and corporations attempt to fit existing situations into a legible schema in order to achieve some pre-determined goal. One of his striking examples is the advent of scientific forestry in Germany, where monoculture forests were designed in order to maximize the output of lumber per unit of forest. The state saw the forest not as a complex ecosystem with multiple uses but as the repository of a single useful resource that ought to be extracted with the greatest possible efficiency. This experiment yielded spectacular results for a century – i.e., three generations – before things fell apart. Disaster struck when the benefits of a rich soil created by centuries of mixed, natural forest wore out and the “scientific” forest was exposed to threats that it had not been designed to overcome. This is only one of the many times that an understanding of a problem in purely technical terms – as something to be solved through the application of scientific understanding of natural laws – has resulted in utter failure.

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Solar Snake Oil

Length Estimate: Medium (500 < words < 1000)

In last week’s post, I began an inquiry into India’s energy situation and the feasibility of its ambitious plan to install 100 GW of solar power by 2022. One of my primary concerns is how such a massive infrastructural program will be financed and whether this investment represents the least wasteful way to lower the country’s carbon footprint. Consequently, I have been researching the topic of climate finance extensively and there are some interesting aspects of that issue that I will flesh out in future posts. Currently, I am getting the impression that we are approaching climate change in a manner akin to the passengers of the Titanic rejecting lifeboats in favor of building an entirely new-and-improved, iceberg-proof Titanic from the parts of the existing ship. In this post, however, I want to highlight the difficulty of replacing conventional electricity with solar using an example that is representative of the challenge that faces the Indian solar effort.

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