Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Trumpet

I recently had occasion to revisit Edgar Allan Poe's masterpiece, "The Raven." If you have not read The Raven, you must. Maybe it's meant to be a forlorn lament for Poe's Lost Lenore, but I found it incredibly funny. Here is the first of several verses (to read the rest, click here):

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
     While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
     As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
     Only this and nothing more.”

The Raven is written --- wait for it--- in trochaic octameter, with a difficult yet utterly enchanting lilt. David Pearce and I like limericks (and so does Dipankar Dasgupta, in Bengali no less!) but this was something else. Irresistible. So I offer you my attempt at (approximate) trochaic octameter, inspired by the great Poe. Feel free to send me additional verses!

The Trumpet

Once upon a midnight dreary, a wintry month both bleak and weary
An 8th November dark and bleary, now part of human lore ---
     At the tv we sat staring, as around the news kept blaring
     A revelation starkly glaring, one never heard before
Who was this, of orange bearing, scarcely imagined before?
     'Twas a Trumpet, nothing more

With orange mane so starchly tended, with corpulent mien distended,
With anger by his tweets subtended, this beast of blood and gore
     Had seized the Office of the Land, like pussy in his tiny hand,
     Had desecrated Good and Grand, at last he'd got to score
Yet what said he, this orangutan, once he had got to score?
     Quoth he, harrumphing: "Gimme more."

Perched fatly on an escalator, there he'd stood, the Orange Hater
Cursing Mexicans and Muslims and immigrants and more:
     "If I killed someone (just for sport), I know I'd still have your support,
     The facts I gladly will distort, I'll make up lies galore!"
"How would you win," a rival asked, "with all these lies galore?"
     Quoth the Trumpet: "You're a bore."

So there he smirked, inaugurated, his crowd-size promptly overrated,
Grimacing and gesturing, and growling as he swore:
     "Tax cuts for the one percent, that's what I'll do as President;
     And screw the rest --- that's my intent --- now that I have the floor."
"A dash of kindness..." asked the Public, "now that you have the floor?"
     Quoth the Trumpet: "Fuck the Poor."

Down in sunny Mar-a-Lago, nursing a mal estomago
The Trumpet flatulently burped a million tweets and more:
     "Plummy posts for loyal faces!" "Blacks had better know their places!"
     "Shithole countries are disgraces!" --- an unremitting roar.
"Could we tone down," asked the Public, "this vile and noisome roar?"
      Quoth the Trumpet: "Whatever for?"

Perchance with all the hi-falutin' maneuvers with Kim and Putin
The Trump will lose his plumpy footin', and wash up dead ashore
     No shithole place will be so crass, to breathe a Prayer or a Mass
     Thus may his fat recumbent ass decay for evermore
So we can turn, and then return, to the glory days of yore
     Quoth the Trumpet [off-stage]: "Nevermore!"

Postscript: I've discovered, to my gentle dismay but great admiration, that I am not the first to write about a US President in trochaic octameter. Here is a brilliant example by Frank Jacobs, from issue 265 of Mad magazine, September 1986. (There may be others.)

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Kenneth Arrow, 1921-2017

Professor Kenneth Arrow died on February 21, 2017, at the age of 95. He was widely regarded (along with Paul Samuelson, John Hicks and possibly --- depending on tastes --- John Maynard Keynes, Milton Friedman and Gary Becker) as one of the greatest economists of the 20th century. He also happened to be my favorite economist of all time.    

Professor Dipak Banerjee, my teacher, introduced me to Kenneth Arrow in 1974, who appeared (much in the manner of Hindu god[desse]s for whom my mother has special reverence) in the form of a small yellow paperback. I acquired Social Choice and Individual Values from Dasgupta and Co. of College Street, and still have it. I was a first year undergraduate. That little book was a repository of the most profound logical thought. I had never seen anyone distill what appeared to be an abstract question in political economy into a theoretical device that cut sharply, and cut deep.

What was the question? Briefly, it was well known from the so-called Condorcet paradox that majority voting could produce nasty cycles in choices, even when the individual preferences involved in that voting process were perfectly reasonable.  That led to the question: was there any political system that could “reasonably” aggregate individual preferences? Now think about the question for a second: we know what majority voting is, but there is in principle an infinity of other systems. How could one ever formulate such a problem, let alone attempt to answer it? The very formulation — as axioms placed on an abstract mapping that connected individual preferences to their social counterpart — was sheer genius. But the apparatus was not only beautiful: it could also speak. It argued that under the minimal desiderata placed on the aggregator, there was no way of putting together individual preferences into a satisfactory social ordering; one that was cycle-free.

Arrow had received the Nobel Prize just two years before this encounter with him. He was just 51 years old, by far the youngest Laureate then (or since) in Economics. I ran off to the National Library in Calcutta to dig out the Nobel citation, excitedly anticipating a homage to my beloved Impossibility Theorem. Yet oddly, the The Nobel citation mentions Arrow’s monumental theorem only at the very end, and almost in passing. It focused instead on Arrow’s (and Hicks’s) contributions to general equilibrium theory:

“[Arrow] provided the basis for a radical reformulation of the traditional equilibrium theory. Through this reformulation, which was based on the mathematical theory of convex sets, the general equilibrium theory gained both in generality and in simplicity… The model presented in this paper became the starting point for the major part of further research in this field. Among Arrow's many important contributions should also be mentioned his development of the theory of uncertainty and its incorporation within the frame of general equilibrium theory and, furthermore, his analysis of the possibilities for decentralized decisions in a society where the price system is fixed by the central authority… As perhaps the most important of Arrow's many contributions to welfare theory appears his ‘possibility theorem,’ according to which it is impossible to construct a social welfare function out of individual preference functions.”

This was disappointing as far as my current passion was concerned. But it was also exhilarating: because there was more! (Later, I realized just how much more.) Back I went to Professor Banerjee. I wanted to know why general equilibrium was not just a question of several equations in the same number of unknowns, and what all this was about “the mathematical theory of convex sets.” In response, Dipak-babu helpfully produced another small tome by Gerard Debreu. This was based on the work with Arrow. Though certainly more mainstream this time in its questions, the techniques went way over my 17-year old head. Briefly again, the theory of general equilibrium in its purest form would need to deal with highly interactive systems of demand and supply, to which the simplistic logic of counting equations and unknowns did not apply well. Moreover, one would need to allow for not just single-valued functions describing supply and demand, but for choices that would sometimes be multi-valued, both for consumer and for producers. The resulting search for equilibrium would have to come from a deeper mathematical base. As I slowly began to follow the argument, I realized that this was no mere technicality. The idea was to take the philosophy of Adam Smith to its logical end, to establish the most fundamental conditions under which a general equilibrium could be said to exist, and to display its welfare properties. It was another tour de force in philosophy, of the kind that philosophers rarely would — or more aptly, rarely could — engage in.

It is noteworthy that Professors Arrow and Debreu had very different goals that drove their joint research. For Debreu, the theory of general equilibrium was the philosophical culmination of his work. He personally told me that he considered the two welfare theorems  celebrating Smith’s invisible hand to be the crowning glory of economic theory. In contrast, for Arrow, the very same results delineated an idealized frontier beyond which markets ceased to function with full efficiency. The theory of general equilibrium, with its attendant theorems that spoke to the magic of markets, were stakes driven into the ground to mark his explorations beyond. In April 1978, Arrow summarized this view in a lecture delivered at Columbia University:

“[I interpreted] neoclassical economic theory and particularly the then new and rapidly developing discipline of welfare economics as pointing to an ideal efficient economy rather than the actual one, marked both by massive unemployment and by monopolistic distortion… In true Hegelian fashion, capitalist instability and the socialist counterattack seemed to be synthesized: it seemed possible to have an economy that retained much of capitalist drive and initiative and yet gave room for the government to intervene to avoid at least the worst inefficiencies of unemployment and the idling of other resources. I accepted provisionally what seemed to be a widespread consensus in the euphoria of postwar economic growth. The state had an active role to play in maintaining effective demand and in dealing with the many imperfections of the market system revealed by theoretical welfare economics — the overcoming of market failures and monopoly and the realization of economies of scale…

I have spoken of a provisional acceptance. I still felt it important to explore more deeply the possibility that socialism was a superior possibility. I was more aware of the complexities of operation of a socialist system and sought to develop more deeply the theory of such a system. I also sought to explore more fully the criteria for a democratic social organization… [Today,] the apparent pause in economic growth, the crisis in stabilization policy occasioned by the current inflationary threats and realities, and the loss of purpose in redistributional measures all combine to raise anew the question of alternatives to capitalism.”

Yes, Arrow did make a cautious case for socialism. To me, it was particularly interesting that in the end, the case was made not on the positive grounds of inevitable destruction of the capitalist system, but rather on the normative grounds that such a system could be rife with inefficiencies and unequal treatment.

But the similarities with wishy-washy proponents of one “system” over another end there. Arrow was already deeply concerned with the problems posed by the asymmetry of information, and the efficiency with which the market could deal with such asymmetries. There were others who followed similar paths: among them Leonid Hurwicz, Roy Radner, Jacob Marschak, George Akerlof and Michael Spence. Asymmetries of information lay at the heart of theories of organization, contractual relationships, peculiarities in markets such the market for health, and even theories of racial discrimination based on statistical considerations. It is fair to say that Arrow made deep contributions to all these areas of research. In Arrow’s own words:

“My research, even before 1972, moved in directions beyond those cited for the Nobel Memorial Prize. Most of it, in one way or another, deals with information as an economic variable, both as to its production and as to its use. Two 1962 papers studied the efficiency with which the market encourages innovation and the implications of learning by doing for economic growth. In 1963 and later papers, I pointed out that the special market characteristics of medical care and medical insurance could be explained by reference to differences in information among the parties involved. Later themes included a specification of the demand for information and the implications of information as an economic input for returns to scale. Another area of study was the economics of racial discrimination.”

Arrow’s contributions to the economics of information are fundamental. In similar vein, I believe that his research into  learning by doing and economic growth is also an attempt to break free of the first-best world so lovingly described in Debreu's A Theory of Value. The short paper on learning by doing is a modern classic, foreshadowing a modern literature on endogenous growth:

“Though doubtless no economist would ever have denied the role of technological change in economic growth, its overwhelming importance relative to capital formation has perhaps only been fully realized with the important empirical studies of Abramovitz and Solow. These results do not contradict the neoclassical view of the production function as an expression of technical knowledge. All that has to be added is the obvious fact that knowledge is growing in time. Nevertheless a view of economic growth that depends so heavily on an exogenous variable, let alone one so difficult to measure as the quantity of knowledge, is hardly intellectually satisfactory…

"The theorems about the economic world presented here differ from those in most standard economic theories; profits are the result of technical change; in a free-enterprise system, the rate of investment will be less than the optimum; net investment and the stock of capital become subordinate concepts, with gross investment taking a leading role.”

As a graduate student, reading all this in late 70s and early 80s, I viewed Arrow as a thinker who could both ask the deepest questions in economic and political philosophy, and at the same  time use mathematical arguments with ease and utility to answer them to a substantive degree. This was someone who could put past accomplishments into perspective, leave them behind, and seek to look beyond to newer and more difficult concerns. Such were the nature of his forays into questions of incomplete information, pervasive externalities, increasing returns and interpersonal equity. There was just one word for it: inspirational. The inevitable reaction was not long in coming: I wanted to be like Ken Arrow. Surprise surprise, that was not destined to happen. But something else did: I had the immense good fortune to become his colleague at Stanford.

I was at Stanford on a job flyout, at the very beginning of 1982. I had been warned about the meeting with Arrow. Apparently, all I had to do was tell him the assumptions of my model and then, before I could get any further, he would proceed to tell me all the results that could conceivably be proved from those assumptions. This was unnerving news. But nothing of the sort happened.

I walked into his office. It was small and cluttered, full of books that went up high. It had a vertical rather than horizontal feel. Arrow himself gave the opposite impression. He was shorter than I had expected, strong, rooted to the ground. The man seemed to be in constant motion. He was both brisk and welcoming. He was wearing brightly colored suspenders, and there was an immense bicycle helmet on his desk. (I did not then realize that these, along with the perennially flipped pencil at seminars, would be an intrinsic part of my later memory of him.) I began talking about my work. It was a bit of an out-of-body experience; I could see myself talking to him. Arrow listened very closely. There was an intensity of gaze that never wavered, except when he would start speculating, during which he would look up at the ceiling and back to me. He asked questions non-stop. He talked very fast, the words tripping over one another, the tone uneven, the sentences clearly struggling to keep up with the flow of thoughts. He didn’t exactly anticipate my results. But after 15 minutes, I had a second eerie sensation: that I was talking to someone who  had thought about my problem for a very long time. This was a weird feeling that I came to associate with Arrow over the next few years.

When we finished our meeting, I summoned up the courage to quote Joan Robinson on Bagicha Minhas and the CES production function: “It is a sad comment on the state of our education that a talented young man be brought from India to be bamboozled like this.” He roared with laughter and said, you can put that up on your office door if you come here. I did.

The interaction with Arrow was pretty much a constant thing. He was teaching History of Economic Thought at the time. I was ploughing through Schumpeter’s book and sat in on a few lectures. I would have thought his favorite economist was Walras. But it wasn’t, it was Cournot, and the choice now makes complete sense. Arrow had long moved away from general equilibrium and he was now firmly in the world of imperfect competition. Cournot’s notion of equilibrium — now Nash’s — spoke to him more forcefully than a price-taking system. (He had, of course, long worried about the existence of the Walrasian auctioneer, who was supposedly setting these prices in the first place.) Arrow invariably spoke of Cournot with great enthusiasm.

Less enthusiasm was shown towards the neo-Ricardians. Once I had mustered up enough courage, I would talk with Arrow with complete freedom, and before long I had told him that I had once spent an entire day with Piero Sraffa at Cambridge, and that he had given  me a signed copy of his book (another famous little tome that did the rounds in Calcutta, albeit in somewhat different circles than Professor Banerjee’s.) I told him that I admired the book for its apparent demonstration that the distribution of income across labor income and profit could not be fully pinned down by economics — that some reference to the political system was needed. Arrow looked at me with a mix of irritation and pity: “I’ll get you out of that soon enough.” And of course he did convince me that Production of Commodities By Means of Commodities had an extra degree of freedom in it that generated a fake indeterminacy, though I still harbor a sneaking suspicion that Sraffa was on to something.

Arrow was obviously deeply concerned about the role of information and constantly sought to bring that central idea up in all the sensible contexts he could find. As an example, I was working then on non-convexities in labor markets via nutrition and how this could generate inequality. Arrow impressed upon me the parallel with informational nonconvexities and how this could generate high rates of return to individuals (or holders of hedge funds), thereby resulting in persistent and growing inequality. Of course, interested as he was in formal structure, he delighted in the possibility that the same theoretical setup could potentially be applied to matters as disparate as undernutrition and information. That same delight in formal structure helped me on many other occasions; ranging from game theory to general equilibrium, where he took the time to read my work and was always both critical and encouraging. These interactions have never left me, and many decades later, when I am almost as old now as Ken was when I met him, they continue to inform my own thinking.

When I left for India in 1986, he was initially skeptical, but then immensely encouraging. I think he did feel that the tenure-track system had its constraints; that except in the most creative and courageous of researchers it could foster inhibition and an unquestioned adherence to the status quo. In the end, he understood my reluctance to be in that system and to go back to India instead. He kept in touch with my research and always responded to my occasional questions, and remained a guide.

I cannot help but wonder about how many professional lives he has affected in this way. I wasn’t even his student. I have never written a paper with him. I was completely peripheral, a junior colleague whom he took care to encourage, and whose excessive phone bills to India he occasionally covered on his research budget. Admittedly, I hung out with him as much as I could, but it is absolutely clear to me that the intellectual energy that came out of Kenneth Arrow and into the lives of so many that were fortunate to interact with him was nothing short of phenomenal. I can extrapolate this from my own experience with utter confidence.

There are many stories about Ken Arrow. Some are semi-apocryphal. Some we can vouch for. For instance, I have seen him nod off during talks (including one that I gave) and then wake up to ask a remarkable question. And he did flip pencils in seminars, and I have seen him on at least one occasion attend a talk with his bicycle helmet on. Once Doug Bernheim and I, convinced that a speaker was wrong, paid no further attention to the seminar and tried to construct a counterexample together. Arrow somehow knew that that was what we were up to, because after the seminar he walked into Doug’s office (where we were still at it), wrote the required example on the board, did a little jig and walked away — complete with bicycle helmet. But one story possibly is apocryphal, and yet fully sums up the Ken Arrow that I was so fortunate to know. Arrow was in class, teaching. He was speaking fast, running as he always did with his thoughts. Students were frantically taking notes as the disembodied sentences emerged. And then, suddenly: “Stop, stop! That’s all wrong!” As the students frantically began to erase their jottings, he continued: “No, no, not what I said, what I was going to say.”

That was Kenneth Arrow: self-effacing, razor-sharp, a genius; ever ahead of himself, ever ahead of his time.
PS: Some asked me about another Arrow story elsewhere in this blog, which they couldn't find. Here's the link.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Where's the Dirt?

From an email conversation on demonetization with a reporter from the Calcutta Telegraph (Devadeep Purohit) December 28. His story ran January 1 here.

There are divergent views on when the impact of demonetization would be over. Are you looking at any timeline? 

Well, there are some obvious timelines:

Short-run: December 30. I predict that there will be no last-minute extensions for deposits, simply because an embarrassingly large fraction of the estimated Rs 16 tr outstanding appears to have come back, well over Rs 14 tr (and I am sure the number will be far higher as we get the updated figures). 

[Backdrop: The rupee is about 68 to the dollar, and Indian GDP is around Rs 130 tr.] 

It's embarrassing because I am sure the government did not want so much of the outstanding money to obediently come back! Either the share of black wealth held in cash is small, or people have been very efficient in using money mules of various kinds to launder their black money (presumably at a price, but not one that the government will pocket). The truth is probably in between.

Medium-run: the fiscal year ending 2017, where there are some more opportunities to bring in money; for instance, anyone can deposit via Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana and pay a 50% penalty tax (plus another 25% blocked off as a forced loan to GOI); supposedly no questions asked. Though I doubt that after this, people will ever believe that this government can honor commitments about no questions being asked. I'd be interested in seeing the numbers they can generate here, as the high conversions mentioned above suggest that most of the money has already come back.

So will there be no access at all to the black dividend? Apparently, there is a sizable amount of around Rs 7 tr which has been deposited by "large agents" (depositing Rs 200K or more per person). Maybe there is something there, but it is too soon to tell. Each case will have to be followed up. All I can say is that the Income Tax Office will have to do some serious work for a change, investigating these cases.

Longer-run: Up to now what we have seen is effectively a huge GOI-instigated withdrawal of currency, which the Indian public appears to have participated in with great efficiency, though also with great hardship and cost. It is unclear that anything substantial has been achieved in terms of accessing the black dividend, at least in the here and now, while there have been huge costs imposed on the poor, about which much has been written. But what about the longer-run? This takes me to your next question:

The Prime Minister has emphatically spoken about today’s pain for tomorrow’s gains while justifying demonetization. Do you think that demonetization can have positive spin-offs for the economy?

Possibly. If there are any gains to be had, it will come through the fear of using cash for large transactions, or rather the unwillingness to accept cash for large transactions, in the anticipation that the Government might pull off such a stunt again. For this we have to take something important into account. Everyone criticizing the demonetization is correct in stating that the percentage of black wealth held in cash is low (almost surely way less than 10%). But that is not true of individuals who are gearing up for a large transaction, such as buying real estate. There are important points at which the cash ratio shoots up. If there is a real distrust of cash then these spikes (which facilitate large transactions) will be discouraged, and that could be a positive for bringing more transactions under the legal umbrella.

But I also hasten to add that this potential gain comes at a corresponding cost. Everyone has already spoken about the short-run cost on the poor. But there is a long-run "trust cost": if he can dismantle the currency, what is he going to dismantle next? What new de-mons do I have to look out for when making a long-term investment in India? The fears that have been planted in the hearts of those seeking to make illegal transactions have also their reflection in legitimate fears among people and organizations who are seeking to carry out legal transactions.  It isn't just a question of today's pain versus tomorrow's gain.

And of course, on top of that, this naive comparison of pains and gains is problematic. Prime Minister Modi is not supposed to be passing judgment over a utilitarian calculation of costs and benefits, especially when the costs have been borne overwhelmingly by the poor.

A lot of estimates about the possible fall out of demonetisation on the GDP are doing the rounds. But some experts think that given the quality of data availability in our country, it is difficult to come up with such estimates and they even apprehend that the data might fail to capture the true impact. Your thoughts on this debate.

It's really not so much a question of data as of imperfect economic theory. We know the amounts circulating under R500 and R1000 notes pre-demonetization. We will have accurate figures of how much will come back by the end of the year, and we know that the replacement procedure has stumbled badly and can quantify that. With these three figures in hands we can calculate the net monetary shrinkage in 2016, and we can apply a simple quantity theory of money to make predictions for short-run GDP shrinkage. (Here's a serious, careful example.But we don't know how the informal sector will adapt, or has adapted, to the whole thing; how much that sector has gone "informally cashless" and has managed to facilitate transactions anyway. 

Believing as I do in the inexhaustible creativity of the Indian financial mind, I would not be surprised if there were some pretty clever adjustments to enable business as usual under a commonly perceived crisis. That would cushion the drop. So I am partly doubtful of back-of-the-envelope predictions, not because the macro data is bad but because we simply don't know how people can adapt. (That said, it's better to have these around as simple benchmarks than have nothing at all.)

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Pale Blue Dot

On February 14, 1990, Voyager 1 turned around from a distance close to 4 billion miles away (which is 40 times as far as the Sun from Earth), and took a last look at us. You see Earth below, next to the red arrow, as a mere pixel suspended in the sunbeam scatter of the photograph.

From NASA: "This narrow-angle color image of the Earth, dubbed 'Pale Blue Dot', is a part of the first ever 'portrait' of the solar system taken by Voyager 1. The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system from a distance of more than 4 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic. From Voyager's great distance Earth is a mere point of light, less than the size of a picture element even in the narrow-angle camera. Earth was a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size. Coincidentally, Earth lies right in the center of one of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the sun. This blown-up image of the Earth was taken through three color filters -- violet, blue and green -- and recombined to produce the color image. The background features in the image are artifacts resulting from the magnification."

Carl Sagan was instrumental in having this last photograph taken. This is from Carl Sagan's public lecture at Cornell, October 13, 1994:

"We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam. The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

Friday, August 26, 2016

Certified Random: How To Co-Author If You Must

by Debraj Ray ® Arthur Robson

(For the full Monty, click here)

Many years ago, when Debraj worked at Boston University and his good friend Arthur visited there, we spent one of our many enjoyable lunches together railing against the indignities of alphabetical order, which is the dominant name-ordering convention for publications in economics. A quick perusal of our last names will explain why we railed. To add insult to injury, Debraj had just been enthusiastically recommended a “wonderful paper” by Banerjee et al, on which he was a co-author.

Alphabetical order is, in many ways, a good arrangement. Our colleagues from other disciplines express wonderment that such a self-centered subspecies — the academic economist — actually uses this civilized convention. Around 85% of two-author papers are written in alphabetical order. Compare this to the cutthroat nature of much of the sciences, in which there is often a tussle for first authorship, while other not-so-subtle signals such as lab leadership are sent through ancillary ordering conventions. It can be argued that the civility of alphabetical order lends itself to more joint work, as the possible rancor in settling on a name order at publication time is thereby avoided.

And yet, there are features of alphabetical order that create significant and unwarranted advantages for names earlier that appear earlier in the alphabet:

1. Psychologically, names that appear first are more likely to be given extra credit given that society as a whole appears to be attuned to merit-based rankings. This is certainly in line with research on marketing: products presented earlier exhibit higher probabilities of selection, as this aptly ordered article by Carney and Banaji (2012) observes. Even stocks with earlier names in the alphabet are more likely to be traded; see another aptly ordered paper by Jacobs and Hillert (2016), or the more staidly ordered contribution by Itzkowitz, Itzkowitz and Rothbort (2016).

2. Earlier names appear bunched together on a bibliographical or reference list, lending additional perceptual weight to how often they are cited. They also appear earlier on the reference list. Haque and Ginsparg (2009) --- yet another aptly ordered paper! --- note that article positioning in the ArXiv repository is correlated with citations of that article. Feenberg, Ganguli, Gaule, and Gruber (2015) demonstrate that the same bias exists in the downloading and citation of NBER “New This Week” Working Papers, which led to a change in NBER Policy.

3. There is at least one major journal in economics (the Review of Economic Studies) which publishes articles in alphabetical order (using the last name of the first author). Because many other journals use the convention that the lead article is to be regarded as special, and because many do not know that the Review of Economic Studies follows this policy — did you? — this confers an advantage on earlier names.

4. There is, of course, the et al convention, which, while strictly speaking is not a corollary of alphabetical order, is widely used in citations and especially on slides in seminars, completely swamping the identity of later authors. Even if et al were to be banned in journal publications (which it currently is not), it cannot be banned from slides. In addition, it is widespread practice in verbal presentations to mention the name of the first author and then add “and coauthors”: an understandable but nevertheless damaging shortcut.

Is there any evidence that these considerations matter at all, or is this the resentful fantasy of two disgruntled economists with surnames far down the alphabet? There is, actually, quite a bit of evidence. In a paper published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Einav and Yariv (2006) write:

“We present evidence that a variety of proxies for success in the U.S. economics labor market (tenure at highly ranked schools, fellowship in the Econometric Society, and to a lesser extent, Nobel Prize and Clark Medal winnings) are correlated with surname initials, favoring economists with surname initials earlier in the alphabet. These patterns persist even when controlling for country of origin, ethnicity, and religion.”

There are several other papers that are in line with the Einav-Yariv empirical findings; see, for instance, the appropriately hedged Chambers, Boath and Chambers (2001), or the impeccably ordered van Praag and van Praag (2008). This last article finds “significant effects of the alphabetic rank of an economist’s last name on scientific production, given that an author has already a certain visibility in academia ...Being an A author and thereby often the first author is beneficial for someone’s reputation and academic performance.” A recent survey by Weber (2016) summarizes the literature thus: “there is convincing evidence that alphabetical discrimination exists.”

It is possible to argue that alphabetical order is an efficient arrangement: earlier names are better off. So why care? Economists who eschew interpersonal comparisons of utility (and especially those with earlier surnames), are likely to oppose any change in alphabetical order, arguing that existing alternatives would lead to nasty fights, grumpy co-authors, and ultimately a disintegration of the happy system of joint research that we all admire.

There are at least four responses to this point of view. First, one might argue that the game in question isn’t zero-sum. After all, people put in effort into doing research. Equal division of the credits from that research might be better for each author than unequal division, as efforts adjust to the more equitable distribution of credits. 

Second, the fear of being relegated to second or third author, or even to the dreaded et al dungeon, might discourage authors from writing papers with those more fortunately placed in the alphabet.  Again, this is an efficiency loss.

Third, when ordering is alphabetical but relative contributions are not consistent with that ordering, there will be feelings of unfairness, guilt, disappointment, or outrage. Indeed, the fact that alphabetical order is occasionally reversed is circumstantial evidence that such feelings do exist. 

Finally, the recognition accorded to earlier authors appears to cumulate over time, which of course generates persistent inefficiencies, not to mention snowballing unfairness. Van Praag and Van Praag (2008) focus on this aspect of mistreatment, and conclude that “Professor A, who has been a first author more often than Professor Z, will have published more articles and experienced a faster productivity rate over the course of her career as a result of reputation and visibility.” Quite frankly, and apart from any efficiency consideration, we see no reason to continue to support such a system. 

Yet, as Vladimir Ilyich so sagaciously observed, what is to be done?

Of course, the randomization of name order comes to mind. But it is important to note that --- with the exception of a few fair-minded souls who have used it --- private randomization will not break the grip of alphabetical order.

Suppose, for instance, that Archimedes and Boethius, working together, (never mind that they were born some 750 years apart) gallantly agree to break the convention by randomizing their joint authorship. Will they agree to the randomization? There are clear difficulties. Given an “alphabetical society,” a change in name order is a clear signal that the newly christened first author has contributed the bulk of the work. Thus, for instance, “Boethius and Archimedes” would be a statement that Boethius has done most of the research for that paper, whereas “Archimedes and Boethius” would indicate very little, any such signal being swallowed in most part by the naming convention. Therefore Archimedes gains nothing over alphabetical order when his name comes first, while Boethius gains a lot when his does. Boethius will agree to the ex-ante randomization, but Archimedes will not. That is one reason it is hard to “invade” an alphabetical society with a mutant scheme.

In a new working paper, we address this question. In brief: institutions can help. Here is a simple variant of the randomization scheme — a mutant — which will set it apart from pure randomization. Our new scheme involves flipping a coin to determine first authorship. Subsequently any such randomized name order be presented with the symbol ® between the randomized names. We ask, moreover, that any citation of such a paper respect the use of this symbol; e.g., Ray ® Robson (2016) is the appropriate reference for our paper. 

We propose, in addition, that an august body such as the American Economic Association make an announcement to this effect. We only ask that they acknowledge that this alternative is available. There is, of course, no question of imposing it. 

In fact, our paper provides a very good reason why there is no question of imposing it. Briefly, we show that random order (with the protection of ®) will successfully "invade" alphabetical order. If this option is available, we show that both authors will have an incentive to use it --- initially in a relatively small but subsequently ever-widening set of circumstances. Not only does random order (protected by ®)) invade alphabetical order,  there is no such possibility of reverting to the old status quo once in the new equilibrium. Random order maintains both the civility of alphabetical order and offers equal treatment to all concerned. 

The beauty of the mechanism ® is that it does not demand any more of the agents than does the present economics convention, despite being fairer and more efficient. In summary, random order maintains all the ethical niceties of alphabetical order, but in addition: (a) it distributes the psychological and perceptual weight given to first authorship evenly over the alphabet, (b) it allows either author to signal credit when contributions are extremely unequal, (c) it will be willingly adopted even in an environment where alphabetical order is dominant, (d) it is robust to deviations, (e) it dominates alphabetical order on the grounds of ex-ante efficiency, and (f) barring the addition of a simple symbol, it is no more complex than the old system, and brings perfect symmetry to joint authorship. 

Endnotes, and a Request

Anecdotes to advance our cause were provided by Noah Williams and Stanley Zin; unsurprisingly, perhaps, given the ill-fated location of their surnames. Zin describes his unalloyed delight at the prospect of breaking the curse of the perennial last-listed author by writing with Irina Zviadadze of Stockholm. Zviadadze is the fourth to last listed Member of the Econometric Society, though our commiserations must go out to Yanos Zylberberg of Bristol who is listed dead last. It is no doubt a coincidence that he is the sole author on 3 of the 4 working papers listed for him on RePEc. Zin also relates how Noah Williams recently lost a first-name tie-breaker to remain in his customary last position. While on the subject of ties, we salute the contribution of Goodman, Goodman, Goodman, and Goodman (2014), a listing that is distinctly robust to all naming conventions. They note, for example, that a reference to Goodman et al (2014) disparages the contribution of no author. Noah Williams, in turn, refers us to the lexicographically blessed Georges Aad, of Marseille, who has appeared as the lead author on 458 scientific papers, on which alphabetic order was adhered to, including one with 5,153 co-authors. “Basically, this guy has won the academic lottery,” said Vincent Larivire, a professor of information science at the University of Montreal (quoted in the Wall Street Journal, August 10, 2015). The not-quite-so-blessed Leaat Yariv, together with Lirat Einav, wrote the paper that most motivated us (Einav and Yariv 2006). Leeat suggested to us that an alternative or supplementary remedy would be to randomize citations, a suggestion that we discuss towards the end of the paper.

And the request: send comments to and, and if nothing else, send us a one-word email: yes, if you like the idea; no, if you don’t.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Universal Basic Share

Universal basic income, or UBI for those acronymically minded, is in the news these days, along with other brilliant post-modern inventions such as Brexit or Trump. Unlike these other luminaries, though, UBI is a genuinely cool idea: give everyone a basic amount to spend, and let them do what they will with it. They could write poetry, compose sonatas, or study number theory. They could work for more income if they wanted. Or they could relax and do absolutely nothing.

UBI is the offspring of a beautiful dream: the liberation of the human being from the drudgery of everyday labor. But it is also the product of a scary thought: the trend of ever-advancing automation, now accelerated many-fold by new deep learning algorithms.

You see the connection, of course. If a bunch of creepy robots are going to pass the Turing test at the call center, or drive up shinily when you hail an Über, or stack boxes even as they are energetically prevented from doing so, or even dance while doing the dishes, you'd better find something better to do with your labor time.

So UBI is a nice gesture; it sends you on your way with a little stash of income that you can do with as you please. But of course, a little stash multiplied by the population ends up -- not surprisingly -- in a big stash. Try giving everyone in the United States $10,000 each annually, and you will see that the required payout comes to a cool 3 trillion per year, which is in excess of three-quarters the annual federal budget. Yikes!

Nevertheless, the idea has found serious purchase in Europe: the Swiss even voted in June on UBI of around $2500 per month per adult. It didn't pass --- in fact it was turned down by a large margin -- but a serious warning shot had been fired. Finland and the Netherlands are planning to trial UBI by following a group of lucky recipients around and seeing what they do with their monthly payments. (Though somehow the thought of being stalked by a group of randomistas asking how I am spending my UBI is weird; I know what I'd tell them.)

You would think that the UBI is a good idea for rich countries. But there is also a prima facie case for trying it in a country like India, which one way or the other has been making very large transfers for decades.  Just the public distribution scheme for foodgrain represents a subsidy of around 1.4% of GDP, but if you add to this the subsidies on fertilizer, transportation, water, electricity and other goods, we are up to well over 4% of GDP. Then there are the so-called "revenues foregone" through various exemptions, chiefly via relief on excise and customs duty, that will take you into the region of another 6% of GDP. We're now up to 10% and counting, and we're counting because these are just in the domain of the Central Government; there are more subsidies at the State level, and there are other implicit subsidies via sub-market pricing of public sector goods. (See also Santosh Dash's comment below.)  I'm not counting large sources of social expenditure, such as education and health, nor the national rural employment guarantee scheme,  which provides every rural household the right to 100 days of work at a basic wage. Here's an illuminating note on central Indian subsidies put together by Siddharth Hari, a doctoral candidate at NYU.

These subsidies are often greatly lamented, largely on the right, by individuals who blame them for all sorts of bad outcomes. One favorite lament is that there are big leakages due to corruption. Another is that subsidies are often mis-targeted (over and above the corruption) to the non-poor. And the libertarian spirit typically completes this tri-headed litany: why should the Government tell us what to eat, or how many health checkups to have? And what is it doing in the food distribution or transportation business, or in any business for that matter? Why not just hand out plain unvarnished -- and presumably untarnished -- cash instead to everyone, and be done with it?

I want to refrain from engaging in that debate here, but the bottom line is this: talk of a universal cash transfer that replaces a system of multifarious, nefarious transfers has long been in the Indian air.  So it comes as no particular surprise to learn that careful, long-standing observers of the Indian economy have promptly added two and two to ask: can we cobble together a basic, unconditional, universal income for all of India's citizens?

You might justifiably and indignantly ask: unconditional and universal? Why should the rich also be treated to free income? Answer: try targeting, and the leaky bucket will emerge again, spilling copiously. But isn't a universal transfer the logical equivalent of a bucket with basically no bottom at all? Perhaps, but then we'd spend all our time issuing and examining BPL cards, and given the massive corruption and incompetence in the bureaucracy, you may as give everyone the money and save us the headache. Well, ok, but I don't feel like providing Ambani with an assured UBI. Oh, we can get around a lot of that by requiring that the claimant must show up in person bearing an identity card to claim her income. Ambani won't show up in person. A lot of the rich won't show up. But who's to say that the bureaucrat won't claim that they did show up? And so on and so forth. Or you could attack all of this from another direction: won't the poor squander their cash cavorting and drinking, as the poor apparently do? Then the usual arguments about paternalism can start up. There is no end to this.

In this post, I am going to tentatively accept the idea of universality and non-paternalism, and look at the other elephants in the room (alas, there's a veritable herd of them):

1. The promise of an UBI can be inflated away. Who's going to make sure this thing is properly indexed to rising prices, and what if it's not? An unsympathetic Government can erode all the promises --- all the subsidies and the transfers that were so clumsily but irrevocably made in kind --- and make them vanish into thin air in a matter of years. (With inflation at 5%, a nominal commitment in fixed rupees with halve -- in real value -- in 14 years.)

2. The commitment looks really huge (sorry, I seem to have inadvertently quoted Trump).   In 2014, the Rangarajan Committee submitted its report proposing a monthly poverty line of Rs. 972 and Rs. 1407 (urban). With rural population shares taken into account, that's a bit north of Rs. 13,000 ($200) per year per person. A pittance? Yes. But multiply by India's population of 1.25 billion and you're at around 12% of India's GDP ($2.09 trillion in 2015).  If you want to cut that back to Rs 10,000 per year (or around $150), you're at 9% of GDP. So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen: 9-12% of GDP to bring every man, woman and child up to speed, or at least walking pace.

Is this do-able? It all depends on whether those huge subsidies to the non-poor can be removed. Pranab Bardhan writes:

"[T]he Indian government doles out significantly more than [10% of GDP] in implicit or explicit subsidies to better-off sections of the population, not to mention tax exemptions to the corporate sector. By discontinuing some or all of these subsidies – which, of course, do not include expenditures in areas like health, education, nutrition, rural and urban development programs, and environmental protection – the government could secure the funds to offer everyone, rich and poor, a reasonable basic income."

There's some more optimism expressed by Abhijit Banerjee and by Guy Standing, but the political economy of subsidy removal does look menacing, to say the least. Central government expenditure as a share of GDP has been declining since 2010; this year it will be a bit more than 13%. That matches the demands that UBI would make, which isn't comforting at all. Nor is it comforting that no one pays taxes in India. In a more pessimistic piece, Maitreesh Ghatak concludes that:

"A universal cash transfer scheme is therefore not feasible without raising additional taxes. Not just that, given that only 1 per cent of Indians actually pay income tax, while a mere 2.3 per cent file tax returns, the fiscal instruments to claw back the transfer from the rich do not exist."

It does seem like we're on a dramatic edge here, and a lot must hand on whether existing subsidies can be credibly removed.

3. For my last elephant, let's go back for a moment to this whole automation business. Some years ago, I observed in this post  (a tad gloomily) that:

"to avoid the ever widening capital-labor inequality as we lurch towards an automated world, all its inhabitants must ultimately own shares of physical capital. Whether this can successfully happen or not is an open question. I am pessimistic, but the deepest of all long-run policy implications lies in pondering this question."

I've italicized the phrase I want to emphasize here: if we're truly headed towards automation, it is not enough to pay out UBI and let a small group of residual claimants eagerly divvy up the remaining surplus. Even with indexation to inflation, the UBI is a fixed commitment. What happens, then, as profits continue to rise in business? Is no share to be passed on to the population? Will class warfare be reduced to annual debates about how to adjust the UBI?

In the rest of this article, I'm going to propose a simple amendment of UBI that holds out serious hope for dealing with all of these issues and more. I'm going to call it the universal basic share, or UBS. Simply put, the UBS is a commitment that is expressed, not as a sum of money, but as a share. Specifically, I propose that we commit a fixed fraction of our GDP to the provision of a universal income for all.

Consider six merits of this proposal, not necessarily in order of importance:

A. It is country-neutral. It can be introduced into every country, rich or poor. It scales up or down with country-level income.

B. We can start small.  In the Indian example, the numbers do not have to be at Rs. 10,000 to begin with. But over time, they will get there. In this sense, the proposal takes (some) care of the debate that we "cannot afford it."

C. The UBI commits a government to pay out a fixed sum, come hell or high water. In contrast, UBS insulates against shocks to the fiscal system that are correlated with GDP shocks.  (Given the amounts involved, one might imagine even rich governments being risk-averse.) But the upside to the general public will be enormous.

D. The UBS does not need to be indexed at all. It's fixed as a share of nominal GDP,  and that will automatically take care of any indexing that's needed.

[Update 1: A UBI can be indexed in India using the dearness allowance, which is a cost-of-living adjustment based on the cost-of-living index and paid out to public-sector employees and pensioners. Maybe, though in countries where inflation statistics are dodgy I'd be wary of this. I'd be wary of formula manipulations in India as well, once a truly enormous commitment such as UBI is on the table. In any case, I am after more than mere indexation; see point F below.]

E. The UBS will create an incentive for a majority to demand a better tax collection and auditing system. And the government, too, would be incentivized to close off its tax loopholes. For India, this is a first-order issue.

F. The UBS allows everyone to share in the prosperity of a country.  To me, this aspect of equity-sharing is --- in the longer run --- the most important feature of the UBS. It is our protection against unbounded inequality as we move into an increasingly automated universe.

To implement a UBS, the most important thing is to get the share right. Giving everyone Rs. 10,000 per year takes us to about 9% of GDP. But it's not enough to leave it there; we need a sense of what this looks like as a fraction of government expenditure. This is an extremely tricky business. Let me illustrate with India, which --- given its existing slew of explicit and implicit subsidies --- is possibly one of the most difficult examples out there. (Fair warning:  I have the back of an envelope out as I speak, so the numbers below would need to be refined.) 

The central government's expenditure share as a percentage of GDP is a bit shy of 14% in 2014-2015. But central and state expenditure combined is double that: around 27% in 2014-2015 (here for the gory details). For revenue foregone and other implicit subsidies, which we would need to take back, add on another 6-10%. That gets us to about 35%. So to access 9% of GDP as UBS, we would need to contribute 25% of government expenditure, inclusive of all subsidies, to the cause.

[Update 2: an alternative is to commit UBS directly as a share of government expenditure, which is the form in which I originally suggested it. The linking of basic income to overall prosperity then is less direct. Moreover, as Pranab Bardhan, Karna Basu and Siddharth Hari have pointed out to me,  the government could suffer from possible disincentives in raising expenditure, fearing that part of the increase would be "taxed off" by the UBS. Though in view of the deficit, such fears might be a blessing in disguise. On the other hand, the government would gain better insurance: if there is a sudden fiscal crisis, even one that's independent of a GDP shock, its commitment to UBS would adjust accordingly.]

Can we really usher in the right to a UBS? I have no clue whether we have the political will to pull something like this off. But remember: it's a share that's being committed. At Indian rates of growth and with an improving fiscal system, we can get the resulting numbers to double in 10-12 years, and double again a decade after that. So if we want to start smaller, we can entertain that thought.

Some postscripts on the UBS:

(i) If you want to institute a share, do it when you start the program. Once a number is fixed, no one wants to move towards a share as it looks risky. With a share to begin with --- where there was nothing before --- matters can be very different.

(ii)  For each year, the payout assessment will need to be done. This can be done using the previous year's GDP (or expenditure, in case the variant is tried) and dividing by population estimates. Uncollected payouts --- and hopefully there will be a lot of those --- can go into an insurance endowment or otherwise used.

(iii) [Update 3.] After I wrote this, Rajiv Sethi pointed me to Robert Shiller's proposal to issue trills, which is a government-issued security that would pay a share -- in trilllionths, hence "trill" --- of GDP. Yes! A UBS is certainly viewable as a variant of a gigantic, collectively held trill --- a plain bill, then, perhaps? Look here for a related proposal by Rajiv to hold individual bank accounts at the Fed. In keeping with the adage that there's nothing new under the sun, Ugo Colombino pointed out the connection to the citizen's dividend, which is a form of UBS based on natural resources; Alaska implements a form of this as the Alaska Permanent Fund. In the words of Thomas Paine, "men did not make the earth." Rahul Basu told me about the efforts --- inspired by Alaska's fund--- to secure a permanent fund in Goa. Read here about such a movement, and read here about the Supreme Court directive to create a Goa Iron Ore Permanent Fund.

Hey Switzerland, want to try again?

Thanks: Pranab Bardhan, Karna Basu, Rahul Basu, Ugo Colombino, Parikshit Ghosh, Siddharth Hari, Aditya Kuvalekar, and  Rajiv Sethi.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Aickman's Hospice

I am a big fan of creepy stories. No, I’m not into Stephen King or Dean Koontz or their choleric forerunners: Lovecraft and (alas often) Poe among them. I will take M.R. James though, even though he sits uneasily on the fence between baroque excess and darker understatement. But how not to love “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”? I’ll take Stoker too (yes, yes, Dracula, but read The Squaw). Among my all-time favorites, however, are the more nuanced but nevertheless not unusual suspects; say Ambrose Bierce’s "The Boarded Window," W.W. Jacobs’s "The Monkey’s Paw," H.H. Munro’s "Shredni Vashtar," or that great eerie masterpiece by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw. I’ll also take The Little Stranger, a chilling novel by Sarah Waters.

So it was with interest that I recently picked up a reissue of Robert Aickman’s oddly described “strange stories,” this one a collection called Cold Hand in Mine. I liked the description “strange stories.” I loved the title of the collection. I was intrigued by Neil Gaiman’s blurb on the cover: “Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I'm not even sure what the trick was. All I know is that he did it beautifully.” And to top it all off, I was coming to Calcutta, which along with London is one of the two best places in the world for reading “strange stories.” After all, it was in Calcutta that I was introduced to the bhuter golpo or ghost story — and both British colonial and “indigenous” versions (especially the kind located in railway stations or run-down mansions just outside Calcutta) still give me a most delicious case of the creeps.

Aickman was an interesting guy. He was a founder of the Inland Waterways Association, which oversaw the rejuvenation of the inland canal system in England. You can read more about him here. I had heard of him because he had edited the first eight volumes of the Fontana Book of Great Ghost StoriesHis stories have been largely out of print, and now they have been reissued.

So there I was, reading Aickman, and I was hooked. Delightfully creepy and yes, decidedly strange. I was so happy that I logged into my Amazon account and bought a Kindle version of The Wine-Dark Sea, another collection of his stories. Aickman clearly had fun writing these, I thought, as I most happily careened from one strange story to another. I put up a Facebook link to Cold Hand in Mine, and continued to read. All the stories are perfectly readable, most are truly downright weird, and some of the weird ones are really excellent.

Then I ran into "The Hospice."


This was a different experience altogether.

I read it at 1 am a couple of nights ago. Last night I woke up at 3 in the morning and read it again. Then I pretended to go back to sleep, but whom was I kidding?

Here’s how I felt reading Hospice. Imagine crouching on the floor in a corner before an unchained Doberman. You can hear it growl, but you cannot see it; you are blindfolded. You are forced to caress its silken flanks as you wait and flinch, flinch and wait. (My irate dog-lover friends, you can substitute the furry weight of a tarantula placed in your open palm, its legs sliding through your fingers.)  If some equivalent of these images does not come to you as you read Hospice, I will eat the only hat I have.

Not that there are any tarantulas or Dobermans to be seen in Hospice. It’s just that a man named Maybury happens to be lost, driving home from his office somewhere in the West Midlands. Something feral bites him in the leg as he gets out to ineptly look for directions in the growing dusk. He gets back in, drives on, sees a sign for the Hospice, with its promise of “good food and some accommodation.” So far —- except possibly for that bite — it could the start of a million horror stories. But the dread here comes a-creeping, (always) namelessly and (for a while) quite soundlessly, but above all strangely.

The Waiting Room,  1959, by George Tooker, Smithsonian American Art Museum
In fact, the two closest connections I feel to Hospice have nothing directly to do with the horror genre. The first is almost a methodological connection to surrealist painting, perhaps one of those day-night canvases that so unnerve you, by Magritte. Or perhaps it’s something waiting to happen behind one of the distant arches in a Di Chirico painting. It reminds me most of all of The Waiting Room, by George Tooker. There is a backward loop here again to the short story: Tooker's work features on the cover of Alberto Manguel’s wonderful edited collection, Black Water.

My second connection is to one of my great favorite modern novels, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. This book was largely panned when it first appeared, but this, in my opinion, is his greatest work. The entire book is an endless, labyrinthine, slightly nauseating dream. Hospice could be a terrifying chapter in Ishiguro’s book. (It would be, unquestionably, its most terrifying chapter.)

Ah, but what befalls our protagonist, the somewhat irritable and slightly apprehensive Maybury? Nothing really, to begin with. He enters the hospice, and settles down for dinner. There appears to be great interest in feeding the guests very well. The main course is an “enormous pile” of turkey, “steaming slightly, and also seeping slightly with a colourless, oily fluid.” ("Ew!" says my niece Rohini.) He does observe, quite inadvertently, that the other guests appeared to be “one and all eating as if their lives depended on it.” And then, of course, Maybury must stay the night. It will be a strange night.

The horror short story genre notwithstanding, The Hospice perhaps best brings to mind the great British horror film Dead of Night. Like Hospice, Dead of Night invokes the growing nightmare of being shut up in a weird house with odd people. But the resemblance ends there. The sheer subliminal horror of Hospice shares neither the ornate excesses of Dead of Night nor the slick recursion of its ending. (That magnificently self-referential ending, as it so happens, inspired a theory of the universe). Along with its protagonist, the story will let you off, disheveled, scared and out of breath, on an eerily familiar street under a grey sky, wondering just how you got there and with the feeling of half-awake relief that a nightmare has just ended. Or has it.

Robert Aickman, "The Hospice," in Cold Hand in Minereissued 2014.