About Amit Varma

Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.



My Friend Sancho

My first book, My Friend Sancho, was published in May 2009, and went on to become the biggest selling debut novel released that year in India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and had earlier been longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.


If you're interested, do join the Facebook group for My Friend Sancho


Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.


My posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.




Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner




The India Uncut Blog

23 July, 2017

Why Do You Love Potholes?

This is the 43rd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

KAUR BLIMEY

On Thursday, I watched Harmanpreet Kaur
Play a knock that left me wanting more.
What a game? What a show!
And now I want to know
Why had I not heard of her before?

POTHOLES

I hauled a neta over the coals.
I said, “Bhai, why do you love potholes?”
He said, “Bro, they’re a dream.
They’re my revenue stream.
Kickbacks from repairs are my bankroll.”

Posted at 10:05 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport

16 July, 2017

Notes and Jokes

This is the 42nd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

DEMON NOTES

Urjit Patel let out a big groan.
I said, “Urjit Bhai, why do you moan?”
He replied, with a sigh,
“Amit, I will not lie.
I’ve been counting the notes on my own.”

DEAR MR MODI

I know that there’s nothing that you abhor
Like being made fun of. Well, just ignore.
Do not try to suppress.
Be a sport. Show finesse,
Or else the world will laugh even more.

Posted at 8:24 AM by Amit Varma in Freedom | India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

09 July, 2017

Two Old Men

This is the 41st installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

AFFECTION

Netanyahu was looking happy.
He said, “Modi gave me a jhappi!”
I said, “Bro, you must chill.
Otherwise, Modi will
Take it further, and give a pappi.”

FEDERER’S LESSON

MS Dhoni has turned thirty-six.
Some ask, should he still be in the mix?
Well, like that old codger
By the name of Roger,
Maybe he has not run out of tricks.

Posted at 9:17 AM by Amit Varma in India | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport

07 July, 2017

It is immoral to have children. Here’s why

This is the 39th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

One peculiar quality of Indian society is its rudeness. People meet you for the first time at a party and think it is perfectly okay to ask you personal questions. For example, my wife and I often get asked why we have chosen to not have children. It infuriates me that the questioning always flows in this direction. I wait for the day a couple with kids is asked, “Oh you have kids! But why?” And everyone at the party stands and stares at them.

Our decision to not have kids came from separate sets of personal preferences about how we wanted to live our lives. But going beyond personal preference, I have recently come to the conclusion that it is immoral to have children. This might make you gasp – after all, we are biologically and culturally programmed to have kids. Here’s my argument.

Let me start by stating three principles that I think you would agree with. One: We should not cause suffering to others. Two: We should not kill anyone. Three: Consent is all-important, and we should do nothing to others without their consent.

Do you agree with those three principles? Well, then, consider that when you have a child, you are basically bringing a person into this world without their consent, where they are guaranteed to a) suffer and b) die. You are breaching all three of those principles. How can this possibly be ethical?

As my friend, the writer and podcaster Naren Shenoy, once said, “If you really love your children, you won’t have them.”

My contention here is not new, by the way. In philosophy, it’s referred to as Anti-Natalism, and arguments for not having children can be found in the works of Sophocles, the Buddha, the Arabic philosopher Al-Ma’arri, Schopenhauer and Kant. Its most recent standard-bearer is the philosopher David Benatar, who wrote a provocative book on this titled Better Never to Have Been.

Benatar’s argument is a utilitarian one, and boils down to the amount of suffering that humans are inevitably exposed to. “For example,” he writes, “40% of men and 37% of women in Britain develop cancer at some point. Those are just terrible odds. To inflict them on another person by bringing him into existence is reckless.” He points out that the consequences of bringing humans into the world go beyond the kids themselves. “Assuming that each couple has three children, an original pair’s cumulative descendants over ten generations amount to 88,572 people. That constitutes a lot of pointless, avoidable suffering.”

Woody Allen perhaps put it more eloquently: “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering - and it’s all over much too soon.”

I don’t actually agree with Benator’s argument. There are those who would say that the joy of being alive outweighs the sadness, and it ends up being subjective in the end. I find that to be the basic problem with utilitarianism: there’s no way to calculate these things. I’d rather just go back to first principles, and as a libertarian, the first principle I hold most important of all is Consent. In this case, consent is impossible, and therefore the act itself is wrong.

There are two common types of arguments offered for having children. One, that parenting is rewarding, and it’s good for the parents, who become better people or have someone to look after them in their old age, and so on. This is a selfish argument. If we did everything to maximise our own happiness, and didn’t care about the impact on others, then conversations about ‘morality’ would be pointless.

The second argument is, what about the species? It is true that all our impulses have evolved through natural selection so that our genes may be propagated onwards. Many of these have also been codified through cultural norms. That is why not only do many of us feel driven to have children, but all cultures also place a high value on it.

However, unlike all other species, we have evolved to be thinking creatures that can actually fight our biological programming. As Rust Cohle, the Anti-Natalist character in the TV series True Detective says, “The honourable thing for our species to do is deny our programming: stop reproducing.”

When asked by strangers why I don’t have kids, I don’t launch into the above argument. Instead, I like to quote a poem by Philip Larkin, that encapsulates all of this quite perfectly. It’s called ‘This Be The Verse’. Here goes:

THIS IS THE VERSE
by Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Posted at 3:17 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse

02 July, 2017

A Protest. Then A Celebration

This is the 40th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

NOT IN MY NAME

When the country is torn, bit by bit,
Those who are silent are complicit.
If it fills you with shame,
Then shout: “Not in my name!”
Shake your apathy. Do not submit.

SMRITI MANDHANA

Indian cricket’s got a new face,
A left-hander with timing and grace.
Her strokeplay, by and by,
Makes me wonder why I
Thought women’s cricket was commonplace.

Posted at 8:36 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport

25 June, 2017

Procrastination (and Kumble vs Kohli)

This is the 39th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

PROCRASTINATION

Do you know what’s my greatest sorrow?
Time is something you cannot borrow.
So the days go by,
As I watch paint dry,
And sit here waiting for tomorrow.
 
K VS K

Kumble said, “Get me out of this jail.
It’s so sad that I’m the one to bail.”
Kohli said, with a groan,
“It’s my house they will stone
When we lose. That’s why I should prevail.”

Posted at 9:56 AM by Amit Varma in Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport

Saffron is the New Red

This essay, which I co-wrote with Barun Mitra, was published in Pragati, the online magazine I edit, on June 21.

If God existed and was not blessed with divine computing power, She would have sat through the last century with an abacus in each hand, counting the deaths caused by those on the Left and Right. On the left, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, this many million. On the right, Hitler, Mussolini, Mugabe, that many million. At the end of the exercise, God would have sighed, or perhaps giggled. So much fighting over differences when humans were all the same?

Our hypothetical God would have felt quite as bemused looking at India today. Our discourse is polarised, and the differences in the political battlefield seem too vast to be reconciled. And yet, it is our case that despite our parties seeming to hold opposite visions of what India should be, they are not just all equally bad, but they are bad in the same way. In moral terms, they are identical.

What is common to them is that they all behave as if the end justifies the means.

The Moral Question About Ends and Means

Here’s a fundamental question in philosophy: how do we judge the morality of an action?

Deontologists would say that there is something intrinsic in an action itself that determines its morality. There are certain first principles from which you arrive at sets of rules. For example, you could arrive at the rules, One should not take the property of others by force and One should not kill others. By these rules, theft or murder are wrong in and of themselves. They violate those rules; there is nothing else to consider.

Utilitarians would say that whether an action is good or bad depends on its consequences. Before we pronounce theft or murder to be bad, we have to consider their effects. There are all kinds of hypothetical situations in which theft and murder could be justified because they lead to a net increase of ‘utility’ in the world – however we define it. For example, stealing from one rich miser could enable 10 hungry paupers to be fed for a night. Or imagine a thought experiment where an alien civilisation threatens to wipe out a city unless they conduct a child sacrifice to appease these overlords.

Briefly, utilitarians believe that the end justifies the means. Deontologists disagree. In our view, there are three basic problems with the former position.

Utilitarianism Problem one: Calculation

How does one calculate utility? If you believe that the end justifies the means, you can make up any end you like, and argue that it gives you license to employ any means you like. One of the facilities that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, after all, is the ability to rationalize.

During Emergency, for example, Sanjay Gandhi famously pushed through a program of forcible mass-sterilisation of men. This was based on the premise that over-population is a problem, and his program was a small cost to be paid for the nation. This was a false premise, but even if we assume for the purpose of argument that it was correct, there remains the problem of calculation. How does one calculate the benefit to the nation from this? How does one calculate the pain caused to the victims of the program? How does one offset one against the other?

These are impossible calculations. One can therefore wing it and state any end and make up any calculations and do any damn thing one pleases.

Utilitarianism Problem two: The Distinction Between Persons

In his classic book A Theory of Justice, John Rawls wrote: “Utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between persons.” Utilitarians, like Godlike engineers, aim to calculate the overall utility of an action. Even if this was possible – it is usually not, as we argued above – it would still not be sufficient because victims of the actions would be different from beneficiaries of the action. How can one justify hurting person A by saying it causes pleasure to Persons B and C.

Take the sterilisation example again. The costs were borne by the victims of the forced nasbandi. The benefits that Sanjay Gandhi claimed were dispersed among another group of people entirely, maybe future generations yet to be born. How can this be justified?

Utilitarianism Problem three: The Question of Justice (or Individual Rights)

Harming one group of people for the benefit of another, or of “society at large,” is unjust to the people being harmed. They have rights. The job of the state is to protect those rights, and not infringe them. The whole concept of rights ceases to have meaning if one can hold that the end justifies the means. Society and the rule of law become a charade then.

To go back to the sterilisation example, the state tampered with the bodies of tens of thousands of young men against their will. Were they the property of the state? Was it not the state’s job to protect them from such violence? What is the basis of our justice system then?

Another example would be an innocent man tied to the front of a jeep.

None of us are means to an end

“Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.” — Immanuel Kant.

“Every man has a property in his own body. This nobody has a right to, but himself.” — John Locke.

The quotes above sum up our position. Human beings have rights. Those rights exist prior to the State, and are not granted by it. The State’s job is merely to safeguard those rights. And the end can never justify the means. Individual rights are paramount.

By this way of thinking, the purpose of the state is to safeguard these rights. To do so, however, the state has to be given a monopoly on violence. This means that those individuals who run the state are handed enormous power. Power always corrupts, and thus, the state always grows, and goes well beyond its only justifiable mandate. The servants become rulers.

Coercion and Social Engineering

This brings us to what the Left and the Right have had in common throughout history: they have disregarded individual rights and behaved as if the end justifies the means. Their ends have been different – but the means they have employed have been the same: coercion.

Take a look at Stalin and Hitler and Mao and Pol Pot. It is clear that they all had visions of the kind of society they wanted to see, and to achieve their respective ends, they were willing to employ any means possible. You can differentiate between them based on their stated intentions, but we believe that the morality of an action is independent of such justifications. They were morally equal, regardless of the precise body count they left behind.

And what of India?

Saffron is the New Red

Narendra Modi, a master salesman, positioned himself as a changemaker prior to the 2014 general elections. But his government has turned out to be more of the same. While he spoke of “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance,” we see just the opposite, as government has grown under him. Instead of charting a new way forward, Modi has renamed old government schemes to pretend he thought of them. (Most of them are so dubious that it is baffling someone should want credit for them.) While the social policies of his party can be described as right-wing, his economic policies are resolutely left-wing: and both these formulations rely heavily on coercion.

In other words, like every Indian prime minister before him, he believes the end justifies the means.

Consider the signature policy of his government: Demonetisation. Its stated aims were dubious, kept changing, and were not achieved. Now, think back to those parts of this essay where we used the forced sterilisation of the 1970s as an illustrative example. What if we use DeMon instead?

Not only did the goalposts of DeMon keep changing, it was impossible to calculate its alleged benefits, and you could rationalise all you wanted. The people who suffered – almost all of India, especially the poor – were not the beneficiaries, if at all there were any besides corrupt old-note launderers. And it was an infringement on the rights of 1.3 billion people, which made it, as we like to point out, the largest assault on property rights in human history. Indeed, in moral terms, there is no difference between Notebandi and Nasbandi.

This also applies to Aadhaar. Our problem with it is that it is being forced upon the people of India. Whatever the stated end might be, the means are wrong.

Every government in India has practised left-wing economics, with its inevitable coercion. (Big government requires much taxation, which is never voluntary, and much rent-seeking.) Most governments in India have also believed in different forms of social engineering. Many of those who sanctimoniously criticize this government are actually on the same moral plane. And this government is no better than the previous governments it disparages. (This is not meant to encourage Whataboutery, which is usually meant to exculpate, while our intention is to condemn equally.)

The Politics of Respect

What kind of politics would we like to see then? Well, one in which politicians actually respect the true bosses of a democracy: its citizens.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “If one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself.” That is dead right. We believe that respecting individual rights should be an end in itself. It will then become a means through which society will grow and prosper. If we are to talk of consequences for a moment, we now know, looking back at history, that economic freedom leads to economic prosperity, and personal freedoms, such as the freedom of speech and association, lead to cultures becoming more and more vibrant. In every way possible, freedom makes humanity better off. (Even if it didn’t, we would still argue for individual rights, but our case is strengthened by the fact that it is correct even by the yardstick of utilitarians.)

Freedom, thus, should be both the means and the end. Anything else is immoral.

Posted at 9:41 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics

Politics = Bribery

This essay, which I co-wrote with Kumar Anand, was published in Pragati, the online magazine I edit, on June 13.

A year ago, one of us (AV) wrote a limerick that expresses a fundamental truth about politics. Here it is:

POLITICS

A neta who loves currency notes
Told me what his line of work denotes.
‘It is kind of funny.
We steal people’s money
And use some of it to buy their votes.’

We remembered this limerick now in the context of farm-loan waivers. This weekend, the Maharashtra government announced loan waivers for farmers in the state. A few weeks ago, the Uttar Pradesh government had also announced large farm-loan waivers. This is spreading to other states, and might end up as a Waiver Cascade (WC).

Beyond Moral Hazard

The most obvious unintended consequence of these waivers is what economists call Moral Hazard. Simply put, when farmers know that their loans are likely to be waived, they are incentivised to take loans they do not intend to return. (The same phenomenon applies in the case of the Too Big To Fail banks bailed out by the Fed in the US after the 2008 crisis.) This does nothing to solve the problems inherent in the system, and may even perpetuate them.

But this essay is not about farm-loan waivers per se. Nor is it about agriculture in India, which has been crippled by decades of bad policy. Instead, we want to talk about politics.

Redistributive Bribery

As we described in our recent essay on public choice economics, politicians come to power on the back of a) special interest groups and b) vote banks that they pander to. Once in power, they pay these groups back – with our money. Most governance amounts to a transfer of wealth from the people at large to special interest groups or vote banks. We call this Redistributive Bribery.

Farm loan waivers are an obvious example of this – the money to pay for the waivers does not fall from the sky, but comes from all of us. But practically all government action falls into this framework, whether or not money is directly involved. Most regulatory measures and government schemes follow this pattern, which is not hard to figure out if one thinks about who the beneficiary of each such action is.

To illustrate, here are four categories of Redistributive Bribery, with examples.

One: Direct Subsidy to a Vote Bank

Farm-loan waivers are an example of this. Farmers are an important vote bank everywhere, and this noble action for their benefit makes many non-farmers feel noble and compassionate. It probably hurts the farmers more than it helps them, by trapping them in a cycle of dependency, but that’s unintuitive and unseen.

Note that we are not picking on any party. Farm-loan waivers predate the BJP. Because the Congress has been the most successful party in our history, it has also done the most pandering. The BJP’s accusations of pseudo-secularism, which found resonance with many, was essentially a claim that the Congress was pandering to Muslim votebanks with measures like the Haj Subsidy. The Samajwadi Party in UP wooed the same vote bank with our money.

Another recent example is of Devendra Fadnavis announcing that his government will redevelop a group of chawls by building 16000 “affordable homes”. These come at the cost of Rs 16000 crore, at one-crore-per-home. You can bet that the beneficiaries of this largesse will vote for Fadnavis – and that those who the money is taken from won’t even notice.

There is no end to this sort of direct subsidy to vote banks. Free televisions, free laptops, free rice – they are all Redistributive Bribery.

Two: Direct Subsidy to an Interest Group

Interest groups spend lots of money getting their favoured politicians into office. Naturally, they want a return on investment. And politicians are keen to deliver, for they need funds for the next election also. It’s a cycle. And one of the two ways through which this happens is direct subsidies.

This can take various forms. Companies getting soft loans from Public Sector Banks, many of which turn into NPAs, is one example of this. So is the acquisition of land by the government to give to big businesses, such as in Gujarat, when then Chief Minister Narendra Modi helped set up the Nano plant. Some of this land can be got dirt cheap, as in the case of Modi’s Gujarat and the Adani group. The allocation of natural resources can fall under this category, as does the granting of government contracts for various things.

Having used the money of these interest groups to get to power, politicians then use that power to generate more money for the interest groups. That’s the whole game.

Three: Regulation to Favour Vote Banks

Wait, you say, surely regulation isn’t redistribution. Well, it mostly is, though in an indirect and unseen way. Consider Rent Control.

Rent Control is a regulation meant to benefit a particular vote bank: renters. But think of its long-term effects. It removes the incentives of property owners to look after their property, and buildings become dilapidated over time. It is a disincentive to new construction in areas where rent control is in effect. It distorts the market and reduces supply, thus driving up prices for everyone not already living in a rent-controlled property. Those lucky few enjoy the benefits paid for by the loss of many, most of whom don’t even realise what they’ve lost.

For all practical purposes, it is a redistribution of wealth from the many to the few. Indeed, think of other regulations that favour a specific votebank, and you’ll find that at its heart, it amounts to redistribution. Whatever the noble stated intent might be, it’s done for votes and is, thus, bribery.

Four: Regulation to Favour Interest Groups

Small traders and businesses have been a crucial support group for the BJP. No wonder, then, that the BJP opposes Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in retail. Putting a cap on FDI is a great example of how regulation amounts to redistribution. Consider the effects of such a protectionist measure.

The more the competition, the more consumers benefit. When FDI in retail is not allowed, the market is less competitive than it would otherwise be, and consumers lose value. Maybe the goods they buy are not as cheap as they would otherwise be. Maybe they cost the same, but provide less value for money. All of us common people, consumers, citizens, are thus losing value, which has been redistributed away to a specific interest group.

(Again, it’s not just the BJP. Consider that Arvind Kejriwal, who also depends on this base for both votes and money, also opposes FDI in retail. There is only one plausible reason for such bad economics, which is that voters and donors need to be bribed. So much for being anti-corruption.)

It’s not just restricting FDI in retail: All protectionism, without exception, amounts to redistribution of wealth from the common masses at large to special interest groups. Another example is black-and-yellow cabs and auto unions lobbying the government against Uber and Ola. The ban on surge pricing in Uber came out of such lobbying, and we have seen the effects in Bengaluru: a shortage of cabs, as always happens with price controls. Consumers suffer, and the value they have lost has gone to that one interest group.

Concentrated Benefits and Diffuse Costs

All political parties engage in Redistributive Bribery. It is the oldest scam in politics — and perhaps even the basis of it. So why do we put up with it? We do so because while the benefits are visible, the costs are not.

When a poor farmer is given a loan waiver or a small trader is protected from rapacious multinationals, we all clap, feel compassionate and give ourselves a pat on the back for nobility. But we don’t see the full picture, because we cannot see the losses. If the government imposes tariffs on foreign producers of widgets, and domestic producers benefit from the reduced competition, we don’t see the value that all of us lose because of this. Indeed, it is not even possible to calculate it. The loss from much regulation and subsidy is often more than the gain, because incentives change for all involved. A positive-sum game becomes a zero-sum or negative-sum game.

Economists refer to this as ‘Concentrated Benefits and Diffuse Costs.’ To take the example from our previous essay on Public Choice, if Company A gets a subsidy of Rs 1.3 billion from the government, it has plenty of incentive to lobby for it. None of us common Indians will bother, because its only one buck each.

What’s the Plan of Action?

In theory, politicians are supposed to get elected by promising and delivering good governance. In practice, they bribe their way to power in the ways described above. They were meant to be angels, but are actually vampires. We’re stuck in a horror movie. What are we to do?

Well, we need to think more deeply about who pays for the costs of every government action. We all do. This includes the poorest among us, since everyone pays indirect taxes, and suffers from the absence of the better world that is not allowed to come into being. If this outrages you, express that outrage. There is nothing else to be done.

*

Also read: ‘Wonder Woman, the God of War and Public Choice Economics.’

Posted at 9:26 AM by Amit Varma in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics

Wonder Woman, the God of War and Public Choice Economics

This essay, which I co-wrote with Kumar Anand, was published in Pragati, the online magazine I edit, on June 8.

The most beautiful moment in the film Wonder Woman is a small, human moment. Diana Prince, out in the real world for the first time, makes her ice cream-eating debut while rushing somewhere in a crowded marketplace. Blown away by its taste, she turns to the vendor with a surprised smile on her face and tells him, “You should be very proud!” She learns one important truth about the real world: ice cream is awesome. Later in the film, she learns another.

(Spoiler alert: we give away a crucial part of the plot in the next paragraph, so stop reading if that matters to you. But do come back later after watching the film!)

The reason Diana aka Wonder Woman steps out in the real world is that she hears that a terrible war is raging, and concludes that it is caused by the God of War, Ares. She has been raised by the Amazons to kill exactly that one God when he returns to action, and she now decides to fight him and end this war. She heads forth into battle, decides that German General Ludendorff is Ares, and goes off to fight him. She catches him, kills him, and then finds to her astonishment that the war continues to rage around her. Killing the God of War made no difference.

Moments later, she discovers that the God of War was someone else, not Ludendorff. But killing that dude won’t make a difference either, because of one essential truth: Humans are human. They are flawed; they will fight. You don’t end war by killing the God of War.

The film ends on a syrupy, sentimental note, as she finds notes of redemption in these flawed humans, but that moment of dissonance she faces before that was familiar to us. We, too, have faced that dissonance in our lives, when a God died and we realised that the problems in our world are rooted in human nature. That God was Government.

Public Choice Economics

We grew up in India as believers in the biggest religion in the world: the religion of Government. Like all religions, this one claims to reveal the One Big Truth, and worships the biggest God of all. It holds that Government is the solution to all our problems. Put in rational terms, we are taught that markets are imperfect, market failures are inevitable, and we need Government to set everything right. This was economic orthodoxy until recently.

But in the middle of the last century, a new academic discipline sprung up that aimed to unmask the true nature of this false God: Public Choice Economics. Pioneered by scholars such as Gordon Tullock and James Buchanan, Public Choice Economics had one key insight to offer: that governments aren’t supernatural entities, but consist of humans. And humans respond to incentives. Therefore, to understand government, we must understand the incentives of the people it is made up of.

Incentives, Incentives, Incentives

Now, markets also consist of humans responding to incentives. But these are good incentives. Markets are networks of voluntary exchanges that are basically a positive-sum game: in every voluntary transaction, both parties benefit, else they wouldn’t be transacting. The only way to make a profit is by adding value to someone’s life. The greedier you are, the harder you work to make others better off. These are great incentives.

There is nothing voluntary about government. It has a monopoly on coercion and violence, and its very existence is an act of coercion – no one pays taxes willingly, or asks to be licensed and regulated. Now, we believe in a limited government (with its consequent coercion) to the exact extent that you need to protect individual rights and provide the rule of law that markets (aka society) need to function. But leave aside the broader philosophical point and just consider the incentives of the humans in government. Those are all messed up, because unlike markets, they are zero-sum or negative-sum, and the easiest way to make money is not to improve the lives of others, but to exploit them.

Let’s break up the different types of incentives at play with government.

The Money Incentive

Milton Friedman famously expounded on the Four Ways of Spending Money, which you can see summed up in the table below. (You can read about it in a piece one of us wrote recently.) In a nutshell, government brings together the worst conditions for spending money – you are spending someone else’s money on someone else, and are likely to care about neither the money being spent nor the service being provided. These are the worst possible incentives.

image

To use an example from the piece we linked to above, consider the question of why Mumbai’s roads always have potholes. The municipal officer in charge has a tenured job, zero accountability, and his incentives are aligned to making sure that he picks the most expensive contractor so he gets the biggest kickback, and that the repairs are done so badly that future repair work is necessary, with all the kickbacks they entail. This is inevitable not because that government officer is a bad person, but because the incentives are what they are.

The Bureaucrat’s Incentive

Consider the incentives of bureaucrats. What motivates them? In the words of economist William Niskanen: “Salary, prerequisites of the office, public reputation, power, patronage… and the ease of managing the bureau.” In other words, they want to expand their scope and power, which usually has no connection with the work they are supposed to perform.

Parkinson’s Law illustrates the state of the bureaucracy beautifully: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” The two implications of this, according to C Northcote Parkinson, after whom the law is named:

One: “An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals.”

Two: “Officials make work for each other.”

This is why government departments tend to grow endlessly and not get anything done. Here’s an example of this: Have you heard of the Churchill Cigar Assistant?

The Politician’s Incentive

The politician’s aim is simple: he wants to come to power. For this, he needs lots of money. (A humble corporator’s election expenses can run to many crores.) Where does this money come from? It comes from interest groups who want to use the coercive power of government for their own ends. You could be an industrialist who wants mining contracts, or soft loans from public banks that private banks would never give, or protectionist measures to safeguard your business from competition, or state subsidies of some sort, and so on.

These interest groups use their money to get their favoured politicians to power. (Canny interest groups will keep politicians on all sides happy.) Those politicians, once elected, use their power to generate more money for those interest groups and themselves. All of this comes at the expense of the common citizen.

If Company A wants a subsidy of Rs 1.3 billion, consider that every Indian pays an average of one rupee for this subsidy: too small for them to care, even if they figure out what is happening. Public Choice economists refer to this as a case of ‘Concentrated Benefits and Diffuse Costs.’ Company A will lobby vigorously for its 1.3 billion, but the common citizen will just let the one rupee go.

While the example above is of a direct subsidy, most regulation actually has the effect of indirectly redistributing money from relatively poor citizens to relatively rich interest groups. (Read ‘The Great Redistribution’ for a sense of the process.) And all electoral politics comes down to using money coerced from all of the people to bribe a specific section you consider your vote bank: consider the rash of farm-loan waivers across India right now. (Don’t get us started on the incentives that puts into play. Groan.)

The Legal Mafia

Instead of thinking of the idealised notion of government, we should see it as what it is: a legal mafia. You give one set of people power over another. Power corrupts. This set of people soon realises that the easiest way to make money is by Rent Seeking: exploiting this power they have over others. (This beats profit-seeking through voluntary exchange, which requires you to actually add value to people’s lives, which is harder.) They leech off others, extracting hafta.

In theory, government is a noble defender of our rights. In practice, it is an ever-growing parasite. This is not an unfortunate accident, but the norm. It is embedded in the DNA of government.

Government Failure

Priests of the religion of Government often talk about why government is necessary because of market failure. We have two points to make here. One, the case for market failures is overstated, and those that take place usually do so because of the interference of government. Two, no one talks about Government Failure. Because of the incentives involved, Government Failure is actually not just pervasive, but also inevitable.

Look around you and tell us one thing that the government of India does properly. (From its stated aims, that is. If you look beyond those, we concede that it does an outstanding job of sucking our blood dry.) Its biggest failure is perhaps in its core function of ensuring the rule of law. It is our case that India does not have a rule of law, especially for the poor, and we somehow get by despite the government because of a) frameworks of societal trust, and b) sheer dumb luck.

As an illustration of that, consider the police’s reaction to the recent case of a woman who was abducted by three men in an autorickshaw. These men threw her infant child out, killing him in the process, and then gang-raped her. She went back to her baby’s corpse, carried it in the metro to a doctor, and refused to believe that the child was dead. When she went to the cops to complain, they refused to register her rape case. Why? Because they were too busy organising security for a presidential visit.

This is not an aberration. This is typical of India. Every time that poor woman buys something, for the rest of her life, the government will cut taxes that it will then redistribute to rich industrialists and interest groups. This is India, under the spell of this evil religion of Government.

The Problem is not the People

We often point to government misdeeds with shock and horror, and then demand that action be taken on the individuals responsible. To think this solves the problem is as delusional as Diana killing Ares and expecting that the problems of the world will be resolved. The individuals in the government are just human beings responding to the incentives before them. The real problem is the system. And the key problem with the system lies in power. When you give one group of people power over others, nothing good can come out of it.

The job of government is to safeguard the rights of its citizens, and not to run their lives. The whole idea of a constitutional republic is that the constitution places limits on the power of the state. But the state, after all, is run by people. People crave Power, and even a libertarian utopia will creep towards fascism unless there are strong safeguards in place. As that old saying goes, the price for our liberty is eternal vigilance. But before even that, it is important to recognize what the problem is, and what we need to be vigilant of. Public Choice Economics provides a framework for understanding that.

The God we need

Wonder Woman ends on a needlessly sentimental note (according to only one of us, ie, AV!), but it is a film after all, with superheroes and Gods. We don’t have those in the real world. If we did, though, we would need only one God for the world to function perfectly: the God of Incentives. We would name him Milton.

Posted at 9:07 AM by Amit Varma in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds

Legalise Prostitution to Fight Trafficking

This essay, which I co-wrote with Manasa Venkataraman, was published in Pragati, the online magazine I edit, on May 24.

It would be amazing if prostitution was legal in India. Over here, we use the law as an enforcer of morality, and prostitution is considered deeply immoral. The word itself is a pejorative. ‘Whore’ and ‘randi’ are used as terms of abuse, and the choice cuss word for our age is ‘presstitute’, implying that the press is prostituting itself, as if we are not all prostitutes.

All of us trade on our skills or assets to make a living. Writers sell their writing skills. Lawyers get paid for legal expertise and experience. You could be a construction worker or a fashion model or a software engineer or a banker, and you’d be doing the same thing that a prostitute does: trading on a part of yourself to the mutual benefit of both parties involved. Why, then, is prostitution effectively banned in India? (Strictly speaking, it is soliciting in public which is banned, which in practical terms renders prostitution itself effectively illegal.)

Also, what is the impact of this on our society?

The Moral Dimension of Banning Prostitution

A few years ago in a talk show, Kiran Bedi insisted that all prostitution involved coercion. No woman would want to be a prostitute of her own volition, she argued. On the show with her were actual members of the flesh trade, who laughingly told her she was wrong, and that they had joined the profession of their own free will. Bedi refused to engage with them, and just blocked them out. The dissonance was too much.

There are other jobs as well that one would hate to do. (Working crazy hours in a sweatshop or toiling in a farm as a labourer under the hot sun or spending one’s best years underground in a toxic mine.) Why do people willingly do them, then? It is because, of the options open to them, they feel that this is the best. If they had a better option, they’d go for it. They don’t. It’s sad, but it is what it is.

To deny them of their No. 1 choice, therefore, is to condemn them to alternatives they consider worse. This is repugnant and immoral. If there are women who would willingly become prostitutes, then to ban prostitution is to rob them of choice. It is an attack on their personal autonomy. It strips them of dignity, far more so than any customer could by having consensual sex with them.

‘Consensual’, of course, is the key word there, and the nub of the confusion. What implications does criminalising prostitution have for consent?

The Practical Impact of Banning Prostitution

Prostitution, per se, is a victimless crime. What happens when you criminalise it is identical to what happens when any other victimless crime is banned. (Such as drinking alcohol, gambling or inhaling cannabis.) The underworld gets involved, and that’s when the shady business starts.

In the context of gambling, you will note that matchfixing happens wherever gambling is illegal. Spurious liquor thrives when bootleggers are the sole source of alcohol. An unholy nexus springs up between the underworld and local politicians (The Bootlegger and the Baptist, basically), and everyone else suffers.

In the context of prostitution, this means that the business is all underground, and therefore not regulated. No safeguards can be instituted by either industry organisations or the government. Most importantly, the rights of the women working in the business cannot be protected. They can be coerced into the business, and exploited while in it.

Everything that is appalling and unwholesome about prostitution is actually true of trafficking. There is a difference between prostitution and trafficking, and criminalising the former enables and abets the latter. But Indian law seems not to understand that difference.

Prostitution vs Trafficking

The Oxford Dictionary defines prostitution thus: “The practice or occupation of engaging in sexual activity with someone for payment.”

India’s Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act defines prostitution as “the sexual exploitation or abuse of persons for commercial purposes.” The italics are ours.

In other words, Indian law, like Kiran Bedi, assumes that coercion is a given. According to the law, prostitution and trafficking are the same thing. If we accept this definition, it would seem natural that prostitution should be banned. But the definition is wrong!

Why is our law like this? Is this some kind of patriarchal virtue-signalling? Is this Victorian morality at play, part of a weird colonial hangover? These questions are moot. Whatever the reasons are, for both our law and our social attitudes towards prostitution, we must move forward. And there is hope.

The famous Justice Verma Committee report categorically stated that voluntary sex work does not equal exploitation, contrary to our penal code. And the Gujarat High Court gave a great judgement recently when it ruled that a transaction between a sex worker and her customer is purely commercial, and when both parties have consented to it, the law has no business interfering.

What does legal prostitution look like?

What would happen if prostitution was legal? Take a look at Amsterdam, famous for its red light areas, and where the law’s approach to it is based on the simple yet sophisticated model of consent. Under Dutch criminal law, there are specific protections covering coercion and violence against prostitutes, and the whole business is above-ground and relatively respectable. Social attitudes towards prostitutes are similarly enlightened. (The causation probably goes both ways.) We do not think that ‘presstitute’ would be a pejorative term over there.

India will not turn into Holland overnight if prostitution is legalised. But there is both a strong moral and practical reason for decriminalising it. The moral reason is that the law would then cease to prevent women from making decisions about their own bodies. The practical reason is that it will get the underworld out of the business, and make trafficking less likely. It is a no-brainer. It is about time.

Posted at 8:52 AM by Amit Varma in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom

18 June, 2017

Farm-Loan Waivers (and Macho Lifesavers)

This is the 38th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

EASY OPTION

It’s the season for farm-loan waivers.
They don’t do farmers any favours.
They just perpetuate
Their deplorable fate.
Handouts can never be lifesavers.

WHO’S MORE MACHO?

Trump and Modi are all set to meet.
Trump will be full of orange conceit.
Modi will keep it cool:
“Your hands are minuscule.
My 56-inch chest can’t be beat.”

Posted at 2:35 PM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

11 June, 2017

Theft, Surveillance, Bullies

This is the 37th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

THEFT

We are paying Krishi Kalyan Cess.
Even then, farmers are in a mess.
This only illustrates
How governance abates,
While our taxes remain in excess.

CONSENT

A friend asked, “Why be against Aadhaar?
We give our data to the bazaar,
Like Google, for instance.
Then why this resistance?”
I said, “Because Consent matters, yaar!”

*

And here’s a bonus limerick that didn’t appear in the paper:

NDTV

Most bullies are wimps, really afraid
That someone will rain on their parade.
Like Modi and his men,
So macho, except when
Someone fights back. Then they call a raid.

Posted at 9:16 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

09 June, 2017

Tyranny in the Post-Truth Universe

This is the 38th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

“History does not repeat, but it does instruct.”

These are the opening words of Timothy Snyder’s book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Snyder argues that we must not take democracy for granted. (The book was triggered by the rise of Donald Trump in the USA, but applies equally to us in India.) “The European history of the twentieth century,” writes Snyder, “shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. ”

Everywhere you look, perhaps in human nature itself, tyranny lurks. By understanding how it arises, we can pre-empt it. Snyder offers ‘twenty lessons from the twentieth century,’ and I read them with a deep sense of familiarity. All the lessons of the book apply to us, though in one important way, tyranny in the 21st century might actually end up being worse. I shall get to that, but first, here are some of the lessons.

Lesson number one: ‘Do not obey in advance.’ In authoritarian times, Snyder writes, “individuals think about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.”

This reminds me of what LK Advani asked a group of editors after the Emergency of 1975: “You were all asked to bend — but why on earth did all of you crawl?”

Lesson number two: ‘Defend institutions.’ Both in the US and in India, we take refuge in the institutions that are meant to safeguard us. But who will safeguard the institutions? “Institutions do not protect themselves,” writes Snyder. “They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning.” He adds that one common mistake is “to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions—even when that is exactly what they have announced they will do.”

Consider, as a parallel, what Narendra Modi’s government is doing to our institutions, right from co-opting the RBI as a wing of the Finance Ministry, to using the CBI to carry out raids on political enemies. A friend in government recently told me, “We own the Supreme Court.” Indeed, institutional capture is central to the agenda of this government.

Lesson number three: ‘Beware the one-party state’. Lesson number six: ‘Beware of paramilitaries.’ Lesson number 17: ‘Listen for dangerous words.’ Lesson number 19: ‘Be a patriot.’ (As opposed to a nationalist.) All of the lessons are pertinent, but the one that struck me the most was Lesson number 10: ‘Believe in Truth.’

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom,” writes Snyder. “If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”

Snyder cites the historian of Nazi Germany, Victor Klemperer, to describe the four modes through which truth dies and a post-truth world emerges. The first mode is “the open hostility to verifiable reality, which takes the form of presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts.” Snyder talks of the study that found that during the 2016 US presidential elections, “78 percent of [Trump’s] factual claims were false.” BWF (Bhakt Whatsapp Factories) probably achieve a higher percentage, but beyond the fake news sweatshops, there is much untruth in government spin as well—for example, during demonetisation.

The second mode is “shamanistic incantation.” Klemperer spoke of the “endless repetition” that served, in Snyder’s words, “to make the fictional plausible and the criminal desirable.” The constant painting of all political opponents as anti-national by default is an example of this, as are the false binaries that are employed. If you don’t support Modi, then you believe that “Bharat ke tukde honge.”

The third mode is “magical thinking, or the open embrace of contradiction.” Modi embodies this, by doing the precise opposite of what he had promised in the runup to 2014. He had promised “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance”, but what he is serving up is “Maximum Government, Minimum Governance.” On economics, Modi’s government, in its expansion of state power and disregard for individual rights, is to the left of Nehru. In both his authoritarianism and his dangerous economics, Modi is a true heir to Indira Gandhi. And yet, his followers keep seeing him as a break from the past.

The fourth mode is “misplaced faith.” As Snyder sums up Klemperer’s insight about the Nazis, “Once truth had become oracular rather than factual, evidence was irrelevant.” Much as I deplore labels and pejoratives, there is some logic to referring to Modi’s followers as bhakts.

“Post-truth is pre-fascism,” Snyder writes, but there is one important way in which this age of post-truth might be a permanent one. We live in a time of social media, which I believe to be a huge net-positive, but it does have this one bad effect of enabling echo chambers and alternate realities. Back in the day, we all got our information from mainstream media, and even if there were ideological biases, there was at least a consensus on facts. Those gatekeepers are irrelevant now.

We can now believe whatever we want to, and cocoon ourselves in with likeminded groups, often very large, that confirm our biases and worldviews. This leads to self-reinforcing loops that then polarises discourse. We each just live in our own version of the world, and the real world doesn’t matter anymore. It’s 1.3 billion reality shows.

This is scary, and I don’t know how we will ever come out of it.

*

Also read: ‘Why Both Modi and Trump are Textbook Populists’

Posted at 1:26 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics

04 June, 2017

Two Laments

This is the 36th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

A PEACOCK’S LAMENT

My friend, a peacock who lived alone,
Came to me, and started to bemoan,
“That judge said, ‘When you cry,
You get kids.’ That’s a lie!
I keep crying, but I’m on my own.”

HUMAN SHIELD

Human rights must be so very cheap
When you can tie someone to a jeep.
This tryst with destiny
Brought such ignominy.
How far we have fallen, and how deep?

Posted at 3:59 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

28 May, 2017

Don’t think too much of yourself. You’re an accident

This is the fifth installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

I was 17 when I first heard Chris Cornell sing, and I still remember the shock of that moment. The song was Hunger Strike, by a band called Temple of the Dog, and the other vocalist on that song was Eddie Vedder. Cornell and Vedder, with Soundgarden and Pearl Jam respectively, would go on to become the iconic vocalists of their age. Unlike their grunge peers, Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley, they didn’t die young, and actually built a strong body of work.

Wait, strike that: Cornell died last week at the age of 52, and now that I too am on the wrong side of 40, it feels like it was way too young. This column is not a nostalgic musing of a middle-aged man, though. Instead, it’s sparked by something Cornell’s wife Vicky said after he died. He was not the type to commit suicide, she said, and his death was probably caused by an anti-anxiety medicine he was taking called Ativan. The side-effects of Ativan include “paranoid or suicidal thoughts, slurred speech and impaired judgment.” When Vicky spoke to Chris over the phone after his last concert, she said, his speech was slurred.

That mildly tweaking the chemical balance of the brain could turn a person suicidal is not surprising: anti-depressants are so popular because we know you can turn the switch the other way. Indeed, it drives home the fact that what we call our ‘personality’ is actually deeply contingent. It arises from the state of the brain. You damage a tiny part of the brain, or tweak its chemical or hormonal balance, and voila, you have a different person.

Back in the day, the brain wasn’t considered as important as it should be. Bodies supposedly had souls inside them, and people spoke of minds as if they were independent of the brain. We now know that the former is bunkum, and the latter, at best a metaphor.

The most popular case study in neuroscience is probably that of Phineas Gage, a 19th century American railroad worker. When he was 25, an iron rod went through his head, and a large part of his left frontal lobe was destroyed. Miraculously, he survived – but did he survive as himself? His memory and intelligence weren’t affected by his accident, but his personality changed so much that his friends and family described him as “no longer Gage.”

Over the decades, we have learnt that the physical structure of the brain determines personality. For example, sociopathy is not a behavioural defect but a biological one: damage to the amygdala, the part of the brain believed to cause feelings of empathy for others, is the probable culprit. Four percent of us are born sociopaths, though they are over-represented among criminals, bankers, lawyers and politicians. (I’m not joking.) Neuroscientists have even identified parts of the brain that are responsible for spiritual feelings, though I classified being devout as a mental disorder long before I knew this.

The physical structure of the brain is just the start of it. Tweaking the chemical or hormonal balance of the brain can also shape and change personality. That accounts for the popularity of anti-depressants and cognitive super-drugs like Modafinil (which I take occasionally). Similarly, a coffee or sugar high can change behaviour, and hunger or lust can transform us. Most of these processes we are barely beginning to understand, leave alone control, but one day we will be able to shape a child’s personality before its birth using genetic engineering.

The big point I am making here is that what we call our ‘self’ is fragile and accidental. All humans, and their brains, are more or less identical. Tiny differences in our physical brains, and their chemical and hormonal balance, account for who we are. Self-help books teach us that we are all unique, but the truth is that we are basically made of the same matter, differ only in circumstance, and that embracing this truth is the only route to a happiness that is not delusional.

I don’t mean to imply here that Nature is everything. Nurture is as important. As Steven Pinker once wrote, Nature gives us knobs of varying sizes, and Nurture turns them. That underlines, even more, the accidental nature of our identity. We have the brains and bodies that we have; and then, we are born into the circumstances that we are. It’s all just luck.

So the next time you meet a Hindutva nationalist who dreams of Akhand Bharat, ask him if he would have felt the same way if he happened to be born in Lahore and his parents named him Anwar. If the question makes him angry, hand him an Ativan.

But no, in all seriousness, empathise with that dude. There, but for the grace of Luck, stand you.

Posted at 1:45 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | The Rationalist

21 May, 2017

One Tax To Rule Them All

This is the 35th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

GST

The Goods and Services Tax is here.
Most other taxes will disappear.
One massive overhaul.
One tax to rule them all,
Till the slabs and exemptions appear.

OVERDOSE

So much cricket is driving me mad.
The IPL had seemed just a fad.
Cricket is such a bore,
I will watch it no more.
(Except today’s final, let me add.)

*

Also hear: Episode 3 of my weekly podcast, The Seen and the Unseen, with Devangshu Datta, which was about the GST:

Posted at 8:59 AM by Amit Varma in Economics | India | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport

The Binary Fallacy

image

This is an essay I wrote last week for the magazine I edit, Pragati.

1

A few days ago, a friend and I tossed a coin for some reason I don’t remember now. I called Heads. The coin fell Tails.

“It’s Tails,” he said. “You were wrong.”

“No, I wasn’t,” I said.

“Huh? You said Heads, this fell Tails. You were obviously wrong. And I was right.”

“No, I wasn’t. And no you weren’t. Right and wrong are not the only two options. We were both right. And we were both wrong.”

My friend shot me a bewildered look, and put the coin in his pocket. I later remembered that the coin had been mine.

2

I was hanging with some friends at a birthday party. They were my age. I have never been one for celebrating birthdays, but they seemed happy. At one point, we started talking about the present government of Narendra Modi, and I criticized one of his policies. My infallible logic shut everyone up. The undecided nodded their heads. The devout on the other side, who will be convinced by nothing, shifted uneasily in their chairs. Finally, the Birthday Boy said:

“Amit, You’re such a commie, man. You’re a Lutyens insider. You’re like a courtier of the Gandhi family.”

I sighed. For most of the adult life, I’ve railed against the Gandhis and the Congress, their decades of bad economic policy that kept Indians in enforced poverty, their hypocrisy when it came to liberalism (they were the ones who banned The Satanic Verses), and their pandering to different vote banks. When they were in power, people called me a right-winger, and assumed I must be a Modi supporter. And now that I was criticising Modi, for many of the same reasons, I was suddenly a commie and a Congressi.

I sighed again. Someone handed me a glass of water. I said, “Give me back my coin.”

3

I would, at this point, like to present to you what I call The Binary Fallacy. The term has been used randomly in many other contexts, but never in this specific sense. Here goes:

The Binary Fallacy is the ingrained, mistaken notion that there are just two options in any given situation.

This is a bit like a False Dilemma, but that is a fallacy that is contextual and constructed. It is often a tactic. The Binary Fallacy, I would argue, is an ingrained tendency in us. We have evolved to commit The Binary Fallacy. In fact, it was necessary for our survival.

4

Here’s a common situation evolutionary psychologists often bring up. You are living in prehistoric times. You are in the fields. There are dense bushes near you. You hear a sudden loud sound from the bushes, as if something is moving through them.

It could be a tiger. It could be nothing. You have two options:

a) You get the hell out of there.

b) You investigate what’s in the bushes, as it’s likely to pose no danger given your past experience.

There is no space for nuance here. A data scientist may stop and think, “Ah well, out of a sample size of 641 noises-in-bush heard over the last three years, two turned out to be tigers, which means there’s a .3% chance this is a tiger. In contrast to that, there’s a 13% chance that this is deer, and if so, there is a 54% chance that I will catch it and thus take care of my hunting needs for a week. Plus, I will gain satisfying sex from admiring tribeswomen (70%), and might even be next alpha male (22%). If I attribute a satisfaction score of 80 Happiness Units for hunting needs satisfied, 200 for sexual needs satisfied, 400 for alpha-male status and minus 10,000 for death by tiger, my expected value from exploring the source of the noise is minus 838. I should probably leave.”

Meanwhile, the tiger’s finished his lunch, and your genes aren’t going anywhere.

Here’s the thing: the world is fake news. It’s deeply complex, with millions of events coinciding every moment, sometimes independent, often with chains of connections to each other that the human mind cannot unravel. We cannot deal with all this complexity. If we tried to do so, we would freeze with bewilderment and indecision.

So we tell ourselves simple stories to make a complex world explicable. And over time, decision-making shortcuts, or heuristics, get programmed into our brain as the species evolves. This is necessary for survival. If we didn’t take cognitive shortcuts, the Decision Fatigue alone could kill us, leave alone the tiger.

So here’s the upshot: the guy who runs from the tiger will get chances to propagate his genes. Alternatively, in a safer environment, the guy who catches the deer will get to have more sex, so his genes go forward. The nuanced data scientist will either die by tiger or miss the deer.

5

At one level, The Binary Fallacy is a good thing. We need it to negotiate the world. Also, if you give great importance to outcomes, The Binary Fallacy makes sense. Outcomes are binary. Either something happened, or it didn’t. Either there was a tiger in the bushes, or there wasn’t. You can’t be half-pregnant.

But thinking in terms of outcomes is wrong. I learnt this when I spent a few years as a professional poker player. Poker teaches you to think probabilistically, and to ignore outcomes. For those of you who do not know the rules of poker, I will illustrate this with a coin toss instead of a hand of poker. (The example is taken from this essay I wrote on the subject.)

Let us say I come to you and propose the following bet: we will toss an evenly-weighted coin, chosen or vetted by you. If it falls Heads, I will give you 51 rupees. If it falls Tails, you will give me 49 rupees. You agree, and I flip the coin.

Now, your decision at this moment in time is correct. (In poker terms, it’s a Plus EV decision.) Your expected value from this bet is Rs 1 per toss. (51×50 minus 49×50 divided by 100.) But the outcome is binary. You will either win the toss or lose the toss, win Rs 51 or lose Rs 49. You will never win Rs 1, which is the actual value of the toss to you.

Now, this is a bit of a gamble if you just toss the coin once. But if I offer you unlimited tosses of the coin, it becomes less and less of a gamble. You might get unlucky and have a run of five consecutive tails when we start, but in the long run, you will make money because you made the right decision.

This is what poker players learn, and is also the key insight of the Bhagavada Gita: keep making the right decisions, and don’t worry about the fruits of your actions.

The Binary Fallacy militates against this, though. If your elderly aunt watches you make that bet with me, and the coin comes down Tails, she might be rather upset with you. “You were wrong to make that bet,” she might tell you. “Wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s no surprise that my useless sister has such useless offspring.”

But you weren’t wrong. Your aunt just committed The Binary Fallacy. She is the useless sister.

6

Here’s an example of what this means in contemporary terms. Let us look at classical liberals who supported Narendra Modi in the 2014 elections. Assume that they wanted economic reforms but were wary of social unrest caused by the Hindutva fringe. So how would Modi govern if he came to power? I’d say that there were many possibilities.

X percent of the time he’d carry out economic reforms and keep his Hindutva warriors in check on the social front. Y percent of the time he would carry out zero reforms and unleash communal forces. Z percent of the time he would carry out both reforms and a communal agenda. And so on, with many permutations and combinations.

Now, no one can say what those numbers would be, but X, Y and Z are definitely all more than zero percent. If Y happened, someone who hoped for X would not be proved ‘wrong.’ (And vice versa, of course.) His thinking may have been correct, even if the outcome went the other way.

This holds for almost any historical event. The recent US presidential election was so close that anyone who said Hillary Clinton would win was both wrong and right, just as anyone who bet on Donald Trump was both right and wrong. (Unless they exuded certainty, in which case they were both wrong.) Ditto Brexit or Macron or Goriaghaat.

This brings me to The Hindsight Bias, another tool in the brainkit natural selection gave us to build simple narratives for a complex world. The Hindsight Bias is our tendency to believe that a) whatever happened in the past was inevitable and b) that we knew it would happen. Therefore, someone who makes a fallacious prediction or carries out an action that leads to a bad outcome was… wrong. After all, he wasn’t right, and what other options are there?

(By the way, there were no elections at Goriaghaat. I just made that up to see if you were paying attention.)

7

Let’s take a mild deviation here from our main subject, and muse about both The Hindsight Bias and probabilistic thinking. Consider what would have happened – and this is a fascinating counterfactual – if Sanjay Gandhi hadn’t died in an air crash in 1980.

I think it’s fair to say that Indian history would have been very different. I’d also add that we couldn’t say in what direction, though I’d wager that we would probably be worse off. But the thing to note here is that the history we take for granted is a confluence of unlikely events that just happen to happen. When Gandhi flew off that June morning, he wasn’t guaranteed to die, for there is no such thing as destiny. (‘Destiny’ itself is a consequence of our urge for narrative and comfort, and yes, The Hindsight Bias.) There was a very small chance that the plane would crash, and he got unlucky. If there were a million parallel universes that diverged at the moment, he’s still alive in most of them.

8

The Binary Fallacy has poisoned our political discourse. Part of this is the nature of our times. Our senses are bombarded by more information than ever before. We need to simplify. Who has time for nuanced thinking?

Also, we have evolved in prehistoric times to think in terms of tribes, Our People vs The Other. Culture has gone a long way towards fighting off biology – and culture itself is a consequence of biology, for we have contradictory impulses – but our instincts are what they are. We form teams. And we take everything personally.

I hardly need to elaborate on this binarification. (I wrote a post about it a year ago.) All political discourse has become a matter of you are for us or against us. All arguments have only two sides. If I am against Modi, I am an AAPtard, Fiberal Congressi. If I am against Rahul Gandhi, I am a Sanghi who hates Muslims.

Once I protested at the violence carried out by gaurakshaks, and was asked why I didn’t protest when ISIS killed people in Syria. I have had Whataboutery thrown at me when I have criticized the stifling of free speech by this government, and been asked where I was when Muslims were the one doing the muzzling. Naively, I once produced links to pieces I’d written supporting the brave cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, the Danish cartoonists, and Salman Rushdie (in the context of The Satanic Verses). But to reply to Whataboutery is foolish and futile.

The Binary Fallacy is ingrained in human nature. It is the nature of the beast. We are the beast; and we must also fight the beast. It is not simple.

Posted at 8:50 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Poker | Politics

14 May, 2017

Here’s What It Means To Not Own Your Body

This is the fourth installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

A century ago, when India was still a British colony, some of our most prominent freedom fighters were lawyers: Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru, Rajagopalachari, Mookerjee and Patel, among others. It is fitting, then, that a few days ago, it was a lawyer who made an eloquent plea for freedom against a government that is arguably as oppressive, and certainly more powerful, than the British were. Remember the name: Shyam Divan.

Divan was arguing against the government’s recent decision to make Aadhaar mandatory for filing income tax returns. Previous challenges to this act, on the basis of the Right to Privacy, were held up in court, and Divan could not make that argument for technical reasons. Instead, he based his argument on a person’s ownership of his own body.

“My fingerprints and iris are my own,” he said. “As far as I am concerned, the State cannot take away my body. Others cannot act in a way that subjects my body to their interests.” Divan argued that the imposition of Aadhaar “completely takes away your political and personal choices. You are a dog on an electronic leash, tagged and tracked, your progress hobbled.”

A person’s body, Divan pointed out, could not be “nationalised.”

This is not a new argument. Divan cited both Enlightenment and modern-day philosophers during his masterful submission, and John Locke was among them. It should be intuitive that all humans own their own bodies, but it was Locke, in the 17th century, who gave the first clear articulation of this: “Every man has a property in his own person. This no Body has any right to but himself.”

What does it mean to own yourself? Well, there are three implications of this. One, for the ‘Right to Self-Ownership’ to have any meaning, you need to respect the corresponding right of others. This leads to what libertarians call ‘The Non-Aggression Principle.’ You cannot initiate violence against another person.

Two, all legitimate rights flow from this right to self-ownership. The right to free speech – for your thoughts are yours, and you should be free to express them. The right to property, which is a result of your labours, and of voluntary exchange. The right to interact with any other consenting adult in any way you wish – economic or personal – that does not hurt anyone else.

Three, because a situation where every person has to fend for themselves is unviable, and likely to be violent, the state is a necessary evil. It commits some violence on the people – for taxes are violence – but only to the minimum extent required to protect our rights. Note that these rights are not granted to us by the state, as if they are favours. Instead, we have these rights to begin with, and we have brought the state into being to protect them. The purpose of the constitution is to limit the power of the state, and not to be, in Divan’s words, “a Charter of Servitude.”

Here, then, are the two visions of the state. The old one, where the people are mere subjects, ruled by the state, for all practical purposes owned by the state. The modern one, in which the state is an instrument of the people, tasked only with protecting their rights.

Deep inside the belly of any modern state, though, is the old one waiting to spring forth. Governments consist of humans, who are corrupted by power. The state, with its monopoly on violence, has tons of power. Thus, states tend to grow endlessly, and become an ever-present parasite on its people.

Divan’s argument was based on personal autonomy and consent, and the attorney general of India, Mukul Rohatgi, was ready with a response. Indians do not have a right over their own bodies, he said, adding that there are “various laws which put restrictions on such a right.” This made for a shocking headline, but he was stating the obvious.

India is a country where you can go to jail for what you say or what you eat. There are countless restrictions on markets, which are basically networks of voluntary exchanges. (If two consenting adults can be put behind bars for engaging in an act that infringes on no one else’s rights, can they be said to own themselves?) There are laws against victimless crimes (like gambling and alcohol). And there is an arrogant condescension by the state towards common citizens, as if it exists to rule us, and not to serve us.

Our constitution paid lip service to individual rights, but did not do enough to safeguard them. It will not save us – and thus, nor will the Supreme Court. It is up to us to snap out of our apathy and declare, as that battery of lawyers did a century ago, that we will not be ruled any more, that we own ourselves.

What is your view on this? Do you own your body?

Posted at 10:38 AM by Amit Varma in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | The Rationalist

12 May, 2017

Whose Money is it Anyway?

This is the 37th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

The other day I was out at a restaurant with a friend. I thought we would go Dutch. At the end of the meal, the friend insisted on paying the bill. “Damn,” I said jokingly, “had I known I would have ordered dessert.”

Now, in the sense of that specific incident, this is not true because I am on a Keto diet and would not have ordered that dessert no matter what. (Sugar is evil.) Also, as a matter of courtesy, if a friend was paying, I would either order the same as always or even less. But my awkward quip reveals an important truth about us and our money. This was best articulated by the economist Milton Friedman, who once famously laid out the four ways of spending money.

One, you spend your money on yourself. (Example: you go out dining alone.) You will be careful both about the value you get, as well as on about not spending too much. In other words, you will both economize and seek value, and will thus get maximum value-for-money.

Two, you spend your money on someone else. (Example: you buy a proforma wedding present for someone you are not close to.) Here, you don’t care so much for value – as you are not the beneficiary – but you will certainly economize, as it is your money being spent.

Three, you spend someone else’s money on yourself. (Example: You are on a foreign trip for your company at a five-star, all expenses paid for.) You will seek maximum value for yourself, and won’t be so careful about economising, as it is not your money that is being spent.

Four, you spend someone else’s money on someone else. In this case, you will neither economise, for it is not your money spent, nor look for value, as you are not the beneficiary. It is in this fourth instance that the most money is likely to be spent for the least benefit.

This is government.

image

Some of us tend to think of government as this divine body run by angels where all good intentions are transformed into good outcomes. But government is really a collection of human beings, and human beings respond to incentives. Friedman’s Law of Spending, in other words, applies to them. And they are spending someone else’s money on someone else.

Let’s look at an illustration of this: the potholes of Mumbai. Now, there is a department in the local municipality that is supposed to look after our roads, and it does not do so well enough. This is not a consequence of the badness of the individuals involved, but of the system itself. These government employees are tenured and unaccountable. Also, they’re spending someone else’s money on someone else. They are likely to overspend and underdeliver. And indeed, every year our potholes get repaired before the monsoons, and in a few months, the roads are pockmarked again.

This is actually a best-case scenario. To begin with, a government is inefficient by inadvertent design. As time goes by, as a consequence of this design, it becomes dysfunctional by deliberate action. In the case of the roads of Mumbai, it is likely that the government servant involved gets work done by a contractor at a higher price than normal so that he can take a hefty bribe for himself. It is also likely that he makes sure the work is shoddy so that more repairs are required soon, necessitating more bribes for himself. That’s the ecosystem right there.

And indeed, that’s all government. Consider public education, where we spend more and more every year and get worse outcomes than low-cost private schools spending a fraction of what the government does. The real travesty here is that the government not only fails to provide quality education, but it puts up barriers for private players to do so. In truth, private entrepreneurs are far likelier to provide good services because their incentives are better. Their survival and their profits depend upon their providing value. Not so in government.

Government is India is bad at two levels. Level one, it spends other people’s money on other people, which is a hopelessly inefficient structure to begin with. Level two, it has become an instrument for individuals to prey on citizens in a parasitic way, making money not by providing value but by robbing others of value. The government is not much more than a legalized mafia, extorting hafta, and yet we behave as if those who avoid paying hafta are the ones in the wrong. Isn’t that perverse?

The great Frédéric Bastiat once said: “Government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.” It’s a great game. Even if we cannot win this game, we should at least see it for what it is.

Posted at 4:04 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics

01 May, 2017

The Seen and the Unseen: Episodes 11 to 16

As usual, I’ve been lazy about mirroring my weekly podcast, The Seen and the Unseen, on this site. So I’ll clear my backlog now. Here are episodes 11 to 16, in reverse chronological order.

Episode 16: Artificial Intelligence

Like all technology, Artificial Intelligence (AI) will make humanity better off in the long run. But in the short run, it will cause much disruption, including mammoth job losses in India’s services industry. Futurist Ramez Naam and policy wonk Pavan Srinath join Amit Varma to talk about the Unseen effects of AI.

Episode 15: Kannada Dubbing Ban

For decades, there has been a stricture in Karnataka that non-Kannada films cannot be dubbed into Kannada. The idea behind this was to protect the local film industry—but were the unintended consequences just the opposite? Pavan Srinath joins Amit Varma to discuss the Unseen effects of this ban on Kannada dubbing.

Episode 14: Rent Control

Rent control is a classic example of a regulation meant to help the poor that ends up hurting everyone. Alex Tabarrok joins Amit Varma to discuss how real estate in Mumbai would be so much cheaper if not for such government regulation.

Episode 13: The Anti-Defection Law

It is a sad day for any democracy when MPs and MLAs sell themselves to the highest bidder. Horse-trading is monstrous. It was to prevent exactly this that the Anti-Defection Law was passed in 1985. But did it end up doing more harm than good to democracy? Barun Mitra joins Amit Varma to discuss the unseen effects of this famous legislation.

Episode 12: Futures Markets in Agriculture

For decades now, India has either banned or heavily regulated futures markets in agriculture. The conventional wisdom is that futures markets can turn farmers into gamblers. But what if the Unseen Effect of such regulation is exactly the opposite? Karthik Shashidhar joins Amit Varma to chat about the unintended consequences of such well-intentioned but misguided regulation.

Episode 11: FSI (Floor Space Index)

Mumbai is one of the most expensive cities in the world, and one of the reasons is that there is too little land and too much sky. Alex Tabarrok joins Amit Varma to discuss Mumbai’s insanely low Floor Space Index (FSI), a key reason why real estate here is at such a premium.

Posted at 10:06 AM by Amit Varma in Economics | India | Podcast | Politics | The Seen and the Unseen

30 April, 2017

Dawood and Vadra

This is the 34th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

NAAM KATAPPA

My dad asked me if Dawood was dead.
Did he die peacefully in his bed?
Well, listen up, Appa,
We did send Katappa,
And it looks like he got Dawood’s head.

REAL ESTATE

The Vadras have a problem with land.
Well, here’s what I do not understand:
Since there’s such discontent,
Why doesn’t this government
Prosecute them, and not just grandstand?

Posted at 9:38 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

23 April, 2017

Red Lights and Loudspeakers

This is the 33rd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

LAL SALAAM

One day Prime Minister Modi said,
“Red light culture should be put to bed.
No more beacon on car.”
I said, “This won’t go far.
VIPs have red lights on their head.”

SONU

I met a singer who seemed bereft.
He looked sleepy, and had no hair left.
He told me with a pout,
“I’m gonna carry out
The biggest ever loudspeaker theft.”

Posted at 11:57 AM by Amit Varma in India | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

16 April, 2017

Prawn + Wine

This is the 32nd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

PRAWN

Once there was a Minister of Prawn,
Who got loosies and felt quite forlorn.
He chose to regulate
What went onto your plate.
What a great way to show off his brawn.

WINE

Once there was a judge who liked his wine.
When he drank it, he felt so divine.
One day he crashed his car
Into a highway bar,
And said, ‘The fault is the bar’s, not mine.’

Posted at 9:15 AM by Amit Varma in Freedom | India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

09 April, 2017

The Winning Mantra for this IPL: Attack, Attack, Attack

This is the third installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

When the Indian Premier League began a decade ago, my fellow cricket purists bemoaned what they called a tamasha version of the game. I was an enthusiast, though. I was baffled that so many people felt a three-hour game was too short to be taken seriously as a sport. Football lasts 90 minutes. Hockey is an hour. Tennis, badminton, basketball matches all tend to be shorter. None of them lack nuance or complexity or drama, and are rich in strategic and tactical options. So why should T20 cricket be any less than that?

I expected T20 cricket to have a number of positive effects, and it has delivered on all those counts. It has widened the pool of players who can make a healthy living by being professional players. It was broadened the audience for the game, as many more people are willing to spend three hours watching the game than than they would be to spend five days. And it has enriched the other forms of the game.

Cricketers are now fitter than ever before, and batsmen and bowlers alike have developed tools in their arsenal that were not necessary before. The shorter format demands greater urgency, and players have to approach the game differently. Intent leads to ability. A batsman who needs to play an aggressive stroke to every ball will develop a better repertoire of aggressive strokes. A fielder who is desperate to save every run he can will be fitter, and will have better technique. Bowlers, in turn, will have to adapt to more aggressive batsmen by pushing the limits of what they can do. (And indeed, contrary to early stereotypes, T20 cricket isn’t a bang-bang slog-fest, and bowlers remain matchwinners.)

This has percolated down to Test cricket. Nostalgia makes us overestimate the past, but in terms of pure skill, modern greats are a league above the legends of the past. This is not because they are inherently more talented or hard working. It is because, as an economist would say, the incentives are different. T20 cricket demands more from them, and they have adapted.

I consider T20 cricket to be a separate sport, all on its own, and in that light, the last ten years have been fascinating. We have seen a new sport evolve out of the framework of an old one, and every year has seen the game develop rapidly. The key strategic development has been in the structure of the game itself.

Teams initially came to T20 with an approach transplanted from one-day cricket. Every innings had three broad phases: pinch-hit, consolidate, slog. But this was a mistake. In ODIs, teams have around seven batting resources for 50 overs. In T20s, they have the same number of batting resources for 40% of the overs. The reduced overs mean that the opportunity cost of a dot ball goes up, and the opportunity cost of a wicket goes down. The risk-reward ratio changes, so batsmen should attack more.

In fact, they should frontload, as I like to say – they should begin with attack, and attack all the way through. A team that bats through 20 overs losing only three wickets has probably wasted resources, given the batsmen waiting in the pavilion. They should have attacked more; every over can be a slog over.

Some teams understood this, like West Indies in the last T20 World Cup, or Sunrisers Hyderabad last year. But many teams still don’t get it. I wrote before last year’s IPL that teams are underestimating par scores and not frontloading, so anyone into cricket betting should blindly bet on the team batting second, as the team batting first will score less than optimally. That’s exactly what happened. Out of the first 14 games, 13 were won by the side chasing in an average of 17.2 overs, with an average 6.6 wickets in hand. (Teams adjusted in the second half, so follow that advice this year only for teams that don’t frontload.)

The most important statistic for a batsman, thus, is his strike rate. We might consider a strike rate of 125 healthy by ODI standards, but it is pathetic for T20s. A team batting at that strike rate would make 150 runs, which is well below par. A batsman playing at that strike rate is, thus, a liability to his team – the more balls he faces, the more he is letting them down. (As there should be no consolidation or innings-building phase in T20s, there is no ameliorating factor over a season.)

So here’s one stat you should keep your eye on this season: a batsman’s season-long strike rate minus the overall par-score strike rate (for a par score of 180, that would be 150). Let’s call it the Varma Number. If it is negative, the batsman has failed.

Earlier pieces by me on this subject:

Opportunity, choice and the IPL (2008)
The Lesson From This IPL: Frontload Your Innings (2014)
Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Lamborghini (2015)
The New Face of Cricket (2015)
What Cricket Can Learn From Economics (2016)
National Highway 420 (and the EV of Aggressive Batting) (2016)

Posted at 11:23 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Sport | The Rationalist

02 April, 2017

The Yogi and the Missus

This is the 31st installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

INCENTIVES

There is a Yogi who cares for cows.
He wants to protect them anyhow.
He doesn’t understand,
Because slaughter is banned,
There’ll be fewer cows in UP now.

DOMESTIC TRANSACTION

A man asked his wife, very nicely,
“Can you please give me some strong coffee?”
She demanded kisses,
And said, “I’m your missus.
Despite that, you must pay GST.”

Posted at 2:17 PM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

26 March, 2017

Adityanath’s rise marks the end of a 100-year-old battle

This is the second installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

There comes a moment in some lives when a sudden, unexpected event makes you look at the world with greater clarity than before. It could be a happy moment: a childhood friend proposes to you, or you stumble into parenthood. It could be a sad one: you are diagnosed with cancer and told you have six months to live. It makes you look at the world differently, and some things seem so clear that you wonder why you did not notice them before.

In the life of our nation, the rise of Yogi Adityanath to the chief ministership of Uttar Pradesh might well be one such unexpected yet clarifying moment. I was stunned when it was announced; and yet, it makes so much sense that any counterfactual now seems absurd. It was, I have come to believe, a decisive and inevitable event in a conflict that has been simmering in India for at least a century.

The great battle that took place on our peninsula was not between the natives and our colonial overlords, but between a new way of thinking and an old way of existing. While the Enlightenment swept its way across Europe and the USA in the 18th century, its influence was felt in India only in the 19th. Liberalism, however one tries to spin it, was an import from the west, and it is ironic that many of our finest freedom fighters were influenced by British thinkers. The great early figures of our resistance – heroes of mine such as Naoroji, Ranade, Agarkar and Gokhale – were essentially British liberals.

Until Mahatma Gandhi, the freedom struggle was a battle between the British empire on one hand, and Indian elites inspired by Western ideas on the other. Gandhi did catalyse it into a mass movement, but his intellectual influences weren’t Indian either. He was more influenced by Ruskin and Tolstoy than any Indian thinker, and VS Naipaul once called him “the least Indian of Indian leaders.” By the time the British finally quit India, the liberalism of the Gokhale years had been replaced by the soft socialism that was then in vogue. Do note that both these strains, the early classical liberalism and the socialism that is so antithetical to it, were Western imports.

The constitution, intended as an operating manual for this new nation, reflected this. The commentator Nitin Pai, in an essay in Pragati, a magazine I edit, wrote: “On 26th January 1950, the Enlightenment […] was injected into the veins of Indian society in the form of a written statute. We are still dealing with the shock of that moment.”

‘Into the veins of Indian society.’ It is worth reflecting here that the state and society are two different beasts. This difference is a cornerstone of conservatism, which the Encyclopaedia Britannica defines as a “political doctrine that emphasizes the value of traditional institutions and practices.” Who were the Indian conservatives who would lead the fightback of society against the state?

The biggest manifestation of conservatism in India is what we call the Hindutva right. I used to be sceptical of it, as I consider ‘Hindutva’ to be an artificial construct, an insulting caricature of a great inclusive religion. But even if that is so, Hindutva is authentically conservative because it arises out of a nativism that is inherent in human nature – and consequently, rooted in our culture. (Culture can both mitigate and reinforce human nature, which is the whole struggle right there.)

Early Indian conservatives were more interested in social rather than political battles, which is why they didn’t play much of a role in the freedom movement. After Independence, the Nehruvian big state seemed to have subdued the Hindutva social project – but this was temporary. The journalist Rishi Majumder, who is writing a biography of the conservative leader Syama Prasad Mookerjee, describes in a forthcoming essay in Pragati how “the RSS, as well as other right-wing groups, organizations and movements, have thrived and grown through many years when the BJP was not in power.”

Much modern politics is the battle between these competing visions of the state. Should the state be a superstructure that imposes certain values, decided upon by elites, upon society? Or should it be a servant to society, protecting its traditions without judging them from the prism of other value systems?

Narendra Modi’s rise to power was fascinating because he embodied the hopes of people on both sides of that spectrum. Some classical liberals dismayed by Nehruvian socialism backed him because they saw the damage Nehru’s ideas had done to India, and wanted their values imposed from above. And the whole Hindutva movement, obviously, fell in behind Modi because his ascent was the culmination of their century-long struggle.

These two strands are incompatible. And now, with the rise of Yogi Adityanath, there is no more ambiguity.

Posted at 8:20 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | News | Politics | The Rationalist

20 March, 2017

The Seen and the Unseen: Episodes 6 to 10

I just realised that I haven’t been mirroring episodes of my weekly podcast, The Seen and the Unseen, on India Uncut. So here, at a go, are episodes 6 to 10, in reverse chronological order.

Episode 10: Digital India

Big Brother is watching you, and you have no protection. There has been much hype about how ‘Digital India’ will transform our lives, but there are unseen elements to it that should make you worry. Devangshu Datta joins Amit Varma to discuss why it is so alarming that there are no laws in India to protect privacy and defend against data theft.

Also read: A Billion Indians With Their Pants Off—Devangshu Datta.

Episode 9: The Profit Motive in Education

Jawaharlal Nehru once said that profit is a ‘dirty word’. He wasn’t alone in his distrust of the profit motive, which is effectively banned in education in India. Amit Varma chats with education reformer Parth Shah on why this thinking is misguided, and might be responsible for the pathetic state of education in India.

Episode 8: The Medical Council of India

Healthcare in India is in a dismal state, and so is the state of medical education. Pavan Srinath joins Amit Varma to discuss the role of the Medical Council of India in this mess. Is it a responsible industry watchdog helping keep standards high—or is it a part of the problem?

Episode 7: MRP

For any shopper in India, there is no acronym as comforting as MRP: Maximum Retail Price. When you see that on any packaged good, you feel assured that you won’t be ripped off. But is it really that simple? Prithwiraj Mukherjee joins Amit Varma to discuss the seen and unseen effects of MRP.

Episode 6: Surgical Strikes

On September 18, 2016, a group of terrorists attacked an Indian army brigade headquarters near the town of Uri in J&K. Nineteen people died, and there was immense pressure on the Indian government to retaliate. The prime minister, Narendra Modi, eventually launched what he described as ‘surgical strikes’, meant to be a show of strength and resolve. Defence analyst Pranay Kotasthane joins Amit Varma to discuss the Seen and Unseen effects of these surgical strikes.

Posted at 1:56 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | India | Podcast | Politics | The Seen and the Unseen

The Return of Pragati

A few days ago, the magazine Pragati relaunched under my editorship. This was the editorial I wrote to mark its return.

One of my babies on that space: a section called Brainstorm, which aims to “create a space where diverse minds can discuss big issues in a respectful way.” The first such discussion, on ‘The Future of the Indian Republic’, is underway. Here’s my intro post to kick that discussion off. You can read all the essays in that discussion here

Watch that space!.

Posted at 1:47 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Freedom | India | Media | Personal | Politics

19 March, 2017

A Top Edge (and a Brain Fade)

This is the 30th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

SHERRY

Navjot Singh Sidhu was in a fix.
No party wanted him in the mix,
Till Congress took him on.
Good fortune came along.
His top edge went all the way for six.

CRICKET

One day, in my school, there was a raid.
A boy was caught cheating in tenth grade,
But he was remorseless.
He said, with great finesse,
“It was nothing more than a brain fade.”

Posted at 8:59 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport

17 March, 2017

Embrace the Technology!

This is the 36th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

At the very moment you read this, there is a Test match going on and two batsmen consulting out in the middle about whether they should use the DRS.

“Was I really lbw? Should I refer? Do you think it was missing?”

“I don’t know. But whatever you do, don’t look at the pavilion. Control your neck. Control it. Hold it if you have to. Here, I’ll hold it for you. Control!”

Crack.

The big cricket story of last week, somehow, was not India’s excellent comeback in the Test series against Australia, but the DRS controversy. Batsmen are not supposed to look at the pavilion for advice when deciding whether or not to go for a decision review. Those are the rules, Steve Smith broke the rule, and it was fair enough that he was asked to leave the field of play. But the rules themselves are ridiculous.

I’ve been ranting about this for years, and still these people don’t learn. You would think no one reads me. Gah. Anyway, because I care about you, here, once again, are my thoughts on technology in cricket. And in life, which, by the way, is futile. (I don’t shy away from the big questions.)

First up, a question: why do umpires exist in cricket? After all, cricket is about batsmen batting, bowlers bowling and fielders fielding. No one goes to a ground to watch an umpire umpire. Well, umpires exist purely as a means to an end. They have to take decisions about whether a batsman is out or not, and lubricate the action in the game by communicating to scorers exactly what is going on. A secondary function is to step in if there is physical conflict, and to maintain decorum. Their job is not to be the action, but to keep the action flowing smoothly.

In other words, umpires are a technology.

Think of anything that is a means to an end as a technology. Umpires are a conventional technology for arriving at the right decisions on a cricket field. Now, the last couple of decades have seen rapid upgradations to pretty much every other technology there is. And so it is in the case of cricket. The decision-making mechanisms in cricket have been enhanced with new technologies meant to supplement (and not replace) the umpires.

The most significant of these is Hawk-Eye. Umpires, being human (as of now), are prone to all kinds of optical illusions, such as the parallax error, which impede their decision-making ability. Hawk-Eye, in every respect, makes better decisions than an umpire can. (And it makes them in real time – the time-consuming replays you see you on TV are only for the benefit of viewers.) But for the longest time, luddites fought the use of Hawkeye in decision-making, which led to the ridiculous situation that everyone watching a game had accurate information about whether a batsman was out or not – except the bloody umpire. It was ridiculous.

Cricket authorities have since become more open to the use of technology, but not enough. They almost seem to use it grudgingly. Consider DRS, for example. If the idea of the technology called umpires is to make correct decisions, and there is more technology that will lead to even better decisions, then why don’t we use it as much as possible? Why should DRS appeals be limited for a batting side? Why should every dismissal not be reviewed as a matter of course? Reviewing a dismissal would not take more time than a batsman walking back to the pavilion, so this should be a no-brainer.

Steve Smith wouldn’t be so embarrassed then, eh?

But really, the larger issue here is that the world is changing rapidly, and our minds are not adjusting fast enough. It’s not just cricket. As a species, we don’t have enough clarity about means and ends. For example, just as umpires are a technology for making correct decisions on a cricket field, consider that animals are a technology for growing food. And now that scientists have figured out a way to grow meat in labs without sentient animals being involved, they may soon be an outdated technology, at least for this use case. That might lead to goats going extinct. (Not puppies, though, because puppies can be hugged.)

Equally, hugs are a technology for oxytocin generation. Romance is a technology for the way it makes us feel and the chemicals it releases. If we could pop a pill and feel the same way, would we bother to fall in love, or hug or cuddle or caress, or even woo? Are we so arrogant enough to believe that the love we feel for anyone is truly transcendent, and not mere technology? And also, is humanity any loftier than just a carrier for the trillions of bacteria that inhabit us? What suckers we are, that we behave as if we’re the rulers of the universe?

Okay, excuse the digression, your life has meaning. Happy now? Get back to watching the cricket, but do think about how it makes you feel, and the purpose of it all.

Posted at 2:05 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Science and Technology | Sport

< Older entries