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

27 May, 2016

Train

Mid Day reports:

Talk about catching a lucky break. A 60-year-old woman at Ghatkopar station yesterday sauntered onto the platform, got down on the tracks and lay down on them just as a local train arrived.

At least two bogies passed over her before the driver applied the brakes. She came out almost unscathed, with just an injury on a toe on the left foot.

One moment she is lying down on the railway tracks, a train heading towards her, and she feels this terrible, unspeakable sadness. A few seconds later, the train has gone over her, and she’s still alive. What do you think she feels then?

There’s no similarity in the plot, but I thought of Jean-Paul Sartre’s great short story, ‘The Wall’ (pdf link) when I read this.

Posted at 5:43 PM by Amit Varma in News | Small thoughts

Sandy the Dandy

image

Once there was a guy called Sandy
Who behaved all macho and randy,
But guys who flex their pecs
Usually have a complex:
He might well be an impotent dandy.

(Pic courtesy Veena Venugopal on Twitter.)

Posted at 4:44 PM by Amit Varma in India | News | Rhymes

Jawaharlal Nehru: Not a Saint, Not a Sinner

It is ironic that one of the great unifying forces in Indian history has become such a polarising figure decades after his death. The ‘Sanghis’ lambast Jawaharlal Nehru as a pseudo-secularist, anti-religion, anti-sangh socialist demon, and the ‘Congressis’ have already lifted him into sainthood. But these binaries are misleading.

Nehru was neither a saint nor a sinner. In my view, he was a great man who has great achievements to his name, as well as a few giant missteps. I admire him for keeping India together in those early years, when that wasn’t as much of a given as it now seems, for keeping us secular, for building great institutions, and for setting standards of behaviour in public life. Equally, I think his Fabian Socialism kept India poor for decades longer than it should have, with an incalculable cost in terms of lives and living standards. His economic policies were misguided, though, not malicious. He really did believe that was the way forward, and it was in keeping with the intellectual fashion of the times. Maybe he could have had less certitude in his beliefs and been more open to criticism—from the likes of the sidelined Rajaji, for example—but hey, hindsight is 20-20, and I know that I for one could never have walked in those shoes.

It’s ironic and sad, as I mentioned in my last post, that his great opponents in the Hindutva right are not just following him in many respects, but they are following all the wrong aspects of his legacy. They’re perpetuating big-state, mai-baap economics while they try to polarise the country with their divisive, communal rhetoric. They’re embracing the worst of Nehru while discarding the best of him.

This post was sparked, btw, by an editorial in Mint today titled ‘In defence of Jawaharlal Nehru.’ I disagree with the manner and focus of their defence, though. They write:

The Nehruvian project was part of the wider liberal nationalist project—to begin the overdue economic regeneration of India through industrialization led by the state, to seek strategic autonomy in a Cold War world through the principle of non-alignment, to build a new nation-state within a constitutional framework, and to create new institutions for a modern India emerging from several centuries of foreign rule.

It is far easier to attack Nehru for specific policy errors than it is to question his overarching concerns.

This is true: but it is also true that just as we judge policies by their outcomes and not their intentions, we should do the same when we talk of leaders. Nehru’s intentions were certainly noble: but so were those of Mao, Pol Pot and the Soviets. Intentions stand for nothing. It is actions and their outcomes that matter. In that, Nehru has a mixed record, and there is much to praise. Those should be the focus of any defence of Nehru.

Ps. For what it’s worth, my feelings on Indira Gandhi are very different. There is nothing redeeming about her record, and she was truly a vile, evil woman. If Kamala Nehru had had a headache for all of 1917, the world would have been a better place. But one can’t blame Jawaharlal for that!

Posted at 4:08 PM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics

The Pandit and the Bovine God

Mr Modi said, ‘I won’t allow
A sale of the public sector now.’
Well, I have to agree
With Mr Shourie:
Modi = Nehru + cow.

*

Vivek Kaul has a response to this that I agree with entirely.

And oh, I’ve written multiple times in the past that Modi is, in different ways, a legatee of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. (I mean that as harsh criticism.) Those pieces:

The Fatal Conceit of the Indian Politician
Looking Beyond Left and Right
Lessons From 1975

Posted at 3:14 PM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics | Rhymes

22 May, 2016

A Wrestler Sweats in the Summer

Starting today, two of my limericks will appear every Sunday on the edit page of the Sunday Times of India. This is the first installment.

CULPABLE

Once there was a problem of water
Summer was hot and getting hotter
A politician explained,
‘Our hands are blood-stained.
Bad governance is equal to manslaughter.’

LITIGATION

Once a wrestler tried to move a building
Muscular Sushil grunting and pushing
When chastised,
He said, ‘I was advised
To move court, so that’s what I’m doing.’

Posted at 11:19 AM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport

21 May, 2016

Troller Man

The song below is to be sung to the tune of Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’. (Original lyrics here.) I started writing this at exactly 9am today, I swear!

TROLLER MAN

It’s 9am on a Saturday.
Regular tweeps shuffle in.
There’s an old troll sitting on my timeline
Spitting in his tonic and gin.

He says, ‘Slut, why you criticize policy?
I’m not really sure where that goes.
I’d pull you to the street, and I’d kick out your teeth,
but right now I’m not wearing clothes.’

La la la, di di da
La la, di da da da dum.

Sing us a song, you’re the Troller Man.
Sing us a song tonight.
We’[ve done photoshop, we’ve wanked 30 times,
Now we’re in the mood for a fight.

Now Mr Shah at the bar is a friend of mine
He gets me retweets for free
He’s quick with a joke, or a Facebook poke
But there’s someplace that he’d rather be.

He says, ‘I believe achhe din are here,’
As the Muslims rush out of the place.
‘I’m soon gonna be a movie star
in a film called “Buddha in Space”.’

Oh, la la la, di di da
La la, di da da da dum.

Now Naren is a full-on brahmachari
Who never had time for a wife.
He’s talking with Jaitley, who has lately
Put the nation under much strife.

And the politicians are practising warcraft
And the journos are all getting stoned
Poor Sushma sitting in a corner with dignity
Nursing her drink all alone.

Sing us a song, you’re the Troller Man.
Sing us a song tonight.
We’re useless as hell, and we only feel well
When the toddy has made us all tight.

Pappu’s passed out in a corner.
Some scoundrels put gin in his milk.
Politics is tough. This life is so rough,
But his sleep is smoother than silk.

Arvind is out picking pockets
Soon he’ll shout, ‘Hey, the drinks are on me!’
Vadra’s a bouncer, who thinks he’s an announcer
What would he be without family?

Oh, la la la, di di da
La la, di da da da dum.

Sing us a song, you’re the Troller Man.
Sing us a song tonight.
We’[ve done photoshop, we’ve wanked 30 times,
Now we’re in the mood for a fight.

Oh la la la, di di da
We’re in the mood for a fight!

Posted at 10:09 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Rhymes

13 May, 2016

What We Talk About When We Talk About Politics

This is the 27th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

One of the great things about social media is that we talk to each other much more. I am not being ironic: because of Facebook alone, I know much more about my friends than I would otherwise. I am also in touch with many more people than I would otherwise be, especially old friends. This is useful as one gets middle-aged. At some point around 40, the world starts to narrow and goes on narrowing. Social media keeps it broad, and even recluses stay up-to-date and tip-top, as they’d say back in my day. One could argue that this sense of connection is synthetic, even pathetic, and has no connection with the real world out there. One could also argue that there is only one world, and it is in our heads; and anything in our heads, it follows, is in the real world.

This column is not about the personal, though, but the political. There is far more political awareness among young people today than there was when I was growing up in the 1980s. When I was a teenager, I did not know the difference between left-wing and right-wing, and my informed opinion of Rajiv Gandhi was that he was handsome. Today, 12-year-olds have vociferous opinions and are signing online petitions when they are not on hunger strikes in between meals. Political discourse has increased exponentially in volume; but how much is noise and how much is signal?

There were hopes that social media would lead to a virtual global town square where informed citizens could debate with one another. Instead, it has led to a conglomeration of echo chambers, some of them truly bizarre. No matter what you believe in, you can now find hordes of like-minded people online, and be reassured by the validation they provide. This has lead to a phenomenon that social scientists call ‘group polarisation’. The economist Cass Sunstein defines it thus: “When like-minded people deliberate, they typically end up adopting a more extreme position in line with their pre-deliberation inclinations.”

Thus, we find that most political discussion online consists of people talking past each other. And when they do talk to each other, it isn’t pretty. Anonymity (or even physical distance) turns mice into tigers, and most political discussions online turn personal really fast. If you want to dominate a discussion, you ignore the issues involved and attack the person instead. There are three key ways in which this happens.

One, you accuse your opponent of hypocrisy. (This is also known as Whatboutery.) So if someone talks about the 2002 Gujarat riots, you go, ‘But what about the 1984 Delhi riots? I didn’t see you condemn that?’ If someone points to a Muslim lynched by a Hindu mob, you say, ‘What about that Hindu social worker killed by Bangladeshi migrants in Assam?’ If they defend the free speech of a member of phallana community, you say, what about dhimkana community, where were you when they were censored? Not just trolls, all politicians do exactly this.

When Arvind Kejriwal was questioned about the hundreds of crores of taxpayers’ money he spent on running ads for the Delhi government, he replied, ‘But the BJP also does this. Why don’t you question them?’ There is no end to such Whataboutery—and you will note that on every such instance, the original issue is soon forgotten, and the fight centers on the hypocrisy of the complainant.

Two, you question the intent of your opponent. She could be a CIA agent, a pinko stooge of the Chinese, a lackey for the corporates, a ‘paid audience’ or a ‘presstitute’, in that colourful coinage of a retired army general with that typical Indian penchant for tasteless puns. Ah yes, she could also be anti-national, trying to break up the country. Any issue they raise, they can be told, ‘Ah, but you have an agenda for kicking up a storm. We’re on to you!’

This can be combined most effectively with Whataboutery. For example, if the Congress raises the issue of a corruption scandal in the BJP government, the BJP can say that their intent in raising this matter is to divert attention from their own scam from a week ago. What about that? This can even get recursive. (To visualise this process, imagine fractals.)

Three, you categorise your opponents by applying a pejorative label on them, and then dismiss that entire category as being beneath contempt, thus removing the need to engage with it. This happens across the spectrum. Just go on Twitter, and you’ll find it packed with ‘bhakts’ and ‘aaptards’ and ‘adarsh liberals’ and ‘sickulars’ and so on. Once you apply such a label to someone, you do not need to engage with them in reasoned debate.

Attacking the person instead of the argument is an ancient tradition—some intrepid historian might even find that it is of Indian origin. I have just enumerated the three most common ways of doing this. There are many other ways of appearing to win an argument within even engaging with it to begin with. Check out ‘38 Ways to Win an Argument’, by Arthur Schopenhauer and you will see some examples. They include noble techniques such as shifting goalposts, attacking straw men and appeals to authority. The 38th of them is masterful, and one that many Twitteratti are adept at: ‘Become personal, insulting and rude as soon as you perceive that your opponent has the upper hand.’

Most delighfully, you can not only resort to this, but you can immediately turn the tables with some canny projection when your opponent reacts in anger. He’ll be like, ‘What the fuck did you just call me?’ And you go, ‘Don’t use bad language, did you just say “fuck”? You are clearly not capable of reasoned discourse.’

In a sense, this gets to the heart of the matter. The whole point of political discourse seems not to be political but personal. When we take a point of view, we make an assertion not about the state of the world but about ourselves. Our ideologies become a proxy for personal statements: ‘I am compassionate.’ ‘I am righteous.’ ‘I am clever enough to engineer society.’ Many of our actions in the political sphere are not meant to actually affect change, but to show our nobility. And because our positions are so tied to our identity, any attack on them is an attack on us. We react viscerally. It feels personal; so we get personal.


*  *  *

Also read: My old column written just when the Twitter started getting crazy in India, Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims.

Posted at 10:01 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Media | Politics

25 April, 2016

Goodwill Machine

Once there was a star of the screen,
Sent to Rio as a goodwill machine.
‘With my foot on the pedal,’
He said, ‘I’ll race towards a medal
And crush any blackbuck that intervenes.’

image

Posted at 3:47 PM by Amit Varma in India | News | Rhymes | Sport | WTF

23 April, 2016

The Truth Behind The Hrithik-Kangana Spat

I don’t follow celebrity gossip, but the ongoing spat between Hrithik Roshan and Kangana Ranaut intrigued me, partly because it is so complex, and partly because Kangana is so pretty. What exactly has happened between them? None of the mainstream media outlets have shed any clarity on this, so it clearly requires someone of my superior intellectual calibre to get to the bottom of this. And I have!

There are two critical pieces of information you need to pay attention to. One is this nugget from an interview of Kangana’s lawyer in Rediff:

Rediff: Did your client send these 1,450 mails to Hrithik Roshan?

Lawyer: No. My client’s email IDs were hacked eight months ago.

The second piece of information is this quote from Hrithik’s lawyer:

My client had filed the complaint first on December 12, 2014 regarding an imposter using the email address .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) and talking to people. This was followed up with the authorities quite a few times.

And viola, I mean, voila, all is revealed! We get to the heart of the matter. Here’s what really happened:

An imposter of Hrithik Roshan had an affair with someone who hacked into Kangana Ranaut’s email.

This could be a love story worthy of being made into a film. (Hrithik and Kangana could play the leads, perhaps?) And there are nuances here that must be explored. One must not assume that Hrithik’s imposter was male and Kangana’s hacker was female. It could be the other way around, or they could be of the same gender. They could even be the same person. In fact, Hrithik’s imposter could be Kangana and Kangana’s hacker could be Hrithik. The possibilities are endless, and we must be grateful to these two stars for presenting them to us.

Only one thing can be said for certain here: Hrithik and Kangana have absolutely no involvement in this spat between Hrithik and Kangana. I’m so glad I cleared that up. You’re welcome.

Posted at 3:20 PM by Amit Varma in India | News

22 April, 2016

Hello, My Name Is Sri Sri

Hello, my name is Sri Sri
I’ve heard you guys are beastly
Don’t cut the call
In fact, cut nothing at all
Let’s make some peace. Hee hee!

*

Yeah, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar made a call to ISIS, it seems, to talk peace. They sent him a picture of a beheaded man in return. He says. Hmm.

*

More:

Hello, my name is Sri Sri
I’ve just climbed up a tree tree
Where the signal is clear
And I appear
Not mad like you, but free free.

*

Hello my friends from Islamic State
I write these words as I levitate
I can teach you to rise
Not brutalise
All you have to do is meditate.

Posted at 4:28 PM by Amit Varma in India | News | Rhymes | WTF

Lament For Another World

Mike Klein of Chess.com, reporting on the US Chess Championships, went around asking the participants about Prince.

When I spoke with 12-year-old NM Carissa Yip before the round, she’d never heard of the pop star. I said, “He was big in the 80s and 90s, and one of those stars who went by only one name, like Madonna.”

Yip: “Who’s Madonna?”

This happens more and more to me when I talk to young people these days. They make me feel like I am living in a different age—not just with regard to music and films and books, but also politics and economics. It has been speculated that so many young people support Bernie Sanders in the US because they grew up after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and have no idea of the horrors of socialism. Similarly, in India, I find that many young people who were born in the 90s don’t have the same kind of visceral understanding of how Fabian Socialism crippled us because they were born too late for that. I was an 80s kid, of course—and it’s taken me decades to come to the terms with the fact that I’m not a kid any more.

My musical tastes happen to run older than my generation. Bob Dylan and Van Morrison are still banging on. They’re so clearly from another world that it might as well be fictional, and I might as well be schizophrenic.

Posted at 1:12 PM by Amit Varma in Personal

21 April, 2016

National Highway 420 (and the EV of Aggressive Batting)

Before this IPL started, a friend of mine, who shall go unnamed, called me up.

Friend: Amit, you have such understanding of cricket, do you have any gyaan about this IPL? I want to place a few bets.

Me: Um, don’t do cricket betting, bro, you’re bound to lose in the long run. But if you absolutely have to, because the dopamine craving is unbearable, and you really hate your money, then do one thing: make a bet, at the toss of every game, on the side batting second. Ignore everything else.

F: What are you saying? Team composition, past records, pitch, weather, my gut feel—ignore all that?

M: Yes. Ignore it all. And don’t even watch the game, your blood pressure is a problem, isn’t it? Just place that one bet and forget about it.

*

Four days later, I Whatsapp him.

M: Bro, how’s it going? Have you noticed that the team batting second won three out of the four games so far? :)

F: Amit, it’s all fucked up, man. The matches are fixed. Just see yesterday, bro, X was at 40 paisa when I bet, and suddenly the game turned around and I lost so much. Such an unlikely turnaround! It has to be a fix!

M: Um, unlikely things are actually inevitable. Why didn’t you just bet on the side batting second like I told you to?

F: Arre, yaar, that is so simplistic. I have been betting on cricket for 20 years. Main apni analysis karta hoon, bhai!

M: Oh.

F: But these bloody games are fixed!

M: Well, just keep in mind what I told you.

*

I call him after eight games.

M: Champ, this IPL is crazy, isn’t it? Seven out of eight matches so far won by the side batting second. When are you throwing a party?

F: Arre, forget party, I will have to sell one of my flats soon. I bet heavily on X yesterday, and Y won! It was fixed!

M: Er, not likely bro, very hard to fix entire games. Only spot-fixing is realistic, and even that…

F: No no no, it was fixed! See, X had a sure win! And the bookies gave odds of 84 paise. Why would they give such great odds? To lure the money in! And then Y wins! Fixed!

M: Are you saying the bookies fixed it?

F: No bro, the game has evolved beyond that. Bookies and punters don’t fix matches anymore. The BCCI fixed it!

M: Bro, that’s a wild conspiracy theory. Firstly, it’s almost impossible to fix actual results. Secondly, the BCCI makes a lot of money anyway, and their incentives are aligned towards keeping the game clean. I think you’re just rationalising…

F: Arre, stop this rational talk. Nothing good can come out of it.

M: Well, I did tell you about the team batting second…

*

And now, two weeks later, I speak to him again.

M: Dude, it’s 13 out of 14 wins now for the side batting second. What did I tell you at the start of the tournament?

F: Arre, forget all that, you won’t believe how hard I’m getting banged. My ass should be renamed National Highway 420. I’m telling you, it’s all fixed. I should never have bet a single paisa!

M: Er, well, look, I did tell you…

F: I hate cricket. I’m going to Bangkok for some decleansing. I need to get some detoxing done.

M: Er, actually all this detox talk is pseudo-science, dude, you see…

F: Amit, shut up! You know nothing!

*

So there it is. My friend will never wake up and see the light, but the weird thing is that many pundits and cricket managements aren’t doing that either. It is a fact that 13 out of 14 games have been won by the side batting second. Not just that, they have been won easily, in an average of 17.2 overs and with an average 6.6 wickets an hand. Why is this happening?

I have speculated on this in an earlier post, but forget all speculation, there is one obvious conclusion to be drawn: teams batting first are consistently underestimating the par score.

In my column before the IPL, ‘What Cricket Can Learn From Economics’, I had pointed out that many sides do not understand the economic concept of opportunity cost. Basically, they need to be more aggressive in order to utilise the 20 overs optimally, and attack the bowling from the get go. (Read the piece for the full argument.) Now, some teams get this, and do actually frontload, but many don’t. And they often adjust sub-optimally when wickets fall.

For example, consider this: A team begins their innings aggressively, but then drops wickets. They drift to 44 for 3 after eight overs, with the bowlers bowling exceptionally well. Here’s what happens: if they’re batting first, they’ll reset the par score in their heads, and aim for something conservative like 165 at 10 an over. If they’re batting second, they’ll aim for whatever the target is, even if it’s 190. They don’t have a choice.

Now, it is my belief that many teams underestimate the ‘expected value’ of aggression. The risk-to-reward ratio for aggressive batting is vastly different in T20s as compared to ODIs because the relationship between the two kinds of resources available to a team (players and time) has changed. And because they underestimate the payoffs, teams are not aggressive enough while batting first. While batting second, though, they often don’t have a choice but to be appropriately aggressive.

This is not the only factor in play, of course—the strength of a side’s bowling attack matters, as do local conditions on any given day. But all of those are largely toss-agnostic. This mindset is not.

Despite my explanation, this streak is an outlier, and I don’t see it continuing: I will be very surprised if 13 of the next 14 games are won by the side batting second. However, I do see this trend continuing. Sides batting second should win more than sides batting first. And when sides batting first do win, it will be because they frontloaded, as RCB did in game 4, and Gujarat Lions try in every game.

Please don’t put your money on it, though. Anyone who bets on cricket is a long-term loser. I’m serious.

Posted at 6:24 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Sport

20 April, 2016

Uber and the Auto-Driver

As readers of this blog would know, I’ve long argued in favour of Uber’s surge pricing as an excellent mechanism for matching supply and demand. In a column from last year, I warned against the perils of banning surge pricing:

The most efficient way of allocating resources is to let things find their own equilibrium, their own prices. Price controls are foolish and never work. And the demand for them is based on a sort of a fantasy. Fixing the price of a product at a base price below what the market would pay does not mean that everyone gets it at this price—it just means that a lucky few get it and the others don’t. The fundamental truth about the universe is this: everything is scarce. You can’t wish this scarcity away by agitating or legislating against it.

Now, these fundamental laws of economics apply to everything, not just to Uber. And so Mukul Kesavan, in a column for NDTV, makes the pertinent point:

[S]etting aside Kejriwal’s motives and rationality, the larger question is this: should Uber or Ola be allowed to vary their per kilometre rate at will when yellow cabs and auto-rickshaws are stuck with fixed rates? If, as Uber’s defenders never tire of saying, the app’s algorithms represent the invisible hand of the market, frictionlessly matching supply and demand, why should the individual auto-driver be punished and maligned for asking for more than the metered price?

Shoaib Daniyal makes the same point on Twitter:

Both Mukul and Shoaib are right, though it seems to me that they might both be indulging in whataboutery and creating a straw man at the same time. No one who defends Uber’s surge pricing could possibly support the way the government regulates taxis and autorickshaws. And some of us have written about it in the past—I found this 11-year-old post by me ranting about the licensing of cycle rickshaws in Delhi, citing Parth Shah and Naveen Mandava’s excellent book, ‘Law, Liberty and Livelihood.’ Rather than search for more old posts, though, let me sum up my position here.

In a nutshell, here is how the market for taxis and autos works in Indian cities. The government gives out a limited number of licenses for taxis and autos. This quota does not increase in response to demand. Thus, as demand goes up in relation to supply, you would expect either prices to rise or the supply to rise. The supply is artificially constrained. And the government imposes price controls, so the prices can’t rise either. In other words, if the auto and taxi drivers stick to government-mandated prices, you should expect scarcities. Or you should expect an informal system to develop, where drivers don’t charge the meter rate and instead negotiate with their clients. Both of these are true, to varying degrees, and each of our own cities has developed our informal cultures in terms of dealing with this.

So when an auto guy demands Rs. 400 for a journey that the government mandates should cost Rs. 80, what is the appropriate response? I know some people who will argue that the auto driver, in exchange for his license to drive an auto, has signed a contract with the government that includes those price controls, so he should abide by them. This is a short-sighted argument. I would argue that both the licensing and those price controls are wrong. And I sympathise with the auto driver’s lament that ‘Hey, I’m not allowed to charge a surge price, why should Uber have that privilege?’ How can that not be a valid complaint?

The best way to create a level playing field, though, is to remove those restrictions from all parties, not to impose them on everyone.

Part of the reason Uber and Ola have thrived in India is that they benefited from a need that was created partly by the controls imposed by the government on taxi and auto drivers. The solution is to remove those controls. But removing government controls on the taxi-and-auto industry is higher hanging fruit because of the interest groups involved, and it’s easier to target Uber and Ola, which is what the governments of Delhi and Karnataka are doing. Who suffers in all this? The consumers do. We’re the fish at the table.

The bottomline: Kesavan is right that if we support surge pricing by Uber, we cannot in the same breath curse the local auto-driver for charging ‘extra’. That doesn’t compute.

Posted at 3:09 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Freedom | India | News | Politics

Once There Was A Mini-Skirt

Once there was a mini-skirt.
A playful child that liked to flirt.
One day it got banned,
A measure that was planned
By a group of petticoats that felt hurt.

Posted at 1:58 PM by Amit Varma in Freedom | India | News | Rhymes | WTF

16 April, 2016

Once There Was A Man Named Finch

Once there was a man named Finch
Who would not give an inch.
With his team in a fix,
He smashed ‘em for six.
‘I decapitate, I don’t pinch.’

image

Posted at 11:41 PM by Amit Varma in Rhymes | Sport

The Model Code

Tarun Gogoi is quoted in DNA as saying:

I have not violated the Model Code. I shake my tush on the catwalk exactly as prescribed. You should see me walk the runway. Eyes ahead, chin down, shoulders even—my body is perfectly balanced. I love wearing silk.

Well, okay, he only said the first sentence—I made the rest up. But you could say it follows, eh? ‘Model Code’ has such a nice sound about it…

image

Posted at 8:04 PM by Amit Varma in India | Politics

Pappu Wants Hugs

Once Pappu said something thought-provoking,
He said, ‘Listen up, I’m not joking,
If you give me hugs
I’ll rid Punjab of drugs.’
A reply came, ‘Woh theek hai. But what are you smoking?’

image

Posted at 4:24 PM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics | Rhymes

An Odd Man

Once there was a man of God.
One day, he declared himself odd
And the next even.
He said, ‘I believe in
My buddy Arvind and his Aam Aadmi squad.’

*

One more:

Once there was a man who was odd.
One day he declared himself God
And said, with a wink,
‘You know, I think
We should aim high when we aim to defraud.’

Posted at 8:26 AM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics | Rhymes

15 April, 2016

The Side Batting Second…

After I wrote my last column, ‘What Cricket Can Learn From Economics’, my friend Prabhat Kiran Mukherjea commented on Facebook (quoted with permission):

This is the truth that an increasing number of people seem to be realizing, but not so many within the establishment of the game.

This is one reason for the toss being so important in this tournament. The best sides preferred to bat second [in the T20 World Cup], and batting second severely limits the degree to which sides can convince themselves that this sort of batting is appropriate.

This was the day before the IPL began. And now, one week later, the side batting second has won five of the six games so far. (In the one game that the side batting first won, they put up 227, frontloading most pleasingly.)

This is a small sample size, so I won’t force any conclusions upon you, but Prabhat’s insight does seem to hold some food for thought.

I haven’t been watching the games too closely, but one thing I have noticed is that Mumbai Indians are frontloading intent but not talent. Basically, they are attacking from the start, as they should, but taking a pinch-hitting approach by sending out guys like Hardik Pandya and Mitchell McClenaghan at 3 and 4, as in their last game, keeping higher quality hitters like Jos Buttler and Kieron Pollard for later. I’m not sure what to make of this.

At the moment, the teams I find most impressive are those that are frontloading both intent and talent. RCB have Gayle-Kohli-ABD at the top and Gujarat Lions have Finch-McCullum-Raina. Both have decent bowling attacks. So these are the guys I’d back.

Posted at 10:52 AM by Amit Varma in Sport

Intelligent. Modest. Soft-Spoken. Philosophical

Check out this lovely little speech by Ravi Abhyankar on his old friend, Viswanathan Anand. A memorable excerpt:

[W]e often judge an entire community or a nation based on one or two people whom we know. It is called stereotyping. Chess fans in 180 countries judge all Indians, all of us, by watching Viswanathan Anand. Thanks to him they think all Indians are intelligent, modest, soft-spoken, philosophical with a great sense of humour.

Indeed, people who excel in sports often become, by default, brand ambassadors for both the sport and their countries. Because character and sporting talent are both randomly distributed, sporting heroes often tend to be mediocre ambassadors. But Anand was is exceptional. (For contrast, look at the boorish, arrogant way in which the cricketers of today often behave.) We are lucky to have him.

Link via a Chessbase article by Sagar Shah.

*  *  *

Also read: An old tribute by me when Anand won one of his five World Championships, The Man With The Maruti 800.

Posted at 10:12 AM by Amit Varma in India | Sport

10 April, 2016

Once There Was A Man With A Shoe

Once there was a man with a shoe.
He caught a bad case of the flu.
He sneezed so badly,
His shoe flew off madly
Towards Kejriwal when he did ‘Achoo!’

image

Posted at 9:31 AM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics | Rhymes

Throwing A Shoe At Mr Kejriwal

Yogendra Yadav has condemned the shoe attack on Arvind Kejriwal. He has said:

The incident of hurling shoe at Arvind Kejriwal is highly condemnable. This is not the way to oppose anyone.

This kind of anodyne statement is highly condemnable. This is not the way to oppose anything. To make it more interesting, Yadav could have said:

It was a waste of a shoe. There are people in this country who don’t have shoes to wear. Some would even eat a shoe.

Or this:

The shoe was very poorly thrown. I condemn the poor aim. I’ve been watching it on loop, in slow-motion, on my smartphone for the past two hours, and I would have enjoyed it so much more if it had been aimed properly.

Or even:

I applaud the shoe-thrower. Let’s get past political correctness, people. Before you condemn the shoe-thrower, ask yourself this: Is there anyone among you who wouldn’t love to throw a shoe at Arvind Kejriwal?

Ok, I’m just messing around, but really, tell me this: wouldn’t some of these hypothetical statements make you feel warmer towards Yadav than his banal ‘I condemn this, I’m so noble’ nonsense?

Posted at 1:12 AM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics

09 April, 2016

Do You Know Who I Am?

This is such a great sentence:

The boy told us that he (his father) was a security officer with the Nizam of Hyderabad’s grandson. His claims are being verified.

That first sentence is funny. The second is just sad. Verify?

*  *  *

I must try telling a traffic policeman sometime, ‘Tum jaante ho mere sasur ke nanad ke foofa ki bhabhi kaun hai?’

Posted at 10:57 AM by Amit Varma in India | News | WTF

08 April, 2016

What Cricket Can Learn From Economics

This is the 26th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Is there anything that cricket can learn from economics? Over the decade-and-a-half that I have written on both these subjects, I’ve come to believe that understanding and applying the principles of economics can enrich the way we live our lives. It follows, then, that all economic concepts can also be applied to cricket.

This is especially relevant at the time of writing these words, when the Twenty20 World Cup has just come to an end. I was delighted that West Indies deservedly won the cup; and saddened that a number of teams, including India, made basic errors because they did not understand one fundamental economic concept: Opportunity Cost.

The term ‘opportunity cost’ was coined by the 19th century economist Friedrich von Wieser, and its simplest definition is: ‘the loss of other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.’ The online site Investopedia defines it as “the cost of an alternative that must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action.” Let me illustrate that with an example.

Say you step out of your office one muggy evening, and have Rs. 300 in your pocket. You feel like drinking a refreshing frappe at a nearby café; and you also feel like taking an AC cab home instead of your normal bus-train routine. The thing is, you only have enough money for one of them. So you go for immediate gratification and get that frappe. The opportunity cost of the frappe is the cab ride home.

Every banal decision in our lives involves opportunity cost. Do I watch TV or read a book? Do I go out with friends or spend time with family? When I choose to spend an evening watching Batman vs Superman, the cost of that decision is not just the price of the ticket and the popcorn, but all the things I could have done with that time.

Understanding opportunity cost is important because it helps us navigate the one fundamental truth about this world: scarcity. Everything is scarce: there is never enough money; or enough time; or enough energy. We have to negotiate scarce resources, which is why all our decisions carry costs. And as the economist James Buchanan said, the concept of opportunity costs “expresses the basic relationship between scarcity and choice.”

Cricket is no exception to these laws of nature. Within a cricket match, there are two kinds of scarcity that a captain or coach must contend with. One is a scarcity of time. The match can only last either five days or 50 overs per side or 20 overs per side. The second is a scarcity of resources. A team can only have eleven players.

Strategy in cricket boils down to negotiating between these two constraints of time and resources. For example, if a team needs 250 runs to win a Test match with two full days in hand, and are 18 for 2 against fired-up new-ball bowlers, they should be more worried about running out of batting resources than about running out of time. That would be a good time for careful consolidation. In contrast, in an ODI, if a team needs 15 to win in one over with eight wickets in hand, they are running out of time but not batting resources. This is a time to hit out and run for everything, and not to preserve wickets.

Every decision carries an opportunity cost. When a batsman shoulders arms to a ball outside off stump, that decision carries the opportunity cost of the runs that might have been scored off it. When he tries to drive it and instead edges it to slip, his action bears the opportunity cost of the runs he might have scored later had he not played that shot. These are opposite actions, and to evaluate which is appropriate in any situation, you need to consider the relative scarcities of time and resources.

Now, here’s where it applies to T20 cricket. Each side gets 20 overs to bat instead of the 50 they would in an ODI; but they still have 11 players! The balance between resources and time has shifted – but many teams haven’t adjusted to this. They apply the ODI innings-building template to T20s: hit out in the powerplay, taking care to consolidate if early wickets fall, then build the innings till the slog overs, then have a slog. This is wrong. It is a waste of resources – and it also allows the bowling side to allocate bowling resources optimally, with specialist death bowlers bowling at the end. What would they do if every over was a slog over?

The teams should adjust to this new dynamic by ‘frontloading’ – a concept I first wrote about in this context a couple of years ago. They should go for their strokes right from the start. If catastrophe comes and four wickets fall in the space of 10 balls, they can dial it back and look to bat all 20 overs so as not to waste the resource of time – but otherwise, they are wasting the batting resources available to them.

The optimal approach in a T20 game is to treat your first three overs as if they’re the last three. On average you will make as many as you would in the last three. Sometimes you will click and the momentum continues. Sometimes wickets will fall, and you can adjust accordingly, and still not make less than you would have with the traditional strategy.

Teams are wisening up to this, and both the finalists of this T20 World Cup frontloaded through the tournament – but India did not, to my dismay. In their semi-final, India made 192 for 2 and the wicket column alone tells you what was wrong with their approach. By losing only two wickets, consider the strokeplaying resources India left unused: Raina, Pandey, Pandya, Jadeja, even Ashwin at 9. Our middle overs were consumed by Ajinkya Rahane making 40 off 35, which was a criminal waste. Consider the opportunity cost: had Rahane been out while on 20 off 18, do you really think that this army of hitters would not have made way more than the 20 off 17 he eventually added?

This is not Rahane’s fault per se: he is a fantastic Test player, but he doesn’t have a fourth gear and this is the best he can do. It’s the fault of the selectors and the decision makers within the team who ignored this key lesson of T20 cricket. (To be fair to MS Dhoni, though, CSK usually frontloaded in the IPL under him.) It is also the fault of those pundits who will praise an innings of 50 off 40 without considering the opportunity cost, and the unused resources in the pavilion.

Teams will learn, though, and T20 cricket will continue to flourish. This is the future of the sport. Indeed, Test cricket might die out altogether, for reasons that can also be explained by economics. As the number of options to spend our time keep increasing, so does the opportunity cost of watching Test cricket. What is five days worth to you?

*  *  *

Also read:

The lesson from this IPL: Front-load your innings (2014)

Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Lamborghini (2015)

The New Face of Cricket (2015)

Posted at 10:41 AM by Amit Varma in Economics | Lighthouse | Sport

06 April, 2016

Once There Was A Great Actor

Once there was a great actor.
A fiscal malefactor.
To save his wealth from harm,
He claimed he ran a farm,
But where the fuck is his tractor?

*  *  *

Oh, and to change the subject entirely, ToI reports that Amitabh Bachchan has “finally broken his silence” on the subject of his name being in the Panama Papers. He has denied having anything to do with the companies he allegedly set up, and has said:

It is possible that my name has been misused.

As an explanation, that’s on the level of ‘The dog ate my homework.’ Points for chutzpah.

Posted at 9:18 AM by Amit Varma in India | News | Rhymes | WTF

Once There Was A Ceiling Fan

Once there was a ceiling fan
Which gave air according to plan.
Now it’s in hiding
While the junta’s deciding
On Rakhi Sawant’s call for a ban.

Posted at 8:42 AM by Amit Varma in India | News | Rhymes | WTF

05 April, 2016

Once There Was A Beautiful Cow

So I wrote some limericks for Twitter, and I suppose they’re fun enough to share here:

1
Once there was a beautiful cow
Whose tastes were kinda highbrow
And then one day
Bharat Mata ki jai
She became a dog and said ‘bow-wow.’

2
Once there was a man of God
Who was ever so suitably awed
by a) the divine
And b) the bovine
When he saw a holy cow, he’d applaud.

3
Once there was a wife-beater
Who was a cad, a scoundrel, a cheater
He mastered the arc
of the venomous snark
Now he’s a famous Tweeter.

4
Once there was a central banker
Who seemed solid as an anchor
He lowered interest rates
opened the floodgates
To inflation. What a wanker!

5
Once there was a central minister
Who developed a desh bhakti blister
On his big fat palm
& the only balm
was some grease. How sinister!

*

(Previous posts on cows: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 , 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 110, 111, 112, 113, 114, 115, 116, 117.)

Posted at 8:59 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Freedom | India | Old memes | Cows | Politics | Rhymes

How Not To Get Trolled

The Times of India has an amusing report on how Ashish Nehra was trolled on social media after he revealed that he owned an old Nokia phone and wasn’t even on social media. Which leads one to the question, how was he trolled then? You can write whatever you want on Twitter and Facebook, but the guy’s not on either of those. You don’t have his phone number. So what, you’re going to go stand outside his house and shout snarky one-liners?

There is a deep truth here about how not to get trolled. And there is a deeper truth here that, hard as it may be to believe, predates social media. It is this: people can only get to you if you let them get to you. Your peace of mind is in your hands.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m beginning to like Nehra, and I’m feeling nostalgic towards Nokia phones. Be still, my beating heart!

Posted at 7:18 AM by Amit Varma in Media | Small thoughts

31 March, 2016

Take From The Poor, Give To The Rich

What is the one thing that all governments in the world, without exception, are great at doing? I have you scratching your head there, don’t I? ‘Amit thinks there’s something governments are actually good at doing? Is this April Fools Day?’

Here’s my answer: they’re all good at redistributing wealth from the poor to the rich.

I have written before about how all interventions in the free market amount to a transfer of wealth from “the relatively poor masses to a specific relatively rich interest group.” The BJP government just provided us a great illustration of that with some new regulations on e-commerce businesses in India. On the face of it, there’s good news, because they’ve finally ‘allowed’ 100% FDI in online retail. But then there’s this:

It also notified new rules which could potentially end the discount wars, much to the disappointment of consumers. This is because the rules now prohibit marketplaces from offering discounts and capping total sales originating from a group company or one vendor at 25%.

This affects many of the existing players adversely. Big Basket, for example, might have to shut down entirely, says FutureGroup CEO Kishore Biyani. Flipkart and Amazon will also face restructuring problems. But forget these companies, and dig a little deeper to see who really suffers here.

We do. Whatever costs these companies face are passed on to consumers. A decrease in competition also affects the value for money that we get. This is axiomatic. Because of these regulations, we will get less bang for our buck. We are, effectively, losing wealth. Where is this wealth going? For this, think about who benefits.

The BJP has long considered small-and-medium-sized traders to be an integral part of its votebank. They were getting adversely affected by online retail, as consumers obviously gravitated towards whoever gave them more value. Traders are an important interest group for the BJP not only because they represent a votebank, but also because they contribute to the campaign coffers of the BJP. And money buys power for what? To make more money.

These regulations benefit these brick-and-mortar retailers and traders, as they will lose less business than they otherwise would because online retailers will be able to offer less value than they otherwise would.

In other words, this is a redistribution of wealth from poor consumers at large to a specific relatively-rich interest group. (Indeed, given the quid-pro-quos involved, you could argue that the party in power is itself the final beneficiary of this transfer of wealth.)

Another data point on how this government is helping this particular interest group: Gujarat has just passed a bill imposing new taxes on all “goods purchased through e-commerce portals.” You know who this hurts, right? You know who this helps?

Governments always carry out such interventions using noble rhetoric of ‘leveling the playing field’ and helping those poor [insert rich interest group here]s. But the beneficiaries here are not owed a living by anyone, and are not entitled to any money apart from what consumers willingly give them in a free market. The money that the consumers would save because of unhindered online retail, after all, would have gone back into the economy in some form. (For more on this, I refer you to the great Frédéric Bastiat’s famous essay, ‘What is Seen and What is Not Seen.’)

*  *  *

Here’s my three-fold path to evaluating government policy:

1. Ignore the rhetoric.

2. See who it helps.

3. See who it hurts.

It’s the same story, always, every time. It’s the poor who suffer.

*  *  *

Also read: ‘The Great Redistribution’, my earlier column on this subject, where I use an example where the protagonist and antagonist interest-groups in question are the reverse of the ones in this post, but it’s still the poor who suffer.

Posted at 2:48 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | India | News | Politics

22 March, 2016

The Chronology of Hate

In an excellent piece in the Hindustan Times, which mentions the ‘soft Hindutva’ of the Congress, Samar Halarnkar writes:

The facade [of secularism] is now gone. History tells us that when popular governments legitimise hate (fascism and racism are some examples; closer home, the anti-Sikh and post-Babri riots), it is a matter of time before a country’s majority population follows suit. If — or as — that happens, don’t expect much from the party that was India’s secular, political hope.

I have a small quibble here. The chronology is the other way around. It is not that governments (and parties) legitimise hate, and then the people ‘follow suit’. Rather, it is the people who feel that way to begin with, and drive the political parties to act in the way they do. In the political marketplace, demand drives supply. Parties indulge in the politics of hate or bigotry (or just generally identity) because there is a market for it.

Andrew Breitbart once said, ‘Politics is downstream from culture.’ That is true of India as well. The filth that is there in our politics is a reflection of our society.

As for the ‘soft Hindutva’ of the Congress, they indulged in it even before India got Independence, and they clearly feel that there is a large constituency for it today as well. Consider, for example, this. And this.

Whatever pejoratives we apply to our politicians, they are not fools. If they behave in particular ways, they do so because there is demand for it.

Also read: ‘It’s Cascading Trump, It’s Cascading Modi!’, my column from last week on this subject.

Posted at 3:32 PM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics

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