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 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.
A few years ago, a photo studio in Ahmedabad offered its customers free passport photographs. There was no catch, no small print. It was a free lunch. Amit Varma is joined by Mohit Satyanand, as they explore how this free lunch transformed financial regulation in India. They also discuss how bad incentives can lead to corruption becoming a cultural phenomenon.
Here’s the video and transcript of a keynote speech I gave at the Asia Liberty Forum on January 11, 2017 in Mumbai.
Note: In this conference, the word ‘liberal’ was used in its classical, European sense, not in the American one. I’ve used it in the same sense in this speech, almost interchangable with ‘libertarian’, though I usually prefer not to use the word as it means so many things to so many people.
Before I start, I want to congratulate Parth Shah for 20 years of CCS. Parth, I’ve lost count of the number of young people I have met to whom you’ve been a teacher and a guide, and there is one thing common to all of them: not only do they respect you enormously, but they also love and adore you even more than they respect you. That’s remarkable. Thank you for existing!
I’ve started on a happy note, but I’m afraid that the rest of my speech will contain both sadness and anger, and maybe a little hope. The topic of my keynote speech today is “Freedom in India.” Now, I’m not going to talk about the history of what I call this ongoing freedom struggle in India: most of you know that story too well. Instead, I want to share my personal feelings about where we stand today.
I think the quest for freedom in India that all of us care about so much is at an important crossroads. We face challenges we did not face before. We have opportunities we did not have before. And to understand the road ahead, I think there are two things we have to do. One, we must come to terms with Narendra Modi.
Let me first lay the context for why Modi became such an attractive figure for many freedom-loving people before 2014. Eric Hoffer writes in his book The True Believer, which is a book about the rise of mass movements, that they are driven by frustration. Modi tapped into different kinds of frustrations during his rise to power. Among them were classical liberals who cared for freedom – both personal freedom and economic freedom – and were frustrated by nearly seven decades of state oppression that had kept hundreds of millions of people in poverty for much longer than they should have. The reforms of 1991, we must remember, were a product of circumstances, and were not driven by political will. They did lift millions of people out of poverty, but they were limited and half-hearted, and once the balance-of-payments crisis was over, they more or less stopped. We still remain largely an unfree country. In the 2016 Index of Economic Freedom, India was still at a miserable 128 – eight places lower than 2014, by the way. This is trivial – most of you know this.
Modi appeared, to many of my friends, as a beacon of hope. The Congress was – and is – feudal party ruled by a repugnant family that has harmed India immeasurably, and most regional parties were focussed on narrow identity politics. Modi is a master of optics, and as he built himself up as a national leader, he became a bit like a Rorschach Inkblot Test – you could see in him what you wanted to.
No wonder many classical liberals fell in behind him. They were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for the Gujarat Riots of 2002, and put that down to incompetence rather than collusion. They were sick of the status quo, and he represented a hope for change. As my friend Rajesh Jain put it, he was “a lighter shade of gray.” At least he made the right noises – his slogan ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’ was music to my ears.
Now, a party on the campaign trail is like a young man wooing a woman: he’s on his best behaviour, and he’ll tell her just what she wants to hear. But governance is like what happens after marriage: the girl find out the truth about the guy: he farts all the time, he snores like a hippopotamus getting dental surgery without anaesthetic, he surfs porn all night, he beats her up, indeed, he beats her up day after day after day – and very often, she rationalises this, because she made this choice, and there seems to be no alternative.
Let’s take a brief look at how the Modi government has performed. The first thing we learned about Modi is that he is no reformer. Under him, government has grown bigger and more authoritarian. The welfare schemes he once criticized have grown, and some of them have been renamed and he has pretended that they are his ideas. He has not carried out any of the reforms he promised to, including low-hanging fruit like privatising non-performing public sector units that no one would have fought for. Indeed, he has shown us that he is actually a true heir of the Congress party: he has the economic vision of Nehru, and the political instincts of Indira Gandhi. And I mean both of those as a criticism.
Like Nehru, Modi has a top-down, command-and-control vision of the economy. To him, society is a machine to be engineered: he considers himself a better engineer than his predecessors, but he is an engineer nonetheless. And like Indira, he uses power as a tool to oppress and harass his opponents, and to clamp down on dissent, and to reward his cronies.
For two years between 2014 and 2016, Modi carried out almost no reforms, despite making some noises in the right directions: remember, he is a master of optics. But then, in November last year, he showed his true colours as an authoritarian social engineer. There is a thought experiment that I sometimes throw to my friends: It’s the morning of November 8, 2016, and you are the prime minister of India for exactly one day. In that day, you have to enact exactly one policy which, without breaking the law or going against the constitution, harms the people of India the most. The maximum damage to the maximum people. What are you going to do?
Think about this and let me know if you come up with an answer better than what Narendra Modi actually did. Allow me to break down for you what Demonetisation actually did. Modi essentially took all 1000 and 500 rupee notes out of circulation. Now, a 1000 rupees is equal to around 15 dollars. It is not really a high-denomination note. Modi had perhaps not bought anything from a store in two decades, so he didn’t realise that these notes are not used mainly for as unit of storage, as high denomination notes are in some other countries, but as a medium of exchange. Common people use these notes. So much so that 86% of the currency in use consisted of these notes. 86%!
Let me share some more figures with you. Before November 8, 97% of the transactions in this country were cash transactions. Contrary to the blatant lies of the government, only 53% of all Indians had bank accounts. That’s 600 million people without bank accounts. How do you think they stored their money? Yes, you could notionally go to a bank anyway and exchange this money for new notes, but you need a government ID for this, and again, despite the lies spread by the government, 300 million people in India had no form of government ID at all. And even those who did have bank accounts could deposit their money after standing in a queue for hours, but had limits placed on withdrawals. Get this, they were not being allowed to withdraw their own money!
I wrote at the time that it was the largest assault on property rights in the history of mankind, a point that my friend Barun Mitra reiterated in his excellent speech yesterday. The opportunity costs were huge – people spent hours in queues begging for their own money, and could not use either their time or the money they had productively. Much of the economy is informal, because of structural failures of the state itself, and it came crashing down. Migrant workers across the country were laid off because there was no cash to pay them, and they went back home. Farmers could not sell their produce or buy seeds for the next harvest. Truckers lined up on roads with nowhere to go and nothing to carry. Thousands of businesses across the country shut down.
In all this, the rich got away. The government kept changing the goalposts for why they did this. First, they said it was to counter black money. But a finance ministry estimate, based on thousands of income tax raids in the past, shows that only 6% of black money is kept in the form of cash: the other 94% is in gold, real estate and foreign accounts. Even that 6% was laundered. You see a reflection of this in automobile sales. They have plummeted for two-wheelers and three-wheelers, but SUV sales are steady. The rich got away.
The government also said that Demonetisation would kill fake currency. Well, their own estimate showed that only one in 4000 notes was fake, a perfectly acceptable figure, and the usual way of tackling this, practised across the world, is to phase out old notes. The government also said that terrorist activity would be hurt by this, but cross-border attacks have actually gone up in this time. Yes, criminal activity has been affected, but that’s because ALL business has been affected. You do not cure a cold by cutting someone’s head off.
So there was no benefit, and the cost is incalculable. Some more figures: According to the All India Manufacturer’s Association, in a report released last month, employment is expected to fall 60% by March, and revenues will come down by 55%. And the IMF released a forecast that said that India’s GDP will grow by only 6.6% this year, a full percentage point lower than last year. Let me tell you what that number means. My friend Nitin Pai of the Takshashila Institution recently estimated that with every 1% rise in the GDP, 2 million people come out of poverty. Two million people. That is the opportunity cost of Demonetisation in just the short term: those two million people trapped below the poverty line because of one man named Narendra Modi. This is both a humanitarian disaster and a moral outrage.
Now, the question here is, all these classical liberals who supported Modi in 2014, have they seen the light now? This is a man who doesn’t give a damn about liberal principles, and is taking the country backwards. Friends of mine who are here tonight have invoked The Road to Serfdom to describe what is happening, and some talk of creeping fascism. But what do our classical liberals have to say?
My friend the economist Suyash Rai said an interesting thing to me a few days ago. He said, “Mujhe communist se dar nahin lagta, mujhe classical liberal se dar lagta hai.” (“I am not scared of communists, I am scared of classical liberals.”) There are too many people who pay lip service to freedom but support this oppressive regime. There are a number of reasons for this: Some of them invested too much emotionally in Modi, and will rationalise anything he does. Others have been co-opted into the establishment, with Padma awards or seats on the Niti Aayog or Prasar Bharti or the RBI Board of directors, and now that they are finally establishment intellectuals, they ain’t gonna give it up.
I met one of them the other day and said to him, “Isn’t modern technology wonderful?” He said, “Why?” I said, “Bro, this is the first time I’ve seen a man without a spine stand up straight.”
But leave aside the narrow compulsions of weak men without principles. What are the lessons I draw from all of this? Lesson number one: You can never depend on politicians to advance your principles. David Boaz once said, “There are only two political philosophies: liberty and power.” These are necessarily opposed to each other. Those who enter politics lust for power. If your ideas or your support seems useful to them, they will pretend to be on your side, but when they’ve gotten what they wanted, they will spit you out. Their incentives come firstly, from the special interests that fund them, and secondly from the people who elect them. And that brings me to lesson number two.
Lesson Number Two is that policy advocacy is mostly useless. If you want to make an impact on the political marketplace, you need to attack the demand side, not the supply side. You need to go to the people!
I said earlier in this talk that there are two things that people who care about freedom have to take into account today. One, we have to come to terms with Narendra Modi. Two, we have to understand this political marketplace. And the most important thing to understand about India is its changing demographics.
India is rapidly growing younger and younger. The average age in India today is 27, and 60% of the country is born after the liberalisation of 1991. This is both a problem and an opportunity.
Here’s the problem. These young people are growing up in an India that needs 1 million jobs every month – 12 million jobs a year – to accommodate this new workforce. These jobs aren’t there. One of the reasons Modi won in 2014 was that he promised to create these jobs. He hasn’t delivered; he can’t deliver The government can’t create jobs, it can only enable job creation. But the reforms that would make this happen – labour reforms, ease of doing business reforms – simply aren’t happening.
It’s no surprise then all the recent agitations in India have been centred around reservation in government jobs: The Jat agitation in Haryana, the Patidars under Hardik Patel in Gujarat, and so on. And this will get worse. Artificial intelligence will now decimate jobs in the service industry, where we’ve done relatively well recently. And automation will mean that the window for becoming a manufacturing superpower because of cheap labour will be closed to us forever. So there is a coming crisis.
Now, how are we to sell our ideas in times such as these. Classical liberal notions like spontaneous order and the positive-sumness of things are unintuitive and hard to sell in the best of times, but even more so in times of scarcity. I used to think that rising prosperity will end identity politics in India, but no, identity politics is on the rise, and we are becoming tribal again. No wonder populism is winning.
But there is also an opportunity here. These young people are not bound up in the dogmas of the past. They are not necessarily believers in the religion of government. If we manage to get out there in the marketplace of ideas, they will be more receptive than any generation before them. And that is the principle challenge before us. How can we get into the culture? How can our ideas be part of the discourse? Understand this: the prime minister of India in the year 2050 could be a 15-year-old girl who is sitting in a small town in India somewhere at this very moment, doing her boring homework. How can we reach her with our liberal ideas? Can we shape the way she thinks about the world? Can we package our ideas in an empathetic way that appeals to her emotions? Can we get her off Snapchat? Can we reach her on Snapchat?
In another two or three decades, this demographic tide will reverse itself, and we will become a rapidly ageing country. Will we still be poor or illiberal then, or will we be a beacon of freedom for the world? I can’t answer that – and I don’t even have any specific answers as to how we can get there from here, but I thought it important to highlight the challenges we face. Things are not rosy, freedom is not on the march. But we have to try, and I know this: just by the size of the battlefield alone, this battle for freedom in India will be the most significant freedom struggle in the history of humankind. And we can only win it on a full stomach. It’s time for dinner, guys, thank you for listening to me.
The first three weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency have been frightening. This is because he seems to be that one politician who actually intends to do what he promised on the campaign trail. He’s hitting out at immigrants, attacking free trade and it looks like he’ll build that wall, with his own tiny hands if he has to. But even an unhinged demagogue must get some things right, if only by accident. In the middle of this carnage, Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary is a move in the right direction.
DeVos has been demonised by the Democrats, who tried to block her appointment, but their attacks were mostly personal ones that did not focus on the substance of what she proposes to do in office. For decades, DeVos has been a proponent of School Choice. This would transform education in America, and would show a way forward to other countries, including India. I’ve been writing in favour of School Choice in India for many years, so let me break down what it means in an Indian context.
Education in India, as we know, is in an abysmal state. The government devotes vast amounts of money to it, but outcomes are terrible. A recent Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), described by the government itself as “pretty depressing,” showed that 52% of students in Class V were unable to read a Class II textbook. As much as 58% of Class VIII students could not do simple division, and teacher absenteeism was rampant. Teachers are not the problem, though, but a symptom of it. The problem is incentives.
Government schools are guaranteed their funding, and their teachers, who are paid many times what teachers in budget private schools get, are more or less tenured. They have no reason to aim for excellence and try to provide quality education. How does one make them accountable, and make sure that our money is better spent? One answer is school vouchers.
Under a voucher system, the government, instead of giving money to government schools, gives vouchers to parents. Parents decide what is the best school for their children, and submit the voucher there. That school then gives the voucher to the government and gets the money.
This changes the incentives for government schools and their teachers. They have to perform now, and deliver quality education, or parents will take their kids elsewhere. Competition brings accountability. This also empowers parents with choice. They are the people who should decide what is best for their children, and not a distant, unaccountable government. In a nutshell, the state funds schooling, not schools.
Vouchers are only one piece of the puzzle, of course. They are pointless if there are harsh entry barriers for private players in education. For 70 years, we have had insane regulations in place that disallow or disincentivise private schools, especially for the poor. If a school provides budget education to children in a slum, why should it matter if its playground isn’t big enough? Let parents decide what they value.
As it happens, there is a vast informal economy of budget private schools, and poor parents vote with their feet. Organisations like the Centre for Civil Society have long documented how thousands of poor parents in slums and villages across India prefer to pay to send their kids to a budget private school rather than to a free government school. This speaks volumes.
Private schools are demonised, but contrast their incentives with those of government schools. In a marketplace with no entry barriers – which India is not – the profit motive is the best incentive. After all, you can only make a profit by delivering value to others. When I was growing up in the 1980s, telecom, airlines and education were all government monopolies, and delivered abysmal service. Today, two of them allow private players to compete freely, and because of competition and the profit motive, we the people are better off. But not education, which is so important for our nation’s growth.
When you fight against the system, of course, the system fights back. The status quo is always fiercely defended by the special interests that benefit from it. (Since they are beneficiaries of the status quo, they also have the money to spend on it.) In the US, for example, teachers’ unions are the biggest opponents of education reform, as the current system give them power and privilege without accountability. They happen to be prominent donors to the Democratic Party who, as a result, oppose School Choice.
As an illustration, consider that the sanctimonious Elizabeth Warren actually advocated school vouchers in a book she wrote in 2003. She changed her stance when she joined politics and realised who the most influential donors in the Democratic Party were. That’s the whole game of politics right there: special interest groups purchasing politicians to benefit at the expense of the common people. It’s ironic, then, that Trump should be on the right side of this issue.
The history of humanity is the story of an Expanding Circle: one in which the world gradually gets more and more globalised, and the movement of goods and labour becomes more and more free. But recent years have seen the rise of populists who, among their many follies, are suspicious of immigration. America, a land built by immigrants, just elected a demagogue who prefers walls to bridges.
In Episode 4 of The Seen and the Unseen, Amit Varma discusses Immigration with Shikha Dalmia. Are the demagogues right about immigration being a bad thing? Do immigrants take jobs away from locals? Are they a strain on resources? Should we build yuge walls?
Also read: Dalmia’s piece for Reason, ‘An Argument For Opening America’s Borders’ (pdf link).
In Rajasthan there was some friction,
Folks objecting to a depiction
Of a certain lady.
It was all quite shady,
Since she didn’t exist, and was fiction.
One dark night, a man named Donald Trump
Flew off his bed, landing on his rump.
The reason for this strife
Was his immigrant wife,
Who had given him a mighty thump.
There are two kinds of diversity in India, one good, and one not so good. Our greatest strength is our diversity of people and cultures and languages. But one of our great weaknesses is our diversity of taxes, across states and regions. We have so many different kinds of taxes that the cost of compliance is the most daunting cost for many businesses, and corruption is out of control. Also, taxes create friction in trade, and the costs are borne by consumers and businesses alike. It’s a negative-sum game.
The Goods and Services Tax (GST) was supposed to be the panacea that would get us out of this mess. While India has been one country since 1947, it hasn’t been one market, and the GST was expected to get us to that promised land. It has been many years in the making, though, and has become more and more convoluted in the process of political and bureaucratic negotiation. Thus, while the Seen Effects of a perfect GST would normally be excellent, the potential Unseen Effects of the GST in its evolving form could be quite messy.
In Episode 3 of The Seen and the Unseen, Devangshu Datta takes Amit Varma through the nuances of the GST and their possible implications.
Here’s a limerick to brighten up your Monday morning.
Modi told Salman, “I am awestruck.
Is it your talent or pure dumb luck?
You killed that antelope.
I feel like such a dope.
I haven’t killed even one black buck.”
Rahul Dravid, when he played cricket,
Always put a price on his wicket.
Offered a PhD,
He said, “No, not for me.
I earn my way. Keep your free ticket.”
When you switch on your TV today,
You’ll feel time begin to slip away.
Everything just a blur.
Nadal and Federer.
Two gladiators at the ballet.
On November 8, 2016, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi announced that 500- and 100-rupee notes would cease to be legal tender from midnight that day. This removed 86% of the cash from circulation, an unprecedented event in human history. Demonetisation, as it was then called, or DeMon or Notebandi as it is also known, had humanitarian and economic effects that might take years to play out. In episode 2 of The Seen and the Unseen, Amit Varma is joined by Suyash Rai, an economic analyst from Delhi, as they examine whether demonetisation achieved any of its intended effects, and try to come to terms with some of its unintended (but foreseeable) consequences.
Both Varma and Rai have been early critics of this demonetization, and have written extensively on the subject. Some of their pieces:
Narendra Modi Takes A Great Leap Backwards—Amit Varma, The Times of India, November 20, 2016
The Humanitarian Cost Trumps Any Economic Argument—Amit Varma, India Uncut, November 24, 2016
The Rise and Fall of Emperor Modi—Amit Varma, Hindu Business Line, November 25, 2016
Three Reasons Why A Cashless Society Would Be A Disaster—Amit Varma, The Times of India, December 18, 2016
Narendra Modi Makes Some New Year Resolutions—Amit Varma, The Times of India, January 1, 2017
Tackling Black Money—Suyash Rai, NIPFP, November 17, 2016
A flawed policy: The real problem with demonetisation is not just in implementation—Suyash Rai, Scroll, November 22
The Demonetisation Decision: Event, Impact, Narrative and Meaning—Suyash Rai, The Wire, December 4, 2016
As Donald Trump raised his tiny paw and took the presidential oath this Friday, I had just finished reading an outstanding book that, I thought, explained Trump as well as many other leaders on the world stage today. In ‘What is Populism?’ Jan-Werner Müller, a Princeton professor, lays out all the ingredients from which you can cook up a populist movement. I was struck by how closely our own prime minister, Narendra Modi, matched Müller’s definition. Consider the following characteristics that characterise populists, as defined by Müller.
One, they claim that not only do they represent the people, but that whoever does not support them is, by definition, not part of ‘the people’. Müller says this is “the core claim of populism: only some of the people are really the people.” As Trump put it in May last year, “the only important thing is the unification of the people— because the other people don’t mean anything.” Think of how the BJP treats Muslims and Dalits as second-class citizens.
Two, populists are not just anti-pluralism, but they’re also anti-elite. Müller writes, “Populists pit the pure, innocent, always hardworking people against a corrupt elite who do not really work (…) and, in right-wing populism, also against the very bottom of society.” Think of Modi’s railings against the “Lutyens elite” as an example.
Three, they portray themselves as victims even when they are in power. As Müller puts it, “majorities act like mistreated minorities.” Modi still rants against the elite even though he is now their leader, and paid BPJ trolls still call journalists ‘presstitutes’ even though they control much of the media. Trump, who has been a crony capitalist insider all his life, is a classic example of a pig calling the pigsty dirty.
Four, populist parties tend to become monolithic, “with the rank-and-file clearly subordinated to a single leader.” Trump decimated the Republican Party on the way up, just as Modi is now the Supreme Leader within the BJP, which once had multiple leaders of stature.
Five, populists pride themselves on their “proximity to the people.” Modi being a ‘chaiwalla’ is a key part of his narrative, and as that famous photoshopped picture of him sweeping a floor shows, the common-man element is important to him. As it is, indeed, to other populists. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez both hosted shows similar to Modi’s Mann Ki Baat.
Six, populism is simplistic, so populists can only think in simplistic terms, which leads to “an oversimplification of policy challenges.” Modi’s Demonetisation is an example of this, as is Trump’s attribution of America’s job losses to immigration and outsourcing.
Seven, they populists tend to believe in conspiracy theories, which “are rooted in and emerge from the very logic of populism itself.” Indeed, the RSS’s view of history is itself a sort of giant conspiracy theory.
How do populists behave once in power? Müller outlines three things that they tend to do.
One, they “colonize or occupy the state”. They fill up all the institutions with their own people, co-opt those that are independent, and reshape the system to their will. Think of Modi’s appointment of incompetent cronies to the Censor Board and FTII, the replacement of the Planning Commission with Niti Aayog, and the recent virtual demotion of the RBI to an arm of the finance ministry.
Two, they “engage in mass clientelism: the exchange of material and immaterial favors by elites for mass political support.” Think of the sops Modi offered before the Bihar elections, or the ones expected in the next couple of budgets leading up to important elections.
Three, they shut down dissent in civil society, starting with NGOs. Müller writes, “rulers like Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and PiS in Poland have gone out of their way to try to discredit NGOs as being controlled by outside powers (and declare them ‘foreign agents’).” Sounds familiar?
Modi fits Müller’s populist template so precisely that he seems like a bot generated by a populism machine, and not an actual person. It made me wonder: if a near-identical form of populism persists through vast stretches of time and geography, does it then reflect something innate in human nature?
I’ll leave you with a pleasant thought, though. Here’s why I think both Modi’s and Trump’s populism will ultimately fail. The narratives of populism, based on some of the people being all of the people, only work in broadly homogenous societies. The USA will be a minority-majority country by the middle of the century (ie, whites will be less than 50% of the population), and a Trump won’t be possible then. As for India, our diversity is our greatest defence against creeping fascism. Populism might work at the state level, but nationally, we are too diverse. That puts a ceiling on how much support Modi can get, which I believe already peaked in 2014, when he could be all things to all people. I think he already senses this. How will he respond?
India has a panoply of laws that prevent corporations from getting into farming, and which prevent farmers from escaping agriculture, by virtue of not being able to sell their farm land for non-agricultural purposes. The Seen Effect of this is that they are protected from exploitation by rapacious capitalists. But are the Unseen Effects worse?
Amit Varma is joined by guests Pavan Srinath and Karthik Shashidhar, who explain that a key reason why Indian agriculture is in such a dreadful state today is the bad laws governing it set by different governments.
In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.
There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.
The essay went on to illustrate this with what is now known as the Parable of the Broken Window. Economists consider this one of the earliest—and certainly the clearest—explications of the concept of opportunity cost. More than that, though, it laid out a way of thinking about the world that went beyond economics. The great economics journalist Henry Hazlitt wrote his seminal text, Economics in One Lesson, based entirely upon Bastiat’s essay.
So why is a 19th century essay relevant today? Well, it wouldn’t be if its concepts had been internalized by everyone. But they haven’t been, and governments constantly make disastrous policies that could have been avoided if policy makers simply looked at the world through the lens of the Seen and the Unseen. That is exactly what I will attempt to do in this weekly podcast. Every week, I will get experts from different fields to lay bare the inner workings of their domains, and to show how policies framed with the best intentions often have the worst consequences.
A new episode of The Seen and the Unseen will be uploaded every Tuesday. I hope you enjoy it!
Mahendra Singh Dhoni made his name
With his skill for finishing a game.
The hardest thing to know
Is when to just let go.
His timing has been perfect again.
The Indian male is quite a beast.
One half devout, just like a priest,
But the half that prevails
Seems to treat all females
As mere dishes laid out at a feast.
Every December, I like to meet the high and mighty of the world and ask them about their New Year Resolutions. Last year I met Donald Trump. “I’m going to control my foot in 2016,” he told me. “It keeps going into my mouth. It’s like my foot has a mind of its own. What to do?”
“You could try building a wall between your foot and your mouth,” I suggested. “A really yuge wall, like, I know you’ve seen a lot of walls, and this will be the best.”
He rubbed his minuscule hands together, deep in thought, and offered me an orange.
This year, I decided to go closer to home. I dropped in to meet my old friend Narendra Modi. “Wassup, Vallabhai?” I said. It’s an old joke between us.
Modiji gave me a warm hug. “It’s so good to see you after so long,” he said. “I mean, it’s good that it’s been so long since I last saw you. What brings you here?”
“An Uber,” I said. “Listen, I just dropped in to ask what your New Year Resolutions for 2017 are. What new things are you going to do?”
Modiji sat back, and a grim look came over his face. “I have made many resolutions,” he said. “First of all, I need to finish my war against black money. I thought demonetisation would do it, but my own damn IT department did a study that showed that only 6% of black money was kept in the form of cash. Even that was converted from old black money into new black money through new black markets. So phussss.”
“So what are you going to do then?”
“Well, I was told that a lot of black money is kept in the form of gold and real estate. So I will tackle them both. First, I will demonetise gold. I will declare that from now on, gold is aluminium. And boom, in one blow there will be no more gold in the country. Until I declare something else to be gold.”
“Er, this is not how it works,” I said. “You are not God. You can’t just pass a law and change the world like that.”
“You know nothing,” he said. “I am the Badshah of Jumla, and the Emperor of Spin. I am the King of Narrative, and I always win. Did you notice that I just rhymed? That’s what happens when you read Rhyme & Reason every week in the Times of India.”
“You can read?”
“No, a babu summarises it for me. Not Bajrangi. Anyway, so after gold, I will tackle real estate. I will demonetise real estate, Mitron, I mean, Amit. All land holdings of more than 100 square feet will no longer be legal. I will kill black money, I’m telling you.”
“No, you won’t, Modiji, you’ll devastate the poor people of this country all over again. How will you win elections like that?”
“I have a plan for that. All this land that will now belong to the government, I will redistribute it among the people of India. I will deposit one acre of land into every Jan Dhan account.”
“Modiji, oh my god, who has been advising you? You can’t deposit land into Jan Dhan bank accounts.”
“Yes, you can. Only, it won’t be actual physical land. It will be digital land. India needs to move beyond real estate into a landless economy. Everyone will be a homeowner.”
“But how will they withdraw this land?”
“We won’t let them withdraw it. Can you imagine the chaos if people start withdrawing land from Jan Dhan accounts? Amit, you also na, what all you say!”
I sighed, and offered him the orange I’d saved up for a year. “It is vegetarian, isn’t it?” he asked. “I mean, it’s not a steak or something?” To be fair it did look kind of weird.
“So what are your resolutions besides killing poor people, I mean, black money? Any plans of exercise, diet etc?”
“I have already started an exercise regime,” he said proudly. “Look!” He pointed outside the window, where three babus in safari suits were doing on-the-spot jogging. “I have delegated my exercising.”
“Er, ok,” I said. “And any plans to diet? You’re so full of yourself, you must surely be overweight.”
“I will go on a Vedic diet that made our ancients extremely healthy.”
“What do you mean, healthy?” I said. “They’re all dead.”
Modiji glared at me. “Amit,” he said, “your humour is terrible. I must save India from the likes of you. I am going to send all Amits to Pakistan.”
He threw the orange at me, and I lost consciousness. When I came to, I was on a flight to Islamabad. Amit Shah sat besides me, squirming in his middle seat.
“What the hell did you just do?” he barked at me. “Why couldn’t your name have been Arun, dammit?”
This is the script of a musical play starring Arnab Goswami and a few eminent world leaders. At the start of the play, Arnab is at the front of stage, while Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi stand behind. There’s also a chorus of 30 cows, spread out among the audience.
Arnab: Hello and welcome! I’m Arnab the magician. It’s time now for an awesome competition. The strong men of the world are here, all set to go. Who’s the most macho of them all, the nation wants to know.
30 cows: The nation wants to know! The nation wants to know!
Arnab: There will be all-out attack, and no surrender. Please welcome, from the US, our first contender.
Donald Trump strides out on the stage.
Trump: My name is Donald Trump, I name buildings for a living. If you troll me on Twitter, I’m most unforgiving. I love India, mitron, and cricket most of all – especially Rahul Dravid, because he’s such a wall. I eat Mexicans for breakfast, and Moslem Men for lunch. When it comes to immigrants, oh boy, I pack a punch. My ego is so yuge, the biggest in my class. Oh, before I forget, I’m gonna kick China’s ass.
Vladimir Putin now walks on.
Putin: My friend Donald, poor guy, he never understands that no macho man can ever have such tiny hands. While Donald’s been busy laying luxury resort foundations, I’ve been killing millions, and conquering nations. You must have seen that picture of me bareback on a horse. After the shoot was over, I ate it with no remorse. When my wife wanted a new purse, I wrestled a crocodile. In front of me, with good reason, Donald is servile. He’s a little man, with little hands, and a little something in his pants. I’ve been saying it all along, you can’t be macho with a little dong!
30 cows: A little dong! A little dong!
Trump: My hands are small, you see, only to compensate. It’s because the size of my dong is very very great. I have even appeared in a movie made by Playboy. I’ve always been the biggest bully with the biggest toy!
Arnab: Stop this nonsense, change the subject, I’m feeling nauseated. I’m a middle-aged Bong with a tiny dong, and my ego is deflated. That’s why I’m always so aggro, it’s a kind of compensation. But the TRPs are great, and hey, I do it for the nation. Anyway, Mr Putin, you cannot win this way. Is there perhaps something else that you would like to say?
Putin: I’m more macho than this fool Trump, that’s all I have to say. After all, for many years, the man’s been in my pay. I now rule two countries, I am such a stud. If you mess with me, my friend, I will drink your blood.
30 Cows: Drink your blood! Drink your blood!
Arnab: Mr Putin, I am impressed, you meet all the criteria. Now tell me something, did Netaji really die in Siberia? Or maybe, oh my goodness, could he still be alive? Anyway, you win the trophy, c’mon, gimme five.
Modi strides forward.
Modi: Wait a minute, Arnab, what’s the freakin’ hurry? I’ll give you a tight tamacha, your vision will be blurry. This Russian fool, he think he’s cool, well, here’s the truth that pinches: See my chest, it is the best, all of 56 inches!
30 cows: 56 inches! 56 inches!
Modi: Killing people, invading countries, all that’s so old school. (And oh, my friend, Donald, your hands are miniscule!) Massacres are child’s play, when you’re off your rocker. But can you reach into every pocket, and empty every locker? I’ve just pulled off a surgical strike against the poor of my nation. No more cash for them, unless they give the BJP a donation. We’re going cashless, I am matchless, Arnab, you silly clown: Give these men ghagra cholis, and give me the crown!
Arnab: Mr Modi, most impressive, but you’re still a pretender. Hold your horses, because you see, there is one more contender. Men, you see, beneath their bluster, can be quite weak. But here comes a fine lady who never turns the other cheek.
Mamata Banerjee enters the stage, wearing a sash that says, ‘Most Macho Person.’
Mamata: Hello boys, I’m pleased to meet you, ridiculous wimps. You behave like such gorillas, but you’re really tiny chimps. You boast about how strong you are, and about your brains. You’d be bawling on the floor if you ever went through period pains. Mama’s here now, and she’s gonna whack your asses with her magic broom. So get up, get out, and when you get home, tidy up your room. Trump, Mr Macho, eat a nacho. Putin, so potent, you look like a rodent. Modi, have you realized that you will be demonetised. Mama’s here!
30 cows: Mama! Mama! Mama! Where is my Pajama? Mama Mama Mama!
Earlier: The Rise and Fall of Emperor Modi
I am a great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, but the man had some strange views. In Hind Swaraj, written shortly after he turned 40 in 1909, Gandhi tore into some of the symbols of the modern age. “Hospitals are institutions for propagating sin,” he wrote. “To study European medicine is to deepen our slavery.” He railed against the railways, saying “it is beyond dispute that they propagate evil.” He argued against lawyers, despite being one himself, saying they had “impoverished the country.” But here’s a thing to note: despite these personal views, he never once suggested that railways, hospitals and lawyers should be banned.
There is a notion being spread these days that is as absurd as the ideas above: it is the notion that there is something wrong with using cash, and that we should head towards being a cashless society. This is nonsense. A cashless society would be a disaster for India. Here’s why.
One, a fully cashless society would mean the end of privacy. There would be a digital trail of every action you take through your purchases and transfers. If you buy AIDS medication or a porn magazine or book a hotel room for a romantic alliance, this information can be accessed by the government – or any hacker with the requisite skills – and used against you. India has no privacy laws, and data protection is also a big worry – every week we hear stories of some some big hacking or the other, from the Congress in India to the Democratic Party in the US.
Two, a fully cashless society could mean the end of dissent. The government can use any data it gathers against you. (Even if you commit no crime, there is much you may be embarrassed by.) What’s more, they could make any opponent a pauper with one keystroke, freezing your bank account while they investigate alleged misdeeds. Just the fact that they have this power could have a chilling effect on dissent. Those in government now may well salivate over this, but tables turn fast, and when they are in opposition, would they want their opponents to have such power over them?
Three, a fully cashless society endangers freedom. Cash is empowerment: ask the young wife who saves spare cash from her alcoholic husband; or the old mother who stuffs spare notes under her mattress for years because it gives her a sense of autonomy. Indeed, in a misogynist country like India, cashlessness would hit women the hardest.
It is a myth that an advanced society must necessarily be cashless. In Germany, a country which knows the perils of authoritarianism, more than 80% of transactions are in cash, as citizens safeguard their privacy and freedom. Even in the USA, 45% of transactions are in cash. Note that Germany and the USA actually have the banking and technological infrastructure to enable cashlessness. In India, 600 million people have no bank account, and less than 20% of all Indians have a smartphone. Internet penetration is iffy, as is power. (By ‘power’, I mean electricity, not the government’s control over you.) Trying to make India cashless is akin to putting a bullock cart in an F1 race, and whipping the driver because he’s too slow.
It is true that many technologies imperil our privacy, like any app we download on our phones, for example. But those actions are voluntary, and we can choose to avoid them. That is the crux of the matter. My objection here is not to cashlessness per se, but to the coercion implicit in the currency swap of November 8 and its aftermath. A cashless society would only be good if we evolve towards it, not if we are forced into it.
At the moment, the common Indian is wary, for good reason. Digital payments involve transaction costs, are unreliable because of infrastructure issues, and hey, who would trust an Indian bank after what the RBI just did? The beneficiaries of forced cashlessness are not consumers, but vested interests like banks and payment companies. Indeed, this might even be the largest redistribution of wealth from poor to rich in the history of humanity.
The BJP itself continues to take cash donations and shift goalposts. When the demonetisation was announced, they said it was meant to attack black money and counterfeit currency. Once it became apparent that those reasons were nonsense, the government tried to change the narrative into one about a cashless society. Within a fortnight of that, they are already backtracking and saying they meant ‘less cash’ when they said ‘cashless’. The truth is this: demonetisation was a humanitarian disaster that is crippling our economy, and no matter how many times Modi and gang try to rationalise it, it cannot be done. One day, these men will stop trying. When they cannot justify any more, they will distract.
So I finally saw ‘Dear Zindagi’ (after invoking it for the sake of my column last Sunday), and I was appalled. The one kind of Bollywood film I abhor is a shallow faux-serious movie, which is exactly what this is—give me honest escapism over this any day. Before enumerating what I didn’t like about it, here’s what I did like:
1. Alia is brilliant in the film, such an exceptional actress. She’s blown me away before in ‘Kapoor and Sons’ and “Udta Punjab’, the only two other films of her that I’ve seen. Unlike so many of her Bollywood peers—especially the men—she doesn’t emote or ‘act’ as much as she sinks into the skin of a role. That should be fairly basic, but in Bollywood it needs to be drawn attention to, especially given who our superstars are. Her friends and family are also well cast. And the film itself is slick.
That’s all, sadly. Now for the things I did not like:
1. I read somewhere that the film was being praised for acknowledging mental health issues. But the treatment of Alia’s depression is Bollywoodized. In the real world, no mental health issue can be explained purely by circumstances or cured by thinking differently. The cause of depression is never one flashback away, and the cure to it is never the kind of banal self-helpisms that Shah Rukh’s character unleashes. Which brings me to my second point.
2. Practically everything Shah Rukh’s character says is nonsense. 90% of it is banal—like Ravi Shastri talking about cricket—and the other 10% is downright wrong and dangerous—like Modi talking about economics. The kind of psychotherapy he is shown doing is basically quackery, and the way he talks you’d imagine he’s never read a book in his life and spends 20 minutes each week on brainyquotes and Wikipedia. Simply put, the guy’s a buffoon.
3. I’ve often maintained that Shah Rukh Khan is the worst actor in history. I know Amitabh was his idol when he entered the industry, and while Amitabh has done some monumental hamming in his time, Shah Rukh knocks him out of the park. Watching Shah Rukh ham it up in scenes with the wonderfully naturalistic Alia is as painful as watching Amitabh ham it up in Piku in scenes with the brilliant Irrfan Khan. Is the contrast not obvious to viewers? Am I the only one cringing?
4. The film is otherwise filled with predictable narrative cliches. The parents are cartoon characters, not real people. The conflicts are cartoon conflicts, even though Alia’s lovely acting manages to make it seem real. All loose ends are neatly tied up by the end. Barf.
What irritated me the most, though, was the shallow, ignorant treatment of mental health. It’s an issue that needs to be talked about and acknowledged, and films like this actually do a disservice to that end. To repeat: depression, or any kind of mental health issue, cannot be explained by circumstances, and cannot be cured by the barrage of banalities Shah Rukh unleashes in this film. I wish the director-and-writer, even if she didn’t actually know any people with mental health issues (which itself would be astonishing, given how common it is) had at least bothered to research the subject. A pity.
They warned her about misogyny.
She said as she shaped her destiny,
“It’s a man’s world, indeed,
But I will not pay heed.
I will make those men bow before me.”
Sanjay Gandhi came back from the dead.
He went to meet NaMo, and he said,
“I loved to hurt the weak,
But nasbandi seems meek.
I wish I’d done notebandi instead.”
Last Tuesday, I went to watch ‘Dear Zindagi’ at a movie theatre near me. Before the film started, two old men came and sat in front of me. One was a short bald man with John Lennon glasses who looked like Ben Kingsley, and was wearing a hoodie over what appeared to be a dhoti. The other was a white-haired man with a flowing white beard and a flowing white robe. The bearded man nodded to me as he sat down, and then turned and said to his companion, “Mohan, I’m really looking forward to seeing Alia today. Such a good actress. Almost as if she was trained in Shantiniketan.”
“Yes, Robida,” said Mohan. “I can think of all kinds of non-violent acts she and I could do together.” Both men chuckled.
Just then, the national anthem started playing. I stood up, as did everyone else in the hall – except these two men.
It was the morning show and the hall was half empty, which I suppose was good, otherwise some macho self-righteous fool would have wanted to display his patriotism by asking these two men to stand up. But no one said anything. The anthem got over and the screen went blank. As I sat down, the bearded man turned around and caught my eye. I couldn’t help asking him, “Hey, I don’t mean to intrude, but why didn’t you guys stand for the anthem? Aren’t you proud of being Indian?”
Mohan turned around and gave me a kindly look through his Lennon glasses. “It was an act of civil disobedience,” he said. “And we were showing our love for this country, and our patriotism, by sitting.”
“I’m sorry?” I said. “The patriotic thing to do is to stand. We must honour our country.”
“And what does it mean to honour our country, young man? First of all, ask yourself, what is our country? Is India equal to the national anthem? Or the national flag? Or are there certain values that our country stands for that are more important than these symbols?”
I didn’t know what to say, so like any young person in these times, I said something random. “Freedom. We would never had the chance to stand for a national anthem before 1947. So I stand today to celebrate freedom.”
Mohan giggled, as if the gorgeous Alia had just landed up beside him in a slinky leotard and started tickling him. “Freedom! And how do you define freedom? We did not become a free country when the British left. Yes, we got political independence, but that isn’t freedom. Oh no, the freedom we fought for was the freedom of individuals to live their lives without oppression. Basically, to not be forced to do anything. The Supreme Court has made it compulsory to stand, which is why Robida and I kept sitting just now. There is nothing as unpatriotic in a free country as coercion.”
I gaped at him as he continued: “All we did in 1947 was replace a British empire with an Indian empire. We retained most of the laws in the archaic Indian Penal Code which the British had framed to subjugate us, including laws against free speech, homosexuality and even women’s rights. The state censors films, bans books, as if we are infants and not adults. I have a friend who started a university in British times without needing a license,” – he glanced at Robida – “and today, to start or run a business, we need to beg or bribe brown babus. Robida once told me that the British occupation of India was the ‘political symptom of our social disease’. That disease is now terminal.”
“What is that disease?” I asked.
Robida gave me a sad smile. “That disease is having the mentality of subjects. What does a democracy mean? It means that the people are the rulers, and the government is there to serve us. But our governments rule us instead of serving us, and we are happy to be ruled. If we are going to play ‘choose your ruler’, what is the point of being free?”
“Look around you,” said Mohan, “and think of all the different kinds of coercion in your life. These days, I am told, you even have to queue up to withdraw your own money. You are even being forced into a cashless society, which will be the end of freedom, for the government will control all your money and can shut you down anytime. That would have been such a wet dream for the British.”
“Ouch” said Robida, “here comes the part of the film I really hate.” The censor certificate flashed on the screen.
“Alia!” exclaimed Mohan, and turned around. The film began, and I lost myself in the anaesthetic comfort of everyday pleasures.
Also read these earlier pieces by me:
Once there was a young girl in a queue.
A young boy joined it, all set to woo.
She looked him up and down,
And told him with a frown,
“‘Yes’ if you have change, otherwise ‘Thoo!’”
Mahatma Gandhi came down to earth
For just a visit (not a rebirth).
He screamed in double quotes,
“Take my face off your notes.
It’s eroding my sense of self-worth!”
November 2017. This is an excerpt from a screenplay of a musical play performed recently at the Kala Natak Academy, inaugurated by the prime minister Shri LK Advani. It stars Narendra Modi, Arun Jaitley and a chorus of 30 cows. While reading it, please sing it in your head with a grand dramatic voice.
[Silhouette of Narendra Modi sleeping on a bed. Loud snores emanate. At the foot of the bed, a minion sits. Loud footsteps are heard. Arun Jaitley enters the room.]
AJ: Modiji, Modiji!
Chorus of thirty cows: Modiji, Modiji!
Minion, thrusting his arms out towards Jaitley: Do not wake him, Do not shake him. He is sleeping, he spent all of last evening weeping, for this nation, the creation of a Hindu god in a Himalayan location. Do not wake him! Please forsake him!
AJ: He must be woken! My spirit is broken! Forget the nation, I’m out of ration. I have no cash. The supreme leader has obliterated my stash, it’s all trash. He could have let me know at least. Oh, the beast!
[There is a loud grunt, and Modi rises, and then gets out of bed. He is wearing only his Modi kurta.]
Modi: Oh here you are, my little one. I am lohpurush, you’re a brittle one. As for your notes, why don’t you… write on them? As for your notes… a blight on them! You have been rather slow, lately. Don’t you see the plan, Jaitley? Like me, you must learn to see far. What happened to my churidar?
30 Cows: Churidar! Churidar!
[Minion scurries off to fetch churidar.]
AJ: You say you want to attack black money. Are you being funny? This won’t hurt black money, truth be told. Hoarders keep their wealth in real estate and gold. In benaami investments and banks that are offshore. Why did you let go of the panama chors? The IT department found only 6 percent of black money is held in cash. So stop talking trash.
30 cows: Talking trash! Talking trash!
[A minion brings a churidar. Two burly bearded bare-chested men wearing harem pants appear and lift Modi by the armpits as he tries to peel on his churidar. Jaitley continues:]
AJ: More than 90% of the cash out there is white! Those who have earned it feel it is their right. Their right to spend as they please, to save as they please. It’s their money, not yours to seize! 600 million people have no bank accounts! 300 million have no ID, and this is tantamount to theft from the poor, into the pockets of the rich. A reverse Robin Hood displaying a kleptomanic itch.
[Modi has put on his churidar, and the burly bearded bare-chested men in harem pants disappear under the bed. Modi is tying the naada of the churidar. Jaitley continues:]
AJ: Modiji, I have to tell you, this will cost you votes. As much as 86% of the money in use was 500 and 1000 notes. Cash was used in more than 90% of all transactions. This has set off a series of destructive chain reactions. Farmers are screwed, workers are screwed, small businesses are shutting down. A recession is a best-case outcome, the worst is a meltdown. And after all this, you accuse me of not looking far. Modiji, how long does it take you to wear your churidar?
30 Cows: Churidar! Churidar!
Modi: Jaitley, you must understand, my churidar is tight. And you’ve missed the point completely, clearly you’re not bright. The poor do not matter: Let their blood splatter, let the economy shatter, ignore the presstitute chatter. I am the ruler of this nation, this is my domain, with a treasury to fill, an army of bhakts to maintain. This move is genius, such a lovely redistribution. The people’s wealth is now the government’s, a perfect solution. I don’t really care about a little collateral damage. If there are riots, well I’m sure, the army will manage. Besides, my PR is quite superlative. I happen to have complete control of the narrative!
30 Cows: Narrative! Narrative!
AJ: Modiji, you must remember, India is democratic. Right now the BJP feels much like the Titanic. We’re sinking sinking sinking! What on earth were you thinking? Optics has its limits, and no matter what you call it, the narrative won’t work when you hit people on their wallet. It’s clear that all this power has gone to your head. If we don’t get rid of you, this party will be dead!
[Rajnath and Sushma walk in, holding a chair on which Advani is sitting.]
Modi: What do you mean? What is this crap? I am the Supreme Leader. I’ll declare an Emergency, and put you all in a feeder. Forget the aam junta, they are all kambakhts. I’ll drown out their voices through my sweatshop of trolling bhakts. The people are an instrument, a way to feed my pride. I don’t give a damn how many poor folks have died.
Sushma: And that is why, Modiji, you have got to leave. Politicians should serve the people, not rule them till they grieve. You made a big mistake demonetising those notes. Now we have to dethrone you to somehow save our votes.
[The burly bearded bare-chested men in harem pants emerge from under the bed, put a bag around Modi’s head that says ‘Garbage Disposal’ and carry him off. Rajnath and Sushma lower the chair, and Jaitley helps Advani on to the bed.]
Advani: I’m so glad to be on top, this is my rightful place. Because of that fool Modi, I am now a moderate face! I saved his ass once, and that led to my downfall. The moral of the story: The higher you rise, the harder you fall.
30 Cows: Moo! Moo!
My other pieces on this subject:
Every time a poor person dies, India's GDP per capita goes up. #Modinomics— Amit Varma (@amitvarma) November 23, 2016
So I put up the tweet above yesterday to illustrate a point I’ve had to make repeatedly about the demonetisation: When the humanitarian costs of a particular move are so huge, it is pointless to even discuss the economic impact. I often quip, if Modi killed the poorer half of the country, some ‘respectable’ economist in his pay would publish a sober, reasoned argument that hey, India’s GDP per capita just went up, this is good for the economy. (And they wouldn’t disclose their affiliation while doing so, but leave that aside for the moment.)
Similarly, if Modi was just to announce that all money in everyone’s bank account was to be confiscated by the government, no doubt certain economists would pop up to point out the long-term economic benefit of this: the fiscal deficit wiped out, more money available for infrastructure spending, and of course, an end to black money. But such a rationale would not just be besides the point, it would be immoral—for obvious reasons.
The thought experiments above are not very far from what is happening. The legitimately earned wealth of tens of millions of people has been eroded, businesses have shut down, the economy’s come to a standstill and the death toll is rising every day. It’s heartbreaking—and yet, we have sober economic arguments going this way or that way.
Frankly, I believe that a recession is inevitable, and that the economic costs of this will far outweigh any economic benefits, as is always the case with such social engineering. But that argument of mine is besides the point, because the moral costs make it moot. Lives are being lost, livelihoods are being destroyed, and taking a neutral stance, or making ‘balanced’ arguments, is, in my view, is as odious as actively supporting the butchery that is underway.
My guest column in the Times of India last Sunday: Narendra Modi takes a Great Leap backwards
And Peri Maheshwar’s excellent FB post on this yesterday.
In 1958, Chairman Mao ordered that that all sparrows over China should be put to death. It was hailed as a necessary step by a strong leader. Farmers were suffering because sparrows tended to eat their grain seeds. For the good of the nation, they had to be protected. Thus began The Great Sparrow Campaign. A countless number of sparrows were indeed wiped out—but there were unintended consequences.
Sparrows ate locusts, and once the balance in the ecosystem changed, locusts proliferated and destroyed China’s crops. There was famine, hunger, starvation: no less than 45 million people died in the three years following Mao’s orders. At the start, Mao exhorted them to bear with the inconvenience. But then the pain piled up.
Mao’s infamous Great Leap Forward included plenty of edicts besides the death warrant to sparrows. They all stemmed from the delusion that the leader of a country, as if he was God, could redesign an entire society to conform to a master plan. The 20th century is full of cautionary tales that warn against such delusion, such as the communism of Mao and Stalin, and the fascism of Hitler. Yet, we do not learn.
Narendra Modi’s demonetisation of old 1000 and 500 rupee notes is one such monstrous folly. It is a blunder in every imaginable way. It doesn’t achieve its intended purpose. And its unintended consequences could devastate the lives of the poor, and cripple our economy.
Modi claims that this move is an attack against black money and corruption. This is not true, and here are four reasons why. One, as per a recent estimate, only 6% of black money is kept in the form of cash. Two, new 2000 and 500 rupee notes are on the way, and a black market for conversion from old to new is already thriving. Three, as various economists have pointed out, this attacks the stock and not the flow of black money. To strike at black money and corruption, you need to strike at their root causes.
Corruption and black money are a consequence of big government, of one set of individuals having discretionary powers over the actions of others. If Modi was serious about tackling black money, he’d bring about institutional changes that would take us towards the minimum government he had promised in his 2014 campaign. Instead, government keeps getting bigger, controlling more and more of our lives. More government = more corruption.
The fourth and most compelling reason is this: these aren’t really high-denomination notes. Modi has probably not bought anything from a store in 15 years, so he imagines that the poor do not use these notes. Well, consider that the last time a demonetisation took place in 1978, a 1000 rupee note, in terms of purchasing power, could buy goods worth Rs 12,000 today. Rich people did hoard their black money with it, but the poor did not use them. (The move failed nevertheless.)
A Rs 500 note today, by contrast, is the equivalent of a Rs 50 note in 1978. These notes constitute 85% of the money in circulation, as opposed to 0.6 in 1978. Over 90% of the transactions in India are cash transactions, and more than 90% of the cash in India is not black money. This is everyday currency.
This is why the consequences of Modi’s move are so severe. According to an RBI note from March this year—and contrary to the government’s PR—only 53% of Indians have bank accounts. How do you think the other 600 million store their savings? Over 300 million people have no government ID, and there are crores of people stuck without a way to convert their hard-earned cash. Even if they did have accounts, there are reports that the government will take six months to print enough replacement notes. Every day the death toll goes up, but rural suffering and anger cannot be captured by bare numbers.
Apart from all the individual suffering, our economy is being eviscerated. Cash is integral to most of the economy. Farmers are being unable to sell perishable produce, to buy grains for the new harvest or to pay labourers. Transporters are unable to transport goods across distances. Commerce has shut down in many places, with small businesses going bust. In some places, the barter system is back, as if we’ve gone centuries back in time.
This is not an issue of implementation. Even if implementation was perfect, this would be a historic blunder because social engineering never works, and carries moral costs because of its unintended consequences. When people have to queue up to withdraw their own money, on which limits are placed, it is an attack on property rights that is more out of the Communist handbook than any right-wing philosophy. Indeed, Burkean conservatives and Hayekian libertarians alike would be aghast at Modi’s actions, as he propels India towards the Soviet Union so admired by Nehru, with its state oppression, artificial shortages and infamous queues. But Chairman Mao would approve.
1. My earlier piece on the subject, ‘Modi Goes to Daulatabad’.
2. Devangshu Datta’s piece in Scroll providing some useful facts and figures, ‘In one stroke, demonetisation has shaken the trust our monetary system is based on’.
3. Ajay Shah’s lucid analysis in Business Standard: ‘A monetary economics view of the de-monetisation’.
4. Swaminathan Aiyar in Times of India: ‘Why small finance faces a big wipeout’.
5. Salil Tripathi in Mint: ‘No, the poor aren’t sleeping peacefully’.
6. Ajaz Ashraf’s excellent piece in Scroll illustrating the impact of demonetisation on small businesses: ‘Informal credit systems: Modi has crippled a very Indian way of doing business’.
7. TN Ninan in Business Standard: ‘Our post-truths’.
8. Pratap Bhanu Mehta in Indian Express: ‘You have been warned’.
Exactly one year ago, on November 17 2015, I sat opposite Steve Bannon in his NYC office as he asked me if I’d be interested in starting Breitbart India. I had won the Bastiat Prize (for the second time) a few days before, and a lady who was one of the funders of Brietbart, and of certain leaders in the Republican Party, got in touch with the organisers to ask if she could meet me. (It’s not fair of me to name her because she’s not really a public figure.) She’d been impressed by my speech, and thus this meeting.
I didn’t know much about Breitbart, though I’d glanced at it. I did not know they were alt-right—I didn’t even know the term then. All I knew was that they were a conservative site, and that was enough for me to say no. I was a libertarian, I said, pro-immigration, pro-gay rights, and it didn’t fit. Furthermore, I advised them that there was no point in Breitbart setting up in India.
‘It’s incongruent,’ I said. ‘There is no analog of American conservatism in India. The Indian right is driven by bigotry and nativism, with no deeper guiding philosophy behind it. [Consider the irony of these words.] You will not find any Burkean conservatives here. Don’t come.’
‘Well, we think that Modi is India’s Reagan,’ said Bannon.
I laughed, and told them that Modi was no Reagan. I explained why he was a statist, top-down thinker, someone who would only expand the power of government over common citizens, more like the Leftist Indira Gandhi than Reagan. They nodded. The thrust of my decision to not consider the option they were offering me, though, was that I was libertarian, not conservative.
The lady did try her hardest to convince. ‘I’m actually a libertarian,’ she said, and then launched into a diatribe on gay marriage, saying, ‘I don’t understand why they ask for marriage. We gave them so much. What’s wrong with civil unions?’
A little later she said again, ‘I’m actually a libertarian.’ And then launched into a diatribe against immigrants in America, and how the cultural fabric of Europe was being torn apart by their immigrants. It was kind of funny, though at the time I was more flattered than amused. Still, I had to say no.
Bannon is now the right-hand man of someone who has really small hands and will be the most powerful man in the world starting January. Now that I know more about the alt-right, that thought is scary. I’m still glad that I didn’t explore their offer further. I could have been somewhat richer, maybe even influential, if I’d taken it up—but I sleep well at night now, and that’s what matters.
I must point out here that my meeting with them was very pleasant, and they were warm and courteous despite my not coming on board. Also, unlike many from across their aisle (whom I deplore quite as much), they were intellectually honest. They had their priors and their first principles, and everything they said and did stemmed from there. One may disagree with those ideas, even find them repulsive, but they’re not hypocrites.
In another context, I also believe that no matter what happens, I’ll always be anti-establishment. There have always been but two political philosophies, David Boaz once wrote, liberty and power. Everyone in politics fights for power; every libertarian must fight for individual freedom. Until Modi became PM, I was the fiercest critic of the Congress and their ruling family, who kept India poor for decades longer than they should have. When Modi took over, I expressed cautious optimism at first, but get threatened almost daily now for my vehement opposition to Modi. (He is right-wing on social issues, left-wing on economics, and thus an enemy of freedom in every respect.) Whoever is next, I know, with a sigh, that I shall be against them too.
Sometimes, this makes me feel crushingly alone. I often joke that there are only three true libertarians in India, a number I have modified to two because one of them is not unequivocally against the social engineering of Modi’s demonetisation. (My friend Barun Mitra is the other true libertarian, my fellow holder of the flame!) If I am to be true to myself, I will always remain on the outside, ridiculed by everyone else, condemned to the eternal vigilance that Jefferson spoke of, which will always be the cross of libertarians to bear.
Of course, I also have my other passion, writing fiction, to sustain my spirit. I hope you didn’t read my shitty first novel. I hope you will read the one I’m writing now.
Misogynists of the world, unite.
Racists and bigots, you won the fight.
You’ve got your president.
Now begin your descent
Into hatred, your sacred birthright.
On Tuesday, India underwent
Surgical strikes that were meant to dent
All unaccounted gains.
Still the question remains,
Who will account for the government?
We live in an age of grand delusions, so it is appropriate to invoke the name of Muhammad bin Tughlaq. When Narendra Modi recently announced the demonetisation of 500 and 1000 rupee notes, I instantly thought of Tughlaq, as did many others, if Twitter memes were anything to go by. Tughlaq was a 14th century sultan of Delhi who overestimated the extent of his knowledge and power, and committed a number of legendary blunders, most famously shifting the capital of his kingdom from Delhi to Daulatabad. Modi’s recent edict also involves daulat, and, indeed, a shifting of capital.
To begin with, one must give credit where it is due. Modi is a brave man. Firstly, prime ministers, once in power, are tempted to not do anything which can carry unpredictable adverse consequences. Just play it safe and be a gradualist, one step at a time. A move like this, with all its unintended consequences, requires courage. Secondly, this specific move harms the small traders who operate in a cash economy and have been the BJPs backbone for decades. Modi has taken the risk of alienating them.
That said, courage does not always go hand in hand with wisdom, and this move is a mistake at multiple levels. It is also an illustration of a mistaken mindset on multiple levels. Here are four things I’d like you to consider.
One, think about the stated intent of the move: to eliminate black money and reduce corruption. While it is true that it will bring much existing black money into the white economy, it is merely a reboot. New 500 rupee notes will soon be introduced, as will 2000 rupee notes, and after a month or two of adjustment, life will go back to normal. Also, a vibrant black market has already sprung up offering to exchange old notes for new notes at a fee. Guess where the profits will go.
The larger point, though, is that most truly rich people don’t keep their wealth in the form of cash, but in the form of real estate, gold, deposits in foreign bank accounts and other benaami investments. They will be largely unhurt. This brings me to my next point.
Two, it is the poor who will be hurt the most by this. A large chunk of India’s economy, especially at the bottom of the ladder, is a cash economy. Small traders and businessmen deal in cash for convenience, and pay their workers that way. I pay my domestic help in cash, and her savings are entirely in 500 and 1000 rupee notes. Yes, she can go to a bank and convert them, but that requires an ID, and not all poor people have IDs. Also, there is the significant transaction cost of doing so, as well as the opportunity cost of the time spent. (In case you wonder what kind of poor people have plenty of cash but no ID, google your way to an excellent tweet storm by Twitter user @AmbaAzaad that outlines the kinds of poor folk who are likely to be hurt by these.)
Three, let’s go back to the larger issue of corruption and black money. What is the root cause of corruption? As Lord Acton famously said, power corrupts. The more power you give one set of individuals over another, the more corruption you will have. In my classical liberal worldview, the only legitimate function of the state is to protect the rights of its people. However, our government is orders of magnitude larger than it ought to be. The people who run the country, ostensibly and comically called public servants, are like rulers, and we, their subjects to be brutally exploited. To end corruption, you need to vastly reduce the power that government gives one set of people over another people.
And what is black money? When a government is a thousand times larger than it should be, a rent-seeking parasitic beast that sucks the lifeblood of the people without creating any value, it is natural to be disdainful. The so-called cash economy at the bottom of the pyramid is incredibly productive, for people can only create value for themselves by creating value for others. Unlike government. Of course, much of this cash isn’t even black money per se, and even when it is, it is surely better off being put to productive use than being sucked away as hafta by the one legal mafia that rules us, and their cronies.
I am not saying that we should not pay taxes: it is the duty of every citizen to do so. But consider that if the government took only the taxes it needed to serve us, instead of to rule and exploit us, this mindset of evasion would not exist. And here’s the irony: Modi knows this! One of his campaign slogans in 2014 was ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’, and he unleashed much rhetoric, correctly so, about how Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi’s statist policies had impoverished our country. And yet, under his prime ministership, the government has only grown, and we pay higher taxes than we did before. This is because, at its heart, his political philosophy is the same as Nehru’s and Indira’s, which brings me to my next point.
Four, Modi, like Nehru and Indira, is a top-down thinker who believes that an economy and a country can be run from above, as if the government is a proxy for god. This is, in the words of the great Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, a fatal conceit. Hayek also wrote at length about the limits of knowledge, which should be a lesson in humility for all politicians. The unintended consequences of Modi’s edict involve many unknown unknowns, and I feel that he has not been respectful enough of the poor people potentially at the receiving end. Will they be respectful of him in 2019?
The greatest danger to any land
Is a government that goes out of hand.
A true patriot’s task
Is to constantly ask
Probing questions, and to take a stand.
A Delhi grandma, in confusion,
Looked around for her eye solution.
Her eyesight was just fine.
The reason she felt blind
Was, of course, the Delhi pollution.
There is an excellent essay by Radhika Vaz on Scoop Whoop titled ‘Why The Campaign To Have Mothers’ Names On Cricketers’ Jerseys Is Vomit-Inducing For Feminists’, and I urge you to read it. I agree with almost all of it. There’s just one bit I have a small quibble with. This is when she writes:
I don’t want token gestures and tearjerkers. I want the real deal – I want women in cricket to be paid as much as the men, to be trained as well as them and to be treated like the champions they are.
This is a good time to ask the question: Where does the money in cricket come from? The BCCI is not a benevolent godlike entity having a supply of money that comes from heaven. Instead, their money comes from viewers like you or me, who spend our time watching the game. (That time carries an opportunity cost, needless to say.) That time is then turned into money by the BCCI, which has sold those telecast rights to a channel who then sell advertising space to brands that are paying for our attention. So there are conduits in the way, but how much money goes into the game is a direct function of how many people watch the game. The BCCI’s coffers are filled by us. Our time is their money.
Now, the brutal fact is that most of us choose to watch men’s cricket much more than women’s cricket. (We might make this choice for a variety of reasons, including sexist ones, but those are not germane here.) So most of the money that the BCCI has is because people watch men’s cricket, and it’s only fair that if I create value for the BCCI by watching the Indian men’s team, that money should go to the men’s team and not to the women’s team, who I chose not to watch. To take it from the men and give it to the women would, in fact, be condescending and patronising, and any feminist should be against such handouts. I’d imagine the appropriate feminist response to be, “We’ll earn our own way, thank you, we don’t want your bloody handouts.”
Interestingly, the BCCI does already subsidise other parts of the game somewhat for its longer-term health. While the international men’s team gets all the eyeballs (and thus draws all the money), the BCCI pumps a large part of that money into domestic cricket, in nurturing a feeder system for the game. It almost certainly spends more on women’s cricket than women’s cricket brings in, and I think that’s great for the ecosystem and no one should grudge them that. However, to say that it is the right of women cricketers to be paid as much as male cricketers is a step too far. They simply don’t create as much value in monetary terms, and any demand for equal monetary compensation is thus unfair.
The counterpoint to this would be tennis, which, if I am not mistaken, pays men and women equally despite men bringing in more eyeballs (and thus money). I don’t object to that, just as I don’t object to the BCCI’s policies. They can do what they want, and if we disagree, we can take our eyeballs elsewhere. Sadly, most people in India, including women, will continue to watch cricket; and when they do, men’s cricket far more frequently than women’s cricket. I’m assuming Vaz watches at least as much women’s cricket as men’s cricket, but most of us don’t, and its the choices we make that determine how they get paid.
This is a minor quibble, and it’s possible that I misinterpreted this part of Vaz’s fine piece, and she wan’t really blaming the BCCI for the disparity in pay. It is also a fact that women are usually discriminated against in the workplace, and that reflects in their pay, which is unequal everywhere. Still, I hear people make this complaint in the context of sport, where it really doesn’t hold water—thus this post.
PS. I started writing about cricket a decade-and-a-half ago, and this is probably the first post where I’ve mentioned the BCCI in a non-negative way. I’m buying myself a cookie for that.
FAMILY BUSINESS 1
The Tatas built an unwieldy beast,
Bleeding profusely, to say the least.
Cyrus tried for a fix.
Now he’s out of the mix
Because Ratan remains the high priest.
FAMILY BUSINESS 2
Once the Yadavs had a pillow fight.
Shivpal threw bolsters with all his might.
Akhilesh slipped and fell.
Mulayam had to yell,
“Save me from this Samajwadi plight!”
Anurag Thakur was in a fix.
Although a master of politics,
One day he told the press,
“I simply must confess,
That man Lodha has hit me for six.”
Mumbai’s havaldars were in a fix,
As movie lovers scrambled for tix.
One cop said, “What drama!
They would call me ‘Mama.’
Why is there a ‘MAMI’ in the mix?
Sita Sings the Blues: The Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told
Dev.D doesn't flinch from depicting the individual’s downward spiral
9 across: Van Morrison classic from Moondance (7)
6 down: Order beginning with ‘A’ (12)