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

19 March, 2016

The Manner of Their Hanging

The Times of India reports:

In an incident reminiscent of the Dadri lynching, two Muslim men herding eight buffaloes on their way to a Friday market were beaten up and hanged to death from a tree by suspected cattle-protection vigilantes in Balumath forests in Latehar district, 100km from the state capital, early on Friday.

The deceased, Muhammad Majloom, 35, and Azad Khan alias Ibrahim, 15, were cattle traders and related to each other. Their bodies were strung up with their hands tried behind their backs and their mouths stuffed with cloth.

“The manner of their hanging showed that the assailants were led by extreme hatred,” said Latehar SP Anoop Birthary.

This feels like a nightmare, the use of the term ‘cattle-protection vigilantes’ in a news story about a lynching. What has been unleashed here? Who is responsible for this?

The people in power make responsible noises about reforming the economy and increased federalism and blah blah blah. That is all nonsense. Government is just getting bigger and more oppressive, and stealing more from us by way of taxes and cesses. This government is, in every substantive way, left-wing on economics. Many of my friends, who supported them in opposition to the family firm that ravaged our country for decades, are still in denial about this. On economics, on progress, on growth, these guys are as bad as the previous lot.

And in the social domain, they are worse.

It is natural for mass political leaders to draw on baser instincts of identity and tribalism for their popularity. Reason gets you only so far, so you appeal to the reptile brain. Behind the optics of ‘achhe din’, that is the double game the BJP is playing. But it has a cost. That cost includes ‘cattle-protection vigilantes.’

As Prem Panicker writes with regard to this incident:

This is what happens when you let the genie out of the bottle. People die.

For a proximate lesson from the neighbourhood, look at what Zia-ul-Haq unleashed in Pakistan.

Arun Shourie once memorably called this government ‘Congress plus a cow.’ He was almost right.I would call it ‘Congress plus cattle-protection vigilante.’

There is a difference; and it is a horrifying difference.

*  *  *

Also read: My column from yesterday speculating on the commonalities between the Trump wave and the Modi wave: ‘It’s Cascading Trump, It’s Cascading Modi!’

Posted at 9:12 AM by Amit Varma in Freedom | India | News | Politics

18 March, 2016

It’s Cascading Trump, It’s Cascading Modi!

This is the 25th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

We live in strange times. A few days ago, my friend and fellow libertarian, the writer Shikha Sood Dalmia, posted on Facebook: ‘Am I going mad or is the world? In America, I’m rooting for a Democrat and in India I’m defending a bloody communist!’

I was doing the same. In America, the bigoted, nativist, protectionist Donald Trump was dominating the Republican primaries, unleashing invective of the sort that usually only anonymous online trolls dare to express. In India, Narendra Modi’s government carried out a venal persecution of a few university students, based on doctored videos and a fake tweet. They arrested one of them for sedition, who was then beaten up by lawyers in the courthouse as the police looked on passively. My support, instinctively, went to the Democrats in the US; and to the beleaguered communist students in India.

What is going on here? How can a man like Trump be on the verge of leading the party of Abraham Lincoln? Why is Indian politics slipping back into crude tribalism just when India should finally be marching towards modernity? Could there be one answer to both these questions?

A few days ago, the American columnist Glenn Reynolds wrote a piece titled ‘A Trump wave is on the way.’ To explain the Trump phenomenon, Reynolds cited a book by sociologist Timur Kuran, Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification.

Say you are at a dinner party at your boss’s place. The food is terrible: the dal makhni has no salt, the butter chicken has too much tomato puree. Your boss asks how you like the food. You murmur your appreciation, as you’ve seen others on the table do. You are hiding your actual preference in order to fit in or avoid social awkwardness. This is ‘preference falsification’. Everyone at the table may have hated the food—but everyone may think that everyone else loved it.

Preference falsification can have grave consequences. Kuran cites the Soviet Union as an example. The Soviets used the strong arm of the state to clamp down on free speech, which made it hard for people to express their preferences. Even if 99% of the people hated Communism and wanted the government to fall, it would not do so because of preference falsification: these people would not know that so many others thought just as they did. Until suddenly, one day, the public expression of that preference reached a critical mass, and a phenomenon that Kuran called a ‘preference cascade’ took place. From the outside, it might seem that a regime toppled suddenly, overnight, without warning—as we saw throughout the former Soviet Bloc. But while the preference cascade may have been sudden, the preferences themselves were not new.

Reynolds invokes Kuran in the American context, and speculates that Trump’s surge could be the result of a preference cascade. Maybe Trump is articulating views that other would never do themselves in public. (‘I hate foreigners.’ ‘Mexicans are rapists.’ ‘All Muslims should be deported.’ Whatever.) Once they see a prominent man like him say these things, and others rush out in support, they are emboldened to vote for him. Now that they know there are others like them, they join the Trump wave.

Now, shift your attention to India. My view of the last elections until recently was basically this: the BJP got its highest voteshare ever because not only did it mobilize its traditional base – the Hindutva voters – they also attracted other voters who were sick of the UPA’s corruption, who wanted economic reforms, and so on. And now that the BJP was bound to disappoint some of them, it would lose voteshare, compunded by the opposition consolidating against it (as in Bihar). So a desperate party would double down on Hindutva to mobilise its core Hindutva vote.

But what if this is all wrong?

What if the rise of Modi is a result of sudden preference cascades following decades of preference falsification. In Gujarat, for example, what if the majority Hindus bear an unspoken antipathy towards the minority community? They may not express it openly because it’s awkward to do so. Then the 2002 riots happen, and Muslims are ‘put in their place.’ Modi, then chief minister, never openly takes credit for it, but he doesn’t deny his culpability either, and you can read between the lines. Boom, Modi wins the next elections in a landslide—and every state election after that.

Similarly, what if many Indians silently share notions of cultural or religious superiority that are not polite or politically correct to express publicly? (I am attempting dispassionate political analysis here, and this is not meant to be judgmental.) The rise of Modi at a national level could have led to a preference cascade, and though these voters might have come up with many policy reasons for voting for him—‘He will make GST happen’ etc—those may have been rationalisations more than reasons. (Note: I am not implying that all BJP supporters are like this.)

But why now? What suddenly enabled this preference cascade? I have an answer : social media.

Social media exploded in India over the last six years, just as Modi’s national ascent began. Social media lets you express your preferences far more freely than in real life, because you’re either anonymous, or you’re at a physical remove from whoever you’re talking to. So more true preferences get expressed—and more and more people see more and more opinions validating their own preferences. Cascade!

If this is true, then in both America and India, beneath the veneer of sophisticated political discourse, there lies a primal core that cares about more basic things, like race and identity and so on. In fact, maybe the exact same impulse explains both Trump and Modi: the instinctive attraction for a strong leader who will lead our tribe well and shit on all others.

But these are just theories, and they could be wrong, or merely partly right. And there could be other silent preferences out there waiting for their cascade. What could those be? Who will make it happen?

Posted at 2:39 PM by Amit Varma in Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics

11 March, 2016

Obey the Laws

Donald Trump said in the CNN Republican debate a short while ago:

We have to obey the laws, but we have to expand the laws.

Could there be a better illustration of how politicians view laws not as constraints but as tools?

Posted at 10:14 AM by Amit Varma in Politics

10 March, 2016

Recursive

Scroll reports:

Neelam Katara on Wednesday moved Delhi High Court against the parole plea of Vikas Yadav, convicted of murdering her son Nitish. Stating replies by Tihar officials to her RTI query, Katara told the court that Yadav had “visited” Badaun in Uttar Pradesh several times in the past few months to “appear before court” and each visit had kept him out of Tihar jail for two days. Opposing his parole plea, she reminded the court that her son was killed by Yadav while he was out on parole in a different case.

And Mid Day tells us about an old couple:

Their houses in Thane were demolished for road widening and they were moved to an old building, which is also being demolished for road widening.

A criminal commits a crime while on parole, gets convicted for it, and then gets parole again. The state dispossesses the dispossessed. There is a tragedy in this to which the only appropriate response is to laugh.

And laugh again.

Posted at 11:06 AM by Amit Varma in India | News

The Right to Cheap Multiplex Tickets

IBN reports that the Karnataka government “is mulling a limit or maximum cap of Rs 120 to be charged on movie tickets in multiplexes.” This is intended to make movies more affordable for regular moviegoers, thus increasing viewership and helping the film industry as well. These are laudable objectives. Who could argue with making movies more affordable for the poor?

In fact, I would argue that the Karnataka government has not gone far enough. Why restrict this benevolence to movies?

I hereby propose that the prices of cars be capped at Rs 80,000. This will help the poor.

Also, the prices of meals at restaurants should be capped at Rs 30. This will help the poor.

While we’re at it, airline tickets should be capped at Rs 300. Why should only the privileged rich be allowed to fly?

Please don’t tell me you object to any of these wonderful ideas. There is no argument against these that don’t also apply to multiplex tickets. Don’t you agree?

(Link via Madhu Menon.)

*  *  *

On a serious note, here’s a piece by me on price controls: The Price is Right.

Posted at 8:13 AM by Amit Varma in Economics | India | News | Politics | WTF

09 March, 2016

The False Binaries of Indian Politics

This is turning out to be a crazy year. All my life I have raged against the damage that socialism has done to India, with the leftist economic policies of Jawaharlal Nehru and (especially) Indira Gandhi ravaging our country for decades, condemning hundreds of millions to poverty and all its attendant ills. And yet, a few days ago, I was applauding an hour-long speech by a young Communist, sharing the link widely, quoting from it. Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech after being released from prison was a remarkable act of oratory and defiance, combining great passion with fine comic timing. Its content was irrelevant: for the moment, we were up against a greater evil, and we could revisit the speech at leisure.

Well, that time seems to have come. Makarand Paranjape gave a very fine lecture on nationalism at the JNU, with Kanhaiya present, and asked some difficult questions. His speech was nuanced; and it was also about nuance. It warned against a simplistic reading of either history or politics, and pointed out some areas in which, he said, Indian communists could do with some reflection. This included the Communist Party of India’s role (or non-role) in India’s struggle for independence, as well as the many lives that Stalin took.

Right after he spoke, Kanhaiya rose and began the Q&A session by asking Paranjape five questions. One, did he condemn Gandhi’s killing by Godse? Two, did he condemn the violence at Patiala House? Three, did he condemn a particular violent slogan? Four, did he condemn another slogan that was a veiled threat towards Umar Khalid? And five, what political party did he belong to? After Kanhaiya, another gentleman stood up and asked why, while mentioning Stalin, did Paranjape not mention Hitler.

These questions reveal such poverty of thought. (And the very absence of nuance that Paranjape had bemoaned.) Here’s the mistake these gentlemen made: politics does not revolve around binaries of fascism and communism (or left and right). Kanhaiya seemed to assume, if one goes by his questions, that if Paranjape questioned the role of the Left in India’s Independence struggle, then he must surely be a supporter of the Sanghis, and by extension of Godse. If he was questioning the facts in Kanhaiya’s speech, he must surely be a supporter of Modi and the Patiala House goons. The other gentleman implied that by invoking Stalin and not Hitler, by questioning communism but not mentioning fascism, Paranjape had revealed his preference. (Paranjape’s selective mentions were obviously in the context of getting the left to introspect on its history, and that alone.)

These are false binaries. Most sensible people will be against both the extreme right and left, against both the Sanghis and the commies. Hitler and Stalin were both monsters, and their evil sprang not in separate ways from their different ideologies, but from the common core of both those ideologies: the willingness to use coercion and ignore individual rights to reshape society according to their vision. In this, the communists and fascists are identical. They are not at opposite poles. They are the same.

I had drooled over Kanhaiya’s speech when it happened, and I didn’t mind the fact that he was communist. That was, after all, the environment around him, and he probably wasn’t even exposed to other ways of looking at the world. He seemed passionate and eloquent and intelligent, and that was a good starting point. But his questions to Paranjpe seemed to indicate that he wasn’t just unwilling to be self-critical about his beliefs, but is perhaps incapable of doing so. (That is a harsh reading, I know, and I hope I am wrong.)

You might ask here, if I oppose both sides equally, then why have I shown far greater concern (and anger) at the activities of the Sanghis than the commies? Simple answer: they’re the ones in power right now, with a legal monopoly on violence and coercion. Therefore they’re the greater danger. Also, the commies are not a force in India any more, despite this brief moment in the sun (courtesy Modi’s blundering minions). But the Sanghis are growing in power and influence. (I shall elaborate on this in the next edition of Lighthouse, which appears next week in a suitably named newspaper.)

I should add here, as I keep pointing out, that quite apart from the false binary of the two extremes that I have mentioned in this post, thinking in terms of left or right itself is fallacious in the context of Indian politics. All Indian governments have been left-wing on economics and right-wing on social issues, the exact opposite of what a poor beleaguered libertarian like me would like. Mere baal dhoop mein safed nahin hue hai. (In fact, mere baal safed hue hi nahin hai, but leave that aside.)

My earlier pieces on this:

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

Posted at 10:42 AM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics

Hou is Mariya

Hou Yifan is currently leading in her Women’s World Chess Championship match against Mariya Muzychuk, and I suppose this is a good time for me to tell you about what happened when they met for the first time. Basically, Maria went up to Hou and introduced herself.

MM: Hi, I’m Mariya.

HY: Hou.

MM: Er, Mariya.

HY: Hou.

MM: I just told you. Mariya. May I know your name please?

HY: Hou!

MM: Mariya, Mariya, Mariya! Aaargh! (Storms off. Harika Dronavalli walks up to Hou.)

HD: Hey, Hou. Who was that?

HY: Some strange girl called Mariya Mariya Mariya.

*  *  *

A kind reader points me to this:

Most magnificent!

Posted at 8:38 AM by Amit Varma in Sport

11 February, 2016

Women as Objects

It isn’t only porn that objectifies women. So does tradition. Check this out.

Posted at 11:57 AM by Amit Varma in India

10 February, 2016

The Common Explanation for Trump and Sanders

Why are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders doing so well, while conventional heavyweights in their parties seem to be taking a beating? I got a sense of that in this Politico analysis of Hillary Clinton’s campaign after New Hampshire which had the strap:

After a devastating defeat, her campaign hopes to rebound with a sharp focus on African Americans.

In similar vein, Shikha Sood Dalmia wrote an excellent analysis of why Ted Cruz won Iowa despite being against ‘the Hawkeye State’s beloved ethanol fuel mandate’. To sum it up:

Cruz assembled a broad but piecemeal coalition of conservative voters by giving each faction something it really, really cared about.

Elsewhere, there is analysis of the four men (Rubio, Kasich, Bush, Christie) fighting for the ‘establishment lane’ of the Republican party.

Do you see what is happening here? Politicians typically think of voters as a market (as indeed they are in the political marketplace) and divvy it up into segments and strategize accordingly. But Trump and Sanders are unconventional politicians whose fundamental message seems to be: ‘This is who I am. This is what I stand for. I won’t tailor my message for anyone. I won’t pander to any group of voters or to special interests. I am different from your typical slave-to-special-interests politician. Are you sick of them too? Vote for me!’

Now, forget the sincerity of this message: what matters is how they come across. And voters are sick of business as usual. This election was supposed to be Bush vs Clinton, but Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton would be very similar presidents, firmly in the pockets of special interests, albeit different ones. Trump and Sanders clearly would not. (At least, that’s the message.) So that’s the appeal.

You could say it’s the same appeal Arvind Kejriwal had in India.

Now, I strongly oppose Trump and Sanders (and for that matter Kejriwal), because as much as what you stand against, one must also see what you stand for. Trump is whacko in every way. Sanders is whacko on economics. (Kejriwal is Indira Gandhi all over again.) But that is not the point. The point is that conventional politicians cannot hope to capture those constituencies (in their language!) unless they accept that the system is broken to begin with, and communicate that in a credible way. The establishment guys seem to be in denial that the public is turning against the establishment. So this is going to be fun.

The elections in the US are already the greatest reality show ever. It is fitting, therefore, that Trump should be the star.

Posted at 4:00 PM by Amit Varma in Politics

How Much is Pawan Negi Worth?

Pradeep Magazine is unhappy that Pawan Negi got more than a million dollars at the recent IPL auction. He writes:

Ever since a new cricket format and a new business model – the IPL – in the name of sport has been created in India, this accepted rationale of how sport functions is being challenged each passing year. Among the many questions being debated is the relationship of talent with the wages earned and the impact it will have on the very foundations of cricket in the country.

That is where Pawan Negi and most of his tribe become relevant to this debate. Here is a young talent, not sure of his place in the India team, a surprise selection for the T20 World Cup, who has all of a sudden been catapulted ahead of his much superior seniors and showered with riches — and even he can’t understand why.

Magazine implies that Negi has gotten more money than he is worth—and I don’t have an opinion on that. However, consider the larger philosophical question of who should determine Negi’s value as a player? Should it be the mandarins at the BCCI, or the selectors? Should it be knowledgable journalists who have covered the game for years like Magazine himself? Should it be the owners of IPL franchises, an assorted mix of businessmen and filmstars who may not know much about cricket?

The clue to the answer is to ask yourself who has the best incentives to put in the work to determine Negi’s value. Who is actually putting his money where his mouth is? If Magazine makes a judgment about a player that is wrong, it doesn’t matter, journalists get things wrong all the time. There is not much of a reputational downside. If the Indian selectors get it wrong, ditto, they move on and pick someone else the next time, and only a whole bunch of ludicrous selections can affect their position. If the IPL bosses get it wrong, on the other hand, they lose money. Hard, cold cash. For this reason, the incentives are highest for IPL bosses to put in much work in scouting and analytics, and by all accounts they do exactly that. So insofar as there can be said to be a ‘correct’ price for Negi, the IPL auctions are the closest mechanism available right now of arriving at that. (And of course, econ 101, prices are determined by supply and demand, and you need a market for that.)

Of course, the IPL auctions are not a free market. All players would probably get paid much more if spending caps did not exist. Also, Negi would probably have gotten much less if he was first up in an auction where no team had retained or picked a player yet, and he did get lucky that he came up for auction when there was a scarcity of available players like him, teams had holes to fill, and the demand for what he could supply went up. That’s just luck, and it’s fine. If he doesn’t perform, he won’t get paid this much next time.

An aside: Magazine also says in his piece:

In this bizarre game, where players are bought and sold in an auction, is there any cricketing logic that governs these decisions?

This is a common, and badly phrased, complaint: of cricketers being bought and sold like cattle. But that is not what is happening. Their services, as represented by contracts they have willingly signed, are being bought and sold. It is principally the same thing that happens when you check out different employers to see where you want to work, except that the mechanism is different. Cricketers are not being degraded here, but honoured and valued in a much better way than men in board rooms with nothing at stake could manage.

Posted at 2:37 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | India | News | Sport

18 January, 2016

The Hub of Crime

Mid Day has a headline today that says: ‘Andheri station is the hub of crime on Western Railway.’

If you read the article, though, you might come to the conclusion that it’s not the hub of crime, but the hub of rent-seeking.

Posted at 2:52 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | India | News

Rising Divorce Rates are a Feature, Not a Bug

The Times of India has an intriguing headline up today: ‘Marriages last the longest in north India, Maharashtra; least in NE.’

At first glance, you might think that is good news for North India. It is not. In my view, it shows how socially backward the North still is.

A few years ago, I’d written a column called We Should Celebrate Rising Divorce Rates In it, I’d expressed the opinion that divorce rates were “the single best statistical indicator we have of the empowerment of women.” If I may quote myself:

Rising divorce rates tell us one thing for sure: that more and more women are finding the means, and the independence, to walk out of bad marriages and live life on their own terms. If we judge ourselves as a society on the state of our women – and surely that must be a parameter – then this is good news.

So the ToI report seems to indicate that women are more empowered in the North-East than and North India. I’d love to see if data backs this up. What statistical indicators can stand as a proxy for women’s welfare? Do they show a geographical correlation with divorce rates? These are good questions to ask, though I don’t think ToI will do a follow-up report on this anytime soon.

Posted at 2:32 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Freedom | India | News

08 January, 2016

Tolstoy’s Chicken and the Expanding Circle

This is the 24th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

I’m a devout carnivore, but a decade-and-a-half ago, I turned vegetarian for a year. My reasons were moral, and best illustrated by a story about the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. In his later years Tolstoy was a vegetarian, and one day he invited his aunt home for dinner. She said she’d come but insisted, ‘I must have chicken!’ Tolstoy paused at this condition, but then agreed to provide the bird. The lady duly came home, gup-shup happened, and then when they moved to the dining table, she found a live chicken on her chair, and a carving knife alongside.

‘We knew you wanted chicken,’ Tolstoy said, ‘but none of us would kill it.’

The story, as I know it, ends there—but I can’t imagine Tolstoy’s aunt ate Tolstoy’s chicken. She must have been rather exasperated, and Tolstoy was indeed a bit of a spiritual crackpot towards the end of his life. But the story of the chicken resonates with me. It demonstrates our denial when it comes to food. In our mind, there is a screen between the meat that we eat and the animals that are killed for that meat. We taste the flavour and enjoy the texture, but we behave as if the butchery never happened. We pretend that the chicken on the plate and the chicken on the chair are different creatures. But of course they are not. Tolstoy’s flapping, squawking chicken is Varma’s Chicken a la Kiev—and so, many years ago, I gave up meat.

Even if I later explained my subsequent regression by talking about recurring headaches and how my body was too used to meat to give it up, deep down I know that’s just a rationalisation. I didn’t have the strength of character to carry through on my resolve. I dreamed of luscious, succulent kababs, and ignored the screaming of the lambs.

The guilt and dissonance I still occasionally feel may soon be moot, though. Some fine scientists, much to be praised for their noble endeavours to better humankind, have recently found a way to grow meat in the labaratory, without a sentient creature being involved. Within a couple of decades, I predict, you will be able to eat a medium-rare steak that is, in every way, the same as any you would get today, except for the fact that no animal will be harmed in its making. The organ it will come from would have been manufactured a la carte, and would never have been part of a living creature. Tolstoy’s aunt’s grilled chicken leg would have nothing to do with Tolstoy’s actual chicken.

On that note, at the turn of this new year, let me tell you about a concept propounded by a gentleman named WEH Lecky way back in the 19th century: The Expanding Circle. Lecky posited that there is a circle of beings who qualify for our moral consideration as equals, and that this circle has tended to expand through human history. In prehistoric times, we might have regarded just our family or our tribe as being part of that circle, and everyone else would have been ‘the other’. Other tribes, then other nations, other races, and so on. But through time, that circle expanded. It began to include other communities and races, and eventually included all of humanity itself. It is this expanding circle that led to the end of slavery, to women being allowed to vote, to the great immigrant nations across the world, like the US of A. And this circle is still expanding.

The philosopher Peter Singer, in fact, argues that one day animals will be within this circle. He believes that one day we will be as aghast at meat-eating as we are today when we look back at slavery or women not being allowed to vote and so on. For a person in the 23rd century, looking back at the 21st, it will seem as astonishing that we once killed animals for food as it does to us that the great apostle of liberty, Thomas Jefferson, once kept slaves.

At this point, it is worth considering why the expanding circle expands. To my mind, and I say this with sadness, the reasons are instrumental. The circle expands because incentives change. The two main factors driving this are Trade and Technology.

Economics teaches us that every human being can provide value to this world (comparative advantage) and that voluntary trade always leaves both parties better off, leading to a positive-sum game. If ‘The Other’ is working hard to improve our lives, and it is in our interest to improve theirs, for that is how we profit, then the circle is bound to expand to include them. Immigration is great not just because of moral reasons, but because it helps societies and economies flourish. The larger our circles are, in whatever sense, the better we do.

Technology also plays its part. Until recently, half of humanity – the female half – was deeply constrained because that’s just how the comparative advantage game played itself out. Housework and raising large families took so much time that it made economic sense for family units to specialise, and for women to stay at home and for men to go out and be bread-earners. This got codified in social norms, and thus women got forced into subsidiary roles. That changed in the 20th century. Firstly, household technology freed up huge chunks of women’s time. Secondly, birth control gave them, well, more control over their bodies. There is much to be said for good intentions, but women’s empowerment really happened because of technology, and so hurray for technology.

And hurray for technology one more time, because if our circle expands to include animals, it will do so not because of the benevolence of meat eaters around the world, but because growing meat may no longer require the killing of animals. And here, consider the consequences of all animal products being manufactured without animals being involved. The incentives around rearing farm animals will change entirely. And so one day, cows and pigs and chickens and goats may go extinct not because we ate them, but because we stopped. The irony is delicious.

Posted at 1:00 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Personal

04 January, 2016

The Halo of the Last Candle

The Monday Poem:

ADAGE
by Billy Collins

When it’s late at night and branches
are banging against the windows,
you might think that love is just a matter

of leaping out of the frying pan of yourself
into the fire of someone else,
but it’s a little more complicated than that.

It’s more like trading the two birds
who might be hiding in that bush
for the one you are not holding in your hand.

A wise man once said that love
was like forcing a horse to drink
but then everyone stopped thinking of him as wise.

Let us be clear about something.
Love is not as simple as getting up
on the wrong side of the bed wearing the emperor’s clothes.

No, it’s more like the way the pen
feels after it has defeated the sword.
It’s a little like the penny saved or the nine dropped stitches.

You look at me through the halo of the last candle
and tell me love is an ill wind
that has no turning, a road that blows no good,

but I am here to remind you,
as our shadows tremble on the walls,
that love is the early bird who is better late than never.

Posted at 10:50 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | The Monday Poem

21 December, 2015

The Mountain That Remains

The Monday Poem:

IMAGINARY NUMBER
by Vijay Seshadri

The mountain that remains when the universe is destroyed
is not big and is not small.
Big and small are

comparative categories, and to what
could the mountain that remains when the universe is destroyed
be compared?

Consciousness observes and is appeased.
The soul scrambles across the screes.
The soul,

like the square root of minus 1,
is an impossibility that has its uses.

Posted at 10:32 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | The Monday Poem

14 December, 2015

This Word Has Relatives

The Monday Poem:

STARTING A POEM
by Robert Bly

You’re alone. Then there’s a knock
On the door. It’s a word. You
Bring it in. Things go
OK for a while. But this word

Has relatives. Soon
They turn up. None of them work.
They sleep on the floor, and they steal
Your tennis shoes.

You started it; you weren’t
Content to leave things alone.
Now the den is a mess, and the
Remote is gone.

That’s what being married
Is like! You never receive your
Wife only, but the
Madness of her family.

Now see what’s happened?
Where is your car? You won’t
Be able to find
The keys for a week.

*  *  *

This poem is from the collection ‘Talking Into the Ear of a Donkey’.

Posted at 6:50 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | The Monday Poem

11 December, 2015

Looking Beyond Left and Right

This is the 23rd installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

One of the things that most exasperates me about Indian political discourse these days is that we often speak in terms of ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’. This is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, this is not how politicians themselves actually speak (unless they’re humouring the English-speaking media). Voters in India vote for a myriad of reasons, mostly local, and they don’t frame issues in terms of left or right. Therefore, neither do politicians when they speak to their constituencies, or when they strategise among each other. There is, thus, a disconnect between politics and political discourse. Many political commentators, unable or unwilling to engage with the complexities of the political economy, insist on imposing simplistic narratives.

But this would not matter if a left-right prism was useful in evaluating the desirability of policies, or provided a compass to gauge the moral or instrumental value of the actions of politicians. But it does not, which brings me to my second reason, which is not a local one. Across the world, framing issues in terms of left or right misses the central principle at stake in any modern society: that of individual rights, and of freedom. I view the world through a classical liberal (or libertarian, if you will) prism, and my liberalism boils down to a respect for individual freedom. On moral grounds alone, if we come from first principles, we should respect individual freedom above all else. From a consequentialist perspective, also, we should defend freedom, for economic freedom leads to material prosperity, and personal freedoms, such as freedom of speech, enrich our culture.

As a true liberal, I see no difference between economic and social freedoms. As I am fond of saying, once we accept that two consenting adults may do whatever they want with each other provided they infringe the rights of no one else, it should not matter whether they are fucking in a bedroom or trading in a marketplace. Interfering with either is wrong. And here’s the thing: parties on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum support infringements on individual freedom all the time.

Parties on the right tend to want to impose their cultural values on others, and are suspicious of those they view as ‘outsiders’. They don’t care much for free speech or other personal freedoms. Parties on the left tend to oppose economic freedom. They do so stating noble reasons, but all infringements of economic freedom amount to a redistribution of wealth from poor consumers to a rich interest group, so they’re either hypocrites or delusional. They also tend to favour big government, which means more taxation, and therefore more coercion.

If you believe, as I do, that coercion is wrong, then it won’t make a difference whether you look left or right, you’ll see coercion everywhere. A classical liberal opposes both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, both Prakash Karat and Mohan Bhagwat. (I would give credit to those guys for at least stating their positions clearly, though. Politicians down the ostensible middle, slaves to special interests as they mostly are, tend to be equally coercive and far more hypocritical.) Looking at the political marketplace, you will find that the options available to you aren’t all that different from each other. And why should they be? Even when they cater to different segments of the population, they’re still reacting to the same inevitably corrupting incentives at work in the political economy.

Here’s the funny thing about India in particular. We have conveniently classified the BJP as a right-wing party and the Congress as a left-wing party—but they’re both practically the same party. In terms of economics, both are left-wing, and oppose economic freedom. It might surprise you to hear me say this about the BJP, but forget their campaign rhetoric and consider their actual policies: Modi I is basically UPA III. Modi has the same top-down way of looking at the economy as any Congress leader before him, and he’s trigger-happy when it comes to imposing new taxes and cesses.

Equally, on social issues, the Congress was as right-wing as the BJP allegedly is. They have a stellar record when it comes to banning books, and it was a Congress government that effectively banned The Satanic Verses. Censorship flourished under their watch, as did attempts at social engineering, which weren’t restricted to the Emergency: odious policies on sterilisation still exist, decades after the emergency was called off. Even in terms of attacking other communities, the Congress set the standards: more people died in the 1984 riots than in the 2002 riots. My friend, the political commentator Nitin Pai, once coined a term that describes this jostling between the parties perfectly: ‘Competitive Intolerance’. This is quite the kind of competition that makes the poor ol’ free-marketer in me cringe!

To sum it up, India’s political parties tend to be left-wing on economics and right-wing on social issues. In other words, they oppose freedom in every sphere. I would be no more disheartened by this than India’s freedom fighters were in the first half on the last century, when they gazed up at the monolithic British empire. They gritted their teeth, and hurled themselves into the battle for our political freedom. Likewise, we must keep fighting till we win these other freedoms, and emerge as a free country at last. Not a left country, or a right country, but a free country.

Posted at 2:03 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics

10 December, 2015

Chutiya vs Dhakkan

So at a party last evening, I quoted Hanlon’s Razor to somebody:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

‘Say it in Hindi, say it in Hindi,’ my hosts implored. ‘Tu angrezi mein bahut bak-bak karta hai!

So this is what I came up with:

Tum yeh na samjho ki woh chutiya hai. Woh sirf dhakkan hai!

I have to now admit that it sounds much better in Hindi.

Posted at 1:28 PM by Amit Varma in Miscellaneous

09 December, 2015

Honk, Mr Gadkari

NDTV reports:

A road near Delhi notorious for hours’ long traffic jams has finally found the right victim. After stewing in a two-hour jam last night, Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari has ordered a solution within 24 hours.

“We are studying the traffic of Delhi and the report will come to me in 15 days. We will identify the black spots of Delhi and also inform the Delhi government. We will jointly solve this traffic jam problem,” Mr Gadkari told reporters today.

I have two observations to make here. One, you will note that Gadkari has ‘ordered a solution within 24 hours,’ and to make it happen, has commissioned a report that will be ready ‘in 15 days.’ This is delicious. If Kafka made this up, you’d wag your finger at him and say, ‘Now now Franz, you’ve gone too far this time.’

The other observation must have struck you as well. So Gadkari, who is the road transport minister, realises there is a traffic problem only when he is personally stuck in traffic? Is that what it takes for a minister to truly realise the problems a country faces. Will Arun Jaitley start worrying about rising prices only when he himself is unable to afford onions? Will Birender Singh, the minister for drinking water and sanitation, wake up to the urgency of the problem in India when he himself gets jaundice? Otherwise it’s academic, stuff that written in files, push ‘em around, keep pushing, push harder?

You could argue that this question is moot in the case of our education minister, who is herself uneducated. I suppose that’s a good start.

Posted at 1:06 PM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics | WTF

08 December, 2015

Mr Hollande Meets His Match

Narendra Modi and Anil Kapoor walk into a bar. The president of France is sitting there, nursing a drink with Barack Obama, who decides to introduce them.

‘Hello, Mr Modi,’ Obama says, ‘meet my friend, Mr Hollande.’

‘Hello, Mr Obama,’ says Modi. ‘Meet my friend, Mr India.’

*

By and by, I think the French President’s name might have caused this little mix-up.

Posted at 4:32 PM by Amit Varma in Miscellaneous

Have an Omelette

Does it make any sense for a government to apologize for wrongs committed decades, even centuries, earlier? Don Boudreaux thinks not:

Imagine if we conducted our personal affairs as governments conduct their affairs: even the most atrocious and grievous wrongs that we commit would be apologized for, not by those of us who commit the offenses, but only by our grandchildren or great-grandchildren – people who had no hand at all in the commission of the now-formally-apologized-for wrong.  Who would take such apologies seriously?  “Great-great-grandchildren of armed robber apologizes for their ancestors’ wrongful acts.”  How meaningless can an apology be?

I like that way of thinking, actually. Let’s continue down that road of what would happen if you conducted your personal affairs as governments conduct theirs. Say you forcibly took 30% of the earnings of every person in your housing society, offering in return your notional protection. You set down norms of behaviour, including who can visit them and if they themselves are allowed to leave the premises. Maybe you don’t allow them to drink alcohol; or eat beef; or speak their mind freely. You regulate what they may or may not buy from the market, and you get a piece of whatever they purchase. If they buy 12 eggs, two come to you. Have an omelette.

I could go on forever, but here’s the thing: If you actually behaved the way a government does, you’d be treated as a thug by society, and locked up by the government, which would consider you competition, and would naturally like to have a monopoly on that kind of behaviour. Ah, but you now protest, I am stretching it too far. All of us signed a social contract. And it is legitimate for the government to behave in this way.

Well, I didn’t sign any contract. And why is it legitimate?

Posted at 4:06 PM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Small thoughts

Taken at the Flood

This is class:

Sex workers from Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district dipped into their savings and survived on just one meal a day to collect Rs 1 lakh as a donation towards relief work in rain-ravaged Chennai. [...]

Of the around 3,000 sex workers in the district in western Maharashtra, almost 2,000 contributed to the relief fund, Snehalaya founder Girish Kulkarni said.

“These women were restless when they came to know of the deluge in Chennai. They decided that they should do something to help residents there… We are in touch with Delhi-based NGO Goonj for ensuring further relief to the people of Chennai,” he added.

And this is crass:

There is something terribly unfair about this world. That is fine, the dice drops where it does, this is how it is. But if you, reading, this, are a believer, tell me this: where the fuck is your god?

Posted at 2:53 PM by Amit Varma in India | News | Small thoughts

07 December, 2015

The Damp Forbidden Musk

The Monday Poem:

EVOLUTION
By Eliza Griswold

Was it dissatisfaction or hope
that beckoned some of the monkeys
down from the trees and onto the damp
forbidden musk of the forest floor?

Which one tested his thumbs
against the twig
and awkwardly dug a grub
from the soil?

What did the tribe above think
as it leaned on the slender branches
watching the others
frustrated, embarrassed,
but pinching grubs
with leathery fingers
into their mouths?

The moral is movement
is awkward. The lesson is fumble.

Posted at 8:34 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | The Monday Poem

04 December, 2015

How to Keep Wild Boars at Bay

The Times of India reports:

In a funny and bizarre turn of events, farmers in Uttarakhand are using Honey Singh’s music to scare away wild boars.

And guess what? It’s actually working! As per a report, farmers have now started playing Honey Singh’s songs on loudspeakers and not just boars even other wild animals have stopped coming to the field. [...]

Not only this, farmers have said that they often play bhajans and other Punjabi songs in high volumes and it has the same effect on wild animals as Honey Singh’s music.

That last line gives it away. It’s not Honey Singh’s music in particular that the wild boars are objecting to, but loud music in general. Boars, being more cultured than humans in at least this one aspect, like their peace and quiet.

A further data point to buttress my case: I have never come across a wild boar during a rock concert, or during Ganpati in Mumbai.

Now, if only it was as easy to drive away wild bores.

Posted at 11:01 AM by Amit Varma in India | News | WTF

03 December, 2015

Arvind Kejriwal vs Santa and Banta

First Post has a headline right now that says: “Kejriwal speaks out against ‘Santa-Banta’, supports plea to ban jokes on Sikh community.”

Kejriwal is doing this, no doubt, because AAP intends to stand for elections in Punjab, and he’s taking what he hopes will be a popular line there. This illustrates what I’ve said all along about the man: he only cares about power, not principle, and will take whatever populist line gets him votes. His opposition to FDI in retail was one example of how he’s against economic freedom. (Such opposition amounts to redistributing wealth from poor consumers to a specific rich interest group, as I pointed out here.) And now we find that he doesn’t believe in free speech either. He’ll do whatever it takes to get votes.

In this, he is no different from any other politician. But he projects himself as being different, which is why pointing out this aspect of his character is important. The politician Kejriwal reminds me of most is the vile Indira Gandhi. And as I wrote recently, Narendra Modi also reminds me of Indira in some ways. Talk about picking a bipartisan role model!

Posted at 4:47 PM by Amit Varma in Freedom | India | Politics

01 December, 2015

Where Your Taxes Go: 48

Towards advertising in The Organiser, the RSS magazine.

As India Explained remarked, Achhe Din.

Really, all that a change in government means is that a different set of thugs gets to loot you.

(For more on how our government loots us, click here.)

Posted at 10:49 AM by Amit Varma in India | Old memes | Taxes | Politics

30 November, 2015

Delicate Cages

The Monday Poem:

TAKING THE HANDS
by Robert Bly

Taking the hands of someone you love,
You see they are delicate cages . . .
Tiny birds are singing
In the secluded prairies
And in the deep valleys of the hand.

Posted at 7:35 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | The Monday Poem

Uber and Governance

Anant Rangaswami tweets:

I love Uber, as much for what it is as what it represents. But here’s the thing: Uber functions because its marketplace is competitive. When it comes to most of the services the government provides, though, the government has a monopoly. The greatest incentive for any organisation to function well comes from competition, and the need to excel in order to survive. In areas that the government has a monopoly, I predict, it will fail—as indeed ours has for 68 years. You cannot change the level of service until you change the incentives.

Posted at 7:02 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Freedom | India

The Real Issue Regarding The National Anthem

There’s an interesting video that seems to have gone viral on social media showing a bunch of hooligans in a film theatre haranguing (and eventually ejecting) a couple who did not stand when the national anthem was played. Some people on Twitter appear to think that this is an issue of patriotism. Well, no it isn’t. It’s an issue of individual freedom and coercion.

In some jurisdictions in the country, it is compulsory to stand when the national anthem is played. This compulsion by the government is something I object to. People should be free to stand if they feel like; and to not stand if they don’t want to. Your patriotism should not be measured by your empty allegiance to a mere symbol; and in fact, it should be nobody’s business whether you are patriotic or not.

Also, when you watch the video linked to above, consider that the people being unpatriotic are not the ones who didn’t stand for the anthem, but the ones insisting that they should have. The idea of India that I subscribe to is one in which India being a free country means that all its citizens are free from the kind of coercion and goondagardi that we see in that video. The mob in that video pretending to be patriotic—they are traitors in my eyes. Whether they stood for the anthem or not.

In fact, it is a travesty that the theatre management did not intervene on behalf of the two ticket-paying patrons who were forced out of that hall. As for those hooligans, they should have been arrested for creating such a disturbance on someone else’s property.

*

By and by, I was a panelist on We The People, Barkha Dutt’s show, at the start of 2008 in which the topic for discussion was exactly this: national symbols, and whether there should be any holy cows. Towards the end of the show, Barkha asked each of her panelists for a response on whether India should have holy cows. My response, about 47:50 into the show:

The only kind of holy cow I believe in is one from which you get a divine steak.

My co-panelist Smriti Irani met me backstage after the show and told me that I’d better be careful about making such jokes about an animal that is the object of reverence for Hindus. I think she was educating me about the dangers of blaspheming publicly, and as such, her post as education minister in a BJP government seems quite apt.

Posted at 1:17 PM by Amit Varma in Freedom | India | Politics

Carlsen 1, Fischer 0

In an excellent feature on Magnus Carlsen in the Telegraph, Nigel Farndale writes:

He [Carlsen] has always been interested in the history of chess and has had the chance to play both Karpov and Kasparov, two legends of the game. But if he could play anyone in history who would it be? ‘I think the top ones would be Fischer and Capablanca, maybe Mikhail Tal, but I think I would beat Tal pretty easily. Fischer would be more difficult, but I think I could beat him too.’

Carlsen isn’t being arrogant, just honest. And here’s the thing: he’s unquestionably right. Chess is actually that one sport where the best player of the current generation is likely to be the best ever in objective terms. That is because the body of knowledge expands enormously with every generation, as do the tools of analysis (and therefore preparation). If Fischer at his 1972 peak met the Carlsen of today, he would be bound to lose. Indeed, I believe he would lose to some other top players as well, such as Caruana and Nakamura, simply because they’d be much better prepped. Of course, if Fischer was born in the same year as Carlsen, it could be a different story. But that’s a counterfactual, and all we have to go by is the games they actually played. So Carlsen is right.

I think when he doesn’t speak of Kasparov, he’s just being respectful. Kasparov coached him at one point, and bumps into Carlsen now and then as a grandee in the chess circuit, and Carslen would want to avoid awkwardness. But I have no doubt he believes he can beat Kasparov as well.

*

We will find out in March which of eight contenders takes on Carlsen for the World Championship later next year. Whoever it is, Carlsen will be favourite to win. But he does, according to me, have one weakness: his tendency, in poker terms, to go on tilt. Here’s an old piece I wrote about it, though Anand sadly could not capitalise.

*

And ah, Farndale also writes in his piece:

For someone who exhibits phenomenal powers of concentration at the chessboard – he is capable of calculating ‘lines’ that are 30 to 40 moves ahead – Magnus Carlsen is easily bored.

I hate to quibble, but Farndale is wrong here. No human can actually calculate 30 to 40 moves ahead accurately. In fact, as a famous study once demonstrated, experts actually calculate the same number of moves ahead as novices do—but they calculate the right ones. This is not a glib remark: grandmasters have a far wider understanding of recurring patterns on the chess board and motifs than lesser players do, and this knowledge is implicit, their responses to it instinctive. So a top GM would not even consider some lines a lesser IM might, and an IM would instantly see things on the board that would escape me completely. But we’d all see the same number of moves ahead!

Posted at 10:59 AM by Amit Varma in Sport

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