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My Friend Sancho

My first novel, My Friend Sancho, is now on the stands across India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.


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And ah, my posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.


Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Economics

Politics = Bribery

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

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

POLITICS

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

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

Beyond Moral Hazard

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

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

Redistributive Bribery

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

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

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

One: Direct Subsidy to a Vote Bank

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

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

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

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

Two: Direct Subsidy to an Interest Group

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

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

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

Three: Regulation to Favour Vote Banks

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

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

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

Four: Regulation to Favour Interest Groups

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

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

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

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

Concentrated Benefits and Diffuse Costs

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

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

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

What’s the Plan of Action?

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

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

*

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 June, 2017 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics


Wonder Woman, the God of War and Public Choice Economics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Choice Economics

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

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

Incentives, Incentives, Incentives

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

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

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

The Money Incentive

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

image

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

The Bureaucrat’s Incentive

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

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

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

Two: “Officials make work for each other.”

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

The Politician’s Incentive

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

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

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

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

The Legal Mafia

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

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

Government Failure

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

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

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

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

The Problem is not the People

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

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

The God we need

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 June, 2017 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds


Legalise Prostitution to Fight Trafficking

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

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

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

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

The Moral Dimension of Banning Prostitution

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

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

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

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

The Practical Impact of Banning Prostitution

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

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

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

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

Prostitution vs Trafficking

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

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

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

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

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

What does legal prostitution look like?

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

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 June, 2017 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom


One Tax To Rule Them All

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

GST

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

OVERDOSE

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

*

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 May, 2017 in Economics | India | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes | Sport


Here’s What It Means To Not Own Your Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 May, 2017 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | The Rationalist


Whose Money is it Anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is government.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 May, 2017 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics


The Seen and the Unseen: Episodes 11 to 16

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

Episode 16: Artificial Intelligence

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

Episode 15: Kannada Dubbing Ban

 

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

Episode 14: Rent Control

 

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

Episode 13: The Anti-Defection Law

 

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

Episode 12: Futures Markets in Agriculture

 

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

Episode 11: FSI (Floor Space Index)

 

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 May, 2017 in Economics | India | Podcast | Politics | The Seen and the Unseen


The Seen and the Unseen: Episodes 6 to 10

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

Episode 10: Digital India

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

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

Episode 9: The Profit Motive in Education

 

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

Episode 8: The Medical Council of India

 

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

Episode 7: MRP

 

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

Episode 6: Surgical Strikes

 

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 March, 2017 in Economics | India | Podcast | Politics | The Seen and the Unseen


The Return of Pragati

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

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

Watch that space!.

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 March, 2017 in Economics | Freedom | India | Media | Personal | Politics


The Baptist, the Bootlegger and the Dead Man Walking

This is the 35th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Appearances can be deceptive. I saw two Bollywood films recently that evoked different reactions in me. One was supposed to be gritty, realistic and well-researched, but actually showed completely ignorance of the world it was set in. Another had a small story at the start of it that seemed outlandish, the product of an imagination gone wild, but was spot on. Sometimes the most obvious truth can be a falsehood; and the most surreal story can be true.

Let’s start with the believable story. Shah Rukh Khan plays a bootlegging gangster in Raees, a film directed by Rahul Dholakia, who had made the acclaimed Parzania ten years ago. Raees looks real, and some reviews called it well-researched, but this is a façade. The writers seem to have no actual knowledge of the criminal underworld and the political economy in Gujarat. While the film is full of implausible events, one particular arc gives it away.

You would imagine that a man who sells alcohol would be the enemy of the man who wants alcohol to be banned. So when a sanctimonious politician plans to carry out a Darubandi Yatra (pro-prohibition march) through Gujarat, Raees Alam, our hero bootlegger, warns him not to bring it through his area. He fears it will affect his business. This seems intuitive and natural. These men are working at cross-purposes, right?

Well, in the real world, these men are allies. Prohibition is the greatest boon to a bootlegger. It is the main reason he exists. And a politician who supports prohibition should be his greatest ally. He should support him to the point of funding him, and even share his profits with him. This is best illustrated, in economics, by the concept of Bootleggers and Baptists.

The regulatory economist Bruce Yandle first coined the phrase ‘Bootleggers and Baptists’. It describes how regulations evolve, and how the different interest groups that benefit from them become unlikely allies. For example, take a Baptist who preaches that alcohol is evil, and makes sure it is banned. Where there is demand, supply will spring up, so enter the Bootlegger.

Bootleggers and Baptists share a symbiotic relationship. In Yandle’s words, “Baptists flourish when their moral message forms a visible foundation for political action. […] Bootleggers, who expect to profit from the very regulatory restrictions desired by Baptists, grease the political machinery with some of their expected proceeds.” In other words, not only are their incentives aligned, they might sometimes be overtly hand-in-glove as well, with the Bootlegger funding the Baptist.

Look at the regulation around you, and you will see Bootleggers and Baptists everywhere. Every government regulation on free markets benefits a specific interest group at the expense of the common people. These interest groups then funnel some of their gains back into politics, in the form of donations to the very politicians who create, perpetuate and expand these regulations. It is a vicious cycle in which the common man gets shafted.

Let’s move on, now, to a better movie. Akshay Kumar’s entertaining Jolly LLB 2 gets a few details wrong about the legal system, but the most outrageous story in the film is actually true. Jolly LLB, played with impeccable comic timing by Kumar, takes on a case at the start of the film on behalf of a man who’s been declared dead by his family so that they can take his property. All government papers say he’s dead, and the judge refuses to believe that he is alive. He needs proof that he exists, and he eventually gets it by throwing a shoe at the judge. (This scene was censored, so you won’t actually see it, just the commotion afterwards.) The cops have to record his name as they arrest him, and boom, that becomes the proof that he’s looking for.

Surreal, eh? You haven’t heard the half of it. This story is actually all a true story – and if anything, understates it. Its inspiration is surely a gentleman named Lal Bihari, a farmer from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. Lal Bihari was born in 1951 – and was told by a government officer in 1976 that he was dead, and that his land now belonged to his cousins. “But I am here before you,” he said, as reported in Open magazine. ““You know me. I have met you before.” But nothing doing, he had no proof that he was alive.

That’s only where the story begins. Lal Bihari renamed himself Lal Bihari Mritak (dead man), and went about proving himself alive. To do this, he organised his own funeral (Munnabhai style), applied for compensation for his ‘widow’, threw stones at a police station so that he would get arrested and his existence would be recorded, kidnapped his cousin, and finally, stood for election.

He took on VP Singh from Allahabad in 1988 and Rajiv Gandhi from Amethi in 1989, but dead men don’t win elections, and he didn’t either. By this time, he found that there were many others in the ranks of the walking dead, and founded the Uttar Pradesh Mritak Sangh, an association of legally dead people. At last count, they had 20,000 members, of whom four had managed to come back to life. One of them was Lal Bihari. From 1994 he was no longer Mritak, and when he really dies, I bet the authorities will be, like, been there done that.

You can’t make this shit up, right? Bollywood filmmakers should learn this lesson from Jolly LLB and Lal Bihari Mritak: real life has all the great stories you need. Just dig into that.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 February, 2017 in Arts and entertainment | Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics


The Seen and the Unseen 5: This Is All Because Of Rupal Ben

This is the fifth episode of my weekly podcast, The Seen and the Unseen.

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.

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 February, 2017 in Economics | India | Podcast | Politics | The Seen and the Unseen


The Landscape of Freedom in India

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.

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 February, 2017 in Economics | Freedom | India | Personal | Politics


The One Good Thing You Did Not Know Trump Was Doing

This is a guest column published today in the Sunday Times of India edit page.

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.

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 February, 2017 in Economics | India | Politics


The Seen and the Unseen Episode 4: Immigration

This is the fourth episode of my weekly podcast, The Seen and the Unseen.

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).

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 February, 2017 in Economics | Podcast | Politics | The Seen and the Unseen


The Seen and the Unseen Episode 3: GST

This is the third episode of my weekly podcast, The Seen and the Unseen.

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.

Posted by Amit Varma on 31 January, 2017 in Economics | India | Podcast | Politics | The Seen and the Unseen


The Seen and the Unseen Episode Two: Demonetisation

This is the second episode of my weekly podcast, The Seen and the Unseen.

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

Follow them at their Twitter handles, @amitvarma and @suyashrai.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 January, 2017 in Economics | India | Podcast | Politics | The Seen and the Unseen


The Seen and the Unseen Episode One: Entry and Exit in Agriculture

This is the first episode of my weekly podcast, The Seen and the Unseen.

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.

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 January, 2017 in Economics | India | Podcast | Politics | The Seen and the Unseen


The Seen and the Unseen: the lens that Bastiat made

Cross-posted from the blog of The Seen and the Unseen, my new weekly podcast.

In 1848, a French economist named Frédéric Bastiat, 47-years-old at the time, wrote a seminal essay titled ‘That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen’. The essay began with these words:

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!

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 January, 2017 in Economics | Personal | Podcast | The Seen and the Unseen


Three Reasons Why A Cashless Society Would Be A Disaster

This is a guest column published today in the Sunday Times of India edit page.

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.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 December, 2016 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Science and Technology


The Rise and Fall of Emperor Modi

This is the 33rd installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

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:

Narendra Modi takes a Great Leap Backwards

Modi Goes to Daulatabad

The Humanitarian Cost Trumps Any Economic Argument

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 November, 2016 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics


The Humanitarian Cost Trumps Any Economic Argument

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.

Some links:

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.

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 November, 2016 in Economics | Freedom | India | Politics


Narendra Modi takes a Great Leap Backwards

This is a guest column published today in the Sunday Times of India edit page.

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.

*

Also read:

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’.

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 November, 2016 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | News | Politics


A Week of Upheaval

This is the 22nd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

ORANGE MAN

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.

CURRENCY

On Tuesday, India underwent
Surgical strikes that were meant to dent
All unaccounted gains.
Still the question remains,
Who will account for the government?

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 November, 2016 in Economics | India | News | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes


Modi Goes To Daulatabad

This is the 32nd installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

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?

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 November, 2016 in Economics | India | Lighthouse | Politics


Who Pays The Cricketers?

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.

Posted by Amit Varma on 31 October, 2016 in Economics | Sport


To Defeat Pakistan’s Generals, Let’s Embrace Their Artists

This is a guest column published today in the Sunday Times of India edit page.

I am a hawk when it comes to India-Pakistan relations. We have been suffering from cross-border terrorism for decades, and need to take a hard line towards our enemies. Every day our soldiers risk their lives for the country, and we must honour their service. For this reason, it infuriates me when people within India commit acts against the national interest. Expelling Pakistani artists from Bollywood is one such anti-national act.

To win a war, we must know our enemy. Here, it is both correct and incorrect to say that Pakistan is that enemy. Like India, Pakistan is many things, and contains multitudes. For the sake of analysis, let’s break it down and look at three different Pakistans, and consider, as economists would, their interests and incentives. (One can drill down deeper and say that there are as many Pakistans as there are Pakistanis, but let’s keep it simple.)

One, there is the Pakistan military establishment, which nurtures various militant groups. The military will always be hostile to us, because the conflict with India is the source of its power and influence. Two, there is Pakistan’s political establishment. The only thing politicians care about is getting to power and staying there. In a democracy, politicians depend on the people for their power, but Pakistan is no more a true democracy than General Raheel Sharif is my aunt. The political class in Pakistan has always been at the mercy of the military establishment.

Finally, there is Pakistan’s civil society. Their interests are the interests of people everywhere, including in India. They want to be prosperous and happy, and to enjoy the good life. Conflict is not in their interest: war of any kind is a negative-sum game, and everyone is a loser. But Pakistan’s civil society is weak compared to the military. Their interests are opposed to each other, and Pakistan’s economy is in such a dire state because their military and political establishments have always kept their own interests ahead of that of the people.

The power of the military and civil society are inversely proportional to each other, because influence within a country is a zero-sum game. The stronger the military, the weaker civil society—and vice versa. Since the military establishment drives the conflict with India, it is in our interests to weaken them. One path to this, it follows, is by strengthening Pakistan’s civil society. How do we go about it?

One way is trade. For civil society to be strong, it helps to be prosperous. (This is one reason why military dictatorships are more likely in poor countries.) Trade is a win-win game, so by keeping trade lines open with Pakistan, we benefit ourselves, and empower Pakistan’s people. The greater their dependencies on trade, the fewer their incentives for conflict.

Another way of changing these incentives is by cultural exchange. There is much rhetoric and brainwashing, on both sides of the border, that demonizes the other side. But the more cultural exposure Indians and Pakistanis have to each other, the more we realise how much we have in common, and the less we get taken in by the rhetoric. If you nurture the constituency for peace in Pakistan, you reduce the constituency of hate. And as the people shift, so do the incentives of the politicians. Banning Pakistani actors from working in Bollywood, for whatever tokenistic reasons, raises the temperature and helps their military establishment. Why would you help the enemy?

None of this is new thinking in foreign policy circles. In terms of trade, India unilaterally gave Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to Pakistan in 1996. And while I am usually critical of Narendra Modi, his handling of the post-Uri fallout has been pitch-perfect. In his speech at Kozhikode, he took a hard line when he spoke of avenging the deaths of our soldiers, but also chose to pointedly address the people of Pakistan directly. “Ask your leaders,” he said, “both our countries got freedom together, so why does India export software and your country export terrorists?” He added, “That day is not far off when the people of Pakistan will get in the fray to fight against their leaders.”

This is clever on Modi’s part, but chest-thumping pseudo-nationalists, including many in his own party, do not understand these nuances. This is something that happens often with Modi. He talks the high road, but his minions walk the low road. (He often talked the low road as well while campaigning, but let that be for now.) I’ve often wondered why he allows this. Is he trying to be all things to all people? Is it some good-cop-bad-cop strategy? Whatever be his strategy on Pakistan, this too is a matter he must resolve.

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 October, 2016 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics


The God Delusion of Arvind Kejriwal

A slightly shorter version of this was published as the 30th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

In theory, a devout politician is a good thing. A politician who believes in God seems to accept the existence of an entity more powerful than himself, and that should be a reassuring thought to Indian voters. We have plenty of devout politicians here, and while the ones in the ruling party are most vocal about it, opposition politicians aren’t far behind. Take Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, for example.

When he was sworn in as chief minister at the Ramlila Maidan, Kejriwal repeatedly thanked God for his newfound status. “I thank the Supreme Father, Ishwar, Allah, Waheguru,” he breathlessly proclaimed, trying to cover all bases. And in case the concerned gods missed it, he later said, “This victory is not because of us. It is a miracle, and I thank Bhagwan, Ishwar and Allah.” (At this point, I can imagine Bhagwan turning to Allah and saying, “Dude, any idea what he’s talking about? I thought I was Ishwar!” And Allah replies, “Dunno, man. I’m just a party worker.”)

Kejriwal’s stated piety isn’t restricted to the major religions. He recently came out in support of the Jain monk Tarun Sagar after the musician Vishal Dadlani made fun of him. Kejriwal tweeted: “Tarun Sagar ji Maharaj is a very revered saint, not just for Jains but everyone. Those showing disrespect is unfortunate and should stop.” (The last sentence is stunningly convoluted, and we all know what Orwell said about clarity in speech correlating with clarity in thinking.)

Now, Kejriwal was reportedly an atheist before he came to politics, and it is natural to suspect that this new-found piety is part of the populism he’s embraced. But let that pass. In this column I will argue that there is one religion that he truly, deeply, madly does believe in, and it is the most dangerous religion of all. It is the religion of government.

Contrary to popular belief, the majority religion in India is not Hinduism but the religion of government. We have been brought up believing that if there is any problem in this world, government can solve it. If there is a social ill, ban it. If prices are too high, pass a law demanding that they be kept low. If there aren’t enough jobs out there, create jobs by legislation so that people can earn an honest living. And so on.

I call this, with apologies to Richard Dawkins, the God Delusion of Government. Devotees of this particular religion believe, like devotees of any other, that reality is subject to the whims and fancies of their God. To change the state of the world, God needs to merely decree it, or government needs to pass a law, and boom, reality changes. Water turns to amrut, copper to gold.

This kind of God delusion isn’t restricted to India. A recent example of a country ruined by it is Venezuela, which has been ravaged by the socialist policies of Hugo Chavez. Venezuela was lucky to be oil-rich, but unlucky to have Chavez as a leader, who tried social engineering on a vast scale. One of his pet schemes: price controls on all essential commodities. (If something should be cheaper, let’s make a law mandating it.) This led, as econ 101 would predict, to shortages, so much so that Venezuela’s queues became legendary. The current government, perturbed that these queues were embarrassing the country, hit upon an innovative solution. It banned queues.

I’m not kidding. They really banned queues, and when I read that news, I thought of Kejriwal, because that’s exactly what he would do.
Kejriwal thrives on finding the simplest possible solution to every problem through the Godlike intervention of government. He has no grasp on reality, though, and no understanding of how such interventions typically play out. Most tellingly, like Chavez and other socialists, he simply doesn’t understand how the price system works.

Left to themselves, prices are determined by supply and demand. If the demand for a product or service outstrips supply, the price goes up. This rising price acts as a signal to potential suppliers, and they are incentivised to fill the gap. Similarly, if demand goes down, the price goes down, and suppliers start moving their efforts to where they would be more valued. We can only make a living by fulfilling the needs of others, and the price system gives us the information and the incentives to do this most efficiently. But for this, it has to be left to itself. If these signals are distorted, the system falls apart.

Now, Uber’s surge pricing is a fantastic mechanism to speed up the process of price discovery. But Kejriwal decided that people were being fleeced by high prices, and decided to ban surge pricing. The ban didn’t last long, because there was an immediate shortage of cabs, just as econ 101 would predict.

What happens when you put a price cap on something is that it becomes first-come-first-serve, and after the first lucky bunch get it, it doesn’t matter how urgent your need is, it’s not available at all. More crucially, the rising price that would act as both information and incentive now no longer does so, and other suppliers don’t rush to fit the shortfall.

While that experiment didn’t last long, Kejriwal moved from price ceiling to price floor. He announced an increase in the minimum wage in Delhi, to Rs 14k a month. Now, this sounds most compassionate, but is a government diktat enough? If it was, why not, say, make the minimum wage in Delhi Rs 10 lakhs a month? Wouldn’t Delhi instantly become the richest city in the world?

The answer is obvious. Such a law would merely put everyone whose work was worth less than 10 lakhs out of a job, and most businesses would shut down. Similarly, if the minimum wage set is Rs 14k, it effectively renders everyone whose labour is worth less than that unemployable by decree. Businesses are forced to discriminate against anyone they’d pay 13k a month or less, and it is the poorest of the poor who would bear the brunt of this. The law would hurt those it purported to help. (Being the country of jugaad, all workers below the minimum wage level will simply be shifted to the informal sector, and government inspectors will get a higher hafta than before. But it is no defence of a bad law to say that peeps will find a way to work around it.)

For anyone who isn’t economically illiterate, these effects are predictable. A price cap (or ceiling) inflates demand relative to supply, and a shortage in supply is inevitable. A price floor inevitably decreases demand and leads to excess supply—or, in this case, more unemployment.

The laws of economics, such as that of prices, and supply and demand, are as immutable as those of physics. So why are such interventions so popular then? A key reason is that the laws of physics can be tested and proved in controlled environments, but you can’t do that with the laws of economics. Data is noisy, other variables abound, and all sides can point to ‘evidence’ with spurious correlations. So those who believe in such simplistic interventions continue with them, because it makes them feel (and seem) compassionate.

Kejriwal has a record of taking the high moral ground with self-righteous positions, and strikes a chord with common people by identifying many problems correctly. But his suggested solutions usually make the problems worse, as in the case of his anti-corruption crusade, or the different price controls he has championed. A good question to ask here is, Does he actually believe that such interventions work, or does he not give a damn about that, only wanting to take a position that gets him most votes from the economically illiterate masses? In other words, is he a devout fool or a devout scoundrel? Hanlon’s Razor states, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” In Kejriwal’s case, I’m not so sure. But he’s devout all right, so God help us.

*  *  *

For more on minimum wages in general, I find this explanation by Milton Friedman to be particularly lucid. Linda Gorman’s piece on it at Econlib is also a decent short primer on the subject.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 September, 2016 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics


National Highway 420 (and the EV of Aggressive Batting)

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

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

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

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

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

*

Four days later, I Whatsapp him.

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

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

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

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

M: Oh.

F: But these bloody games are fixed!

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

*

I call him after eight games.

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

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

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

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

M: Are you saying the bookies fixed it?

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

M: Er, well, look, I did tell you…

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

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

F: Amit, shut up! You know nothing!

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 April, 2016 in Economics | Sport


Uber and the Auto-Driver

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

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

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

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

Shoaib Daniyal makes the same point on Twitter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 April, 2016 in Economics | Freedom | India | News | Politics


What Cricket Can Learn From Economics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

Also read:

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

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

The New Face of Cricket (2015)

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 April, 2016 in Economics | Lighthouse | Sport


Once There Was A Beautiful Cow

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 April, 2016 in Economics | Freedom | India | Old memes | Cows | Politics | Rhymes


Take From The Poor, Give To The Rich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

1. Ignore the rhetoric.

2. See who it helps.

3. See who it hurts.

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

*  *  *

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 31 March, 2016 in Economics | India | News | Politics


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 by Amit Varma on 10 March, 2016 in Economics | India | News | Politics | WTF


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 by Amit Varma on 10 February, 2016 in Economics | India | News | Sport


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 by Amit Varma on 18 January, 2016 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 by Amit Varma on 18 January, 2016 in Economics | Freedom | India | News


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 by Amit Varma on 08 January, 2016 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Personal


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 by Amit Varma on 11 December, 2015 in Economics | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics


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 by Amit Varma on 30 November, 2015 in Economics | Freedom | India


Where Your Taxes Go: 47

To Africa.

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 November, 2015 in Economics | India | News | Old memes | Taxes


Uber Regulation

Abhinav Singh has a good post up about how the Government of Maharashtra is proposing to regulate Uber. As you’d expect, there are vested interests behind this: the existing taxi industry, which feels threatened by the new operators, as indeed they should, because the new operators are proving more value to consumers. So they go to the government.

As I’d written here, all interventions in the free market amount to a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. Any regulations here will end up as exactly that. The value that consumers would have gained from the unhindered operation of Uber and Ola will be redistributed away to the older taxi operators. You really don’t need to ask what’s in this for the government, do you?

If this makes you angry, do go sign Uber’s petition. I’m usually skeptical of online petitions and candlelight vigils and so on, but this is a petition directly from one of the affected parties, and there is a non-zero probability that it will make a difference.

*

An earlier piece on Uber: The Price is Right.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 October, 2015 in Economics | Freedom | India | News | Politics


The Fatal Conceit of the Indian Politician

A shorter version of this was published as the 22nd installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

‘I’m not conceited. Conceit is a fault and I have no faults.’ Imagine this quote on an internet meme, alongside a picture of Narendra Modi, looking dapper in that famous pinstripe suit, or maybe a trademark Modi kurta. It would surely get thousands of shares on social media, many from bhakts impressed by the prime minister’s modesty. Don’t rush to share it, though: as one tends to do on the internet, I just misattributed. Those words were not uttered by Modi, or even Oscar Wilde or GB Shaw. The man who said them is former Van Halen singer Dave Lee Roth, with his back against a record machine. But Modi could have said them, could he not?

Please don’t think I am picking on Narendrabhai alone. All politicians are vain. Indeed, one could argue that in politics, vanity is a feature and not a bug. Politicians come to power by selling specific narratives about their excellence; and they can sell it most effectively if they believe it themselves. Success in many fields often begins, comically and ironically, with self-delusion. But politicians have consequences, and there’s nothing comic about that.

One reason that India is still a poor country is the ‘fatal conceit’ of our founding fathers. Jawaharlal Nehru, and his minions and successors, believed that economies were best planned from the top down. An economy is a complex thing, the poor and ignorant masses of India surely could not be trusted to perform this task by themselves, and needed to be directed by wise and benevolent planners. Those who have studied economics or paid attention to history know that this was foolish and wrong.

Economies, like languages, are products of “human action but not human design,” in the words of Adam Ferguson. They function brilliantly on their own, with millions of individuals pursuing their self-interest, and thus increasing the value in the lives of others, for that is the only path to profit. Planning is not only not required, it is an impediment. A central planner can never get a grasp on the huge amount of dispersed knowledge in an economy, and any intervention is bound to lead to a loss in efficiency. This hurts the poor the most: as I illustrated in a previous column, every intervention in a free market amounts to a distribution of wealth from the poor to the rich.

Nehru suffered from a disease that Friedrich Hayek called the Fatal Conceit. His coining of that term was inspired by the following passage in Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “The man of system […] is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.”

People are not chess pieces, of course, and Nehru and his successors ravaged the economy with their well-intentioned interventions. I won’t recite the litany, but here’s the thing: 68 years after we became independent, 24 after the Soviet Union collapsed, we are still enslaved by a failed philosophy. And we’re still suffering because of the fatal conceit of flawed individuals.

It amuses me sometimes that Modi is considered a right-wing politician. He actually embodies the worst of both left and right. Like his party, and the ecosystem of religious nutjobs that sustains it, he is right-wing on social issues; and left on economic ones. Basically, he is against individual freedom in every domain possible, and thus the exact opposite of me. If you put Modi and me in a test tube, the resultant explosion could blow the earth off its orbit, or at least result in a good rap album. But that is a digression, and it is possible that you have your mouth open because I called him an economic leftist. Well, if a man is to be known by his actions and not his public image, what else can we call him?

I know many economic liberals, bald because of six decades of tearing their hair out, who thought Modi would be a free-market messiah. My ass. Tell me this: exactly what reforms has he carried out that increase our economic freedom? When Modi took over, India was ranked 140 out of 189 countries in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index: it has since slipped to 142. He has not reformed the labour laws that, for decades, have prevented us from being a manufacturing superpower. The license and inspector raj remains what it was under his predecessors. A litany of what he has not changed would be the same as a litany of what was wrong with our country before he took over.

I have friends in high places who tell me that the system doesn’t allow him to act. But the truth is that Modi suffers from the same fatal conceit that Nehru displayed. He believes the economy needs a top-down manager. He would rather reform a public sector unit than sell it off. When he talks of ‘minimum government and maximum governance,’ as that catchy slogan went, he is speaking of making government more efficient and not at eliminating it entirely from areas where it has no business existing.

His conceit isn’t limited to his economic thinking, though. Look at how the man struts! He may not walk the walk in the sense of governance, but he certainly does in a catwalk sense. Once he was denied a US Visa; now he travels the world meeting the high and mighty. I wonder if he realises, though, that these global leaders give him importance because of the position he occupies, and not the man he is. I suspect he has actually drunk his Kool Aid, and believes the Modi Wave narrative of the last elections. He may be headed for a fall if so.

Look at the numbers from the 2014 general elections again. Our first-past-the-post system made it seem like a wipeout, as the BJP got 6.4 times the seats that Congress did. But they got just 1.6 the vote share of the Congress. It was 31% to 19%, and a 4% swing away from them next time could easily result in a hung parliament. They delivered outlier performances in states like UP, MP and Gujarat, which seem statistically impossible to repeat. And the following things are certain: Since the election, they have not won more supporters than they have lost; the turnout of their supporters is bound to be less the next time around; other parties, clear about what they are up against, will make smarter coalitions to consolidate the non-BJP vote; anti-incumbency will be a factor now that some of the Modi sheen is gone.

Modi behaves like the prime ministership was his destiny and he will win again easily in 2019. But if he doesn’t get his act together, reforming the economy and constraining the lunatic fringe in his party, he could be in for a surprise. India could choose another delusional politician over him, and 2014-2019 could be remembered as The Selfie Years.

*

Also read: ‘Lessons From 1975.’

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 October, 2015 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics


Profit = Philanthropy

This is the 20th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Never talk to me about profit,’ Jawaharlal Nehru once said to an industrialist friend of his. ‘It is a dirty word.’

Nehru’s sentiments were understandable in those times, and his sentiments were noble. India had just rid itself of the British, who had come to India ostensibly to do business and had left it impoverished. Nehru, who had played a notable role in the freedom struggle, had spent his formative years in England learning from the Fabian Socialists, as well as from Howard Laski, the Marxist professor at LSE who had a greater influence on modern India than Mahatma Gandhi, through students such as Nehru and VK Krishna Menon. The Soviet Union seemed to be a model to admire, America itself vastly expanded the role of the state after the Great Depression, and the top-down command-and-control economy must have seemed incredibly attractive to Nehru. The center had to hold. The profit motive was evil. Those exploitative capitalists had to be kept in check.

It is not fair to judge Nehru in hindsight, and he was right about other things that mattered. But he was wrong about this. Profit is the secret behind all prosperity. And it is a distrust of the profit motive that has kept this country poor.

The fundamental fallacy that Nehru committed was of looking at the economy as a zero-sum game. By that thinking, if someone is winning, someone else must be losing. If the industrialist makes a profit, someone else is getting exploited. But this is not the way the world works. All trade is a positive-sum game; and indeed, it is not possible for one person alone to make a profit in a transaction.

I am fond of illustrating this by citing what the writer John Stossel calls the Double Thank-You Moment. When you buy a cup of coffee at a Cafe Coffee Day, you say ‘thank you’ when you are handed your cup of coffee. And the cashier says ‘thank you’ when you hand over your money. This double ‘thank-you’ illustrates that both of you benefited from the transaction. Both of you profited.

This is, simply put, the root cause of prosperity. Every single voluntary transaction that takes place makes both parties better off, and increases the sum total of value in the world. Equally, every impediment that anyone places on the ability of consenting adults to trade freely with each other reduces the notional value in the world, and is an impediment to growth. It stands to reason, then, that trade should lead to prosperity, and that economic freedom should be correlated with a nation’s wealth. Does the data bear this out? You bet it does.

First up, I urge you to consider this chart. (Here’s the source.) It shows the wealth of the world as a flat line for centuries, until 1800. And then, boom, the world economy takes off in a spurt that economists call the Hockey Stick of Human Prosperity. It correlates perfectly with the explosion of markets across the world, of double-thank-you moments.

But it doesn’t take off uniformly across countries. Free markets are a necessary condition for prosperity, so let me now draw your attention to another chart. This one, from the Index of Economic Freedom 2015 brought out by the Heritage Foundations, shows a clear correlation between economic freedom and the wealth of nations. The freer you are, the wealthier you tend to be. (Also, the freer you are, the faster you grow.)

Forget the data, you say. Capitalists are exploitative. What about the low wages paid by Walmart? What about sweat shops run by large multinationals in third world countries like Bangladesh, where workers toil jn inhumane conditions? Isn’t that the profit motive at work?

Yes, it is. And I deeply admire Walmart and every company that runs a sweatshop in a poor country. That is because the people who work in Walmart and in those sweatshops do so because it is the best option open to them. They are not fools. They are choosing to work where they do because they deem all other alternatives to be worse, and those evil capitalist behemoths should actually be thanked for actually providing them an option that is better than the best option otherwise available to them. We condescend to those workers when we say they are being exploited. (Indeed, it is possible that we are exploiting them by using them to feed our sanctimony.)

This doesn’t apply to slavery and trafficking, of course, for by free markets I mean markets where consenting adults trade freely under the rule of law. Also, let us not conflate rent-seeking and profit-seeking. Many large companies get together with government to put restrictions on markets so that their market share is protected from competition. Such protectionism hurts the common consumer, and amounts to a redistribution of wealth from the poor at large to rich special-interest groups. Big companies are often the biggest enemies of free markets, and capitalism often unfairly gets a bad name because it is confused with crony capitalism – or ‘crapitalism’ as some call it.

To sum up, the profit motive is not something nefarious, but is actually noble. You can only profit in a free market by improving someone else’s life. And the more you profit, the greater the good you do in the world, the more the value you create. Profit, indeed, is the purest form of philanthropy.

I must admit here the very slight, teeny-weeny possibility that I am being unjust to Nehru. Maybe he had a mischievous glint in his eye when he said that profit was a ‘dirty word’. I can imagine him sidling up to Edwina Mountbatten at a party, gently putting his hand on her waist, and whispering to her, ‘Edwina, my dear, would you like to, ahem, profit with me?’ That certainly could have led to a double thank-you moment.

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 August, 2015 in Economics | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics


The Great Redistribution

This is the 19th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

India is a poor country. We were poor when we became Independent in 1947, and while other countries have lifted themselves to wealth in that much time, we’re still poor. And government policies are the reason for our continuing poverty. For the last 68 years, since a group of white-skinned rulers handed over power to a bunch of brown-skinned rulers, all the governments that have run India have done one thing incredibly effectively: they have redistributed wealth from the poor to the rich.

Yes, you read that right: I’m not talking about redistribution from the rich to the poor, which itself would be an ineffective way of fighting poverty, but from the poor to the rich. They have taken money from the poor in our country and given it to the rich, and, as if to troll us, they have done this in the name of fighting poverty. For that reason, while there are some very rich people in our country, on average, as our GDP-per-capita indicates, we’re still a third-world country.

Let me take a recent event to illustrate what I mean. A few weeks ago, the central government announced that it would not allow foreign direct investment in retail e-commerce. Business Standard reported: ‘Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Nirmala Sitharaman last month met executives of Flipkart and Snapdeal and representatives from the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) to assess the impact of FDI on Indian e-commerce companies.’ The government then decided that it needed to protect the local players, and therefore did not allow FDI.

Do you see what happened here? Who benefits from competition? The consumers do. The greater the competition, the more value for money the common consumer gets. This is axiomatic. Our local retailers—all the people consulted by the ministers—were scared that their bottomline would be affected by this competition, so they successfully petitioned the government to block it. The result: the consumers will get less value than they otherwise would; the local retailers will make more money than if competition was allowed. In effect, it is a transfer of wealth from a large, dispersed group of consumers to a small, relatively wealthy interest group.

All tariffs have exactly this effect. Let’s say I like to buy widgets. Local manufacturers sell me widgets for Rs 100 each. Foreign manufacturers, for a variety of reasons from technology to labour, can sell me widgets for Rs 80. But the local manufacturers petition the government to put a tariff on imports, and the government puts a Rs. 30-per-widget tariff on the foreigners, so they don’t bother coming over. The net result: each of us loses a notional Rs 20. Who gets that money? The local manufacturers. What just happened? The government redistributed wealth from the relatively poor masses to a specific relatively rich interest group.

Governments that impose or continue tariffs will do so in the name of protecting the domestic industry. But at whose cost? The French economist Frédéric Bastiat once wrote a great essay called ‘What is Seen and What is Not Seen’, which speaks of the hidden effects of such actions. What is seen here is the good done to one specific group of people (with money usurped from a poorer group, which by itself is surely morally wrong). What is not seen is what the consumers would have done with that money. They would have spent it or invested it, and it would have gone back into the economy, creating growth and employment. But the potential beneficiaries of that are not even aware of what didn’t happen.

Subsidies are also redistribution of the reverse-Robin Hood kind, if in a more obvious way. The wealth taken from the poor is not in terms of marketplace prices or value for money, but is taken directly from your taxes. And while the poor may not file income tax returns, they pay taxes too. Every time your maidservant buys a bag of salt or the beggar at the nearby traffic signal buys soap, they are contributing to the Rich Interest Group Benefit Fund. This is not just poor economics –  it is morally wrong.

Here’s the upshot: All interventions in free markets amount to a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. Anything that reduces competition or artificially raises costs for the consumers amounts to just this. Restrictions on FDI, tariffs, licensing processes or regulations that make it harder to open a business or to run it, subsidies; and so on. The interest groups to benefit may differ in each case, and will often include rent-seeking forces within the government, but always, without exception, the wealth will flow, in relative terms, from the poor to the rich.

So why don’t we protest, you ask, given that we are a democracy? Well, think about the winners and the losers here. The costs of such redistribution are dispersed among more than a billion of us, and the benefits are concentrated to a few. If Rs 2 from the taxes you paid last year went as a subsidy to the widget industry, you won’t even know or care. The widget industry, making millions from the accumulated Rs 2s, will care, and will lobby aggressively, contribute to party coffers, buy off politicians and bureaucrats – whatever it takes. That is why government policy is not dictated by the people at large, but by the aggressive lobbying of hundreds of interest groups, out to make a killing at the expense of the poor. That is why government grows and grows, and so many constraints are placed on the only force that can make us wealthy: economic freedom.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 July, 2015 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics


The Price is Right

This is the 18th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

A few days ago, I got ready for a meeting, switched on my Uber app, saw that there were no taxis available in my area, and remembered an earthquake.

More than two decades ago, when I was in college in Pune, an earthquake ravaged the region of Latur. I got together with some friends to collect money for relief efforts. We decided that we would go to the affected areas ourselves to figure out the most efficient way of using the money. We hitched a ride on an ambulance of paramedics headed there with medical supplies. While in the affected district, we stopped at a village where around half the houses had been destroyed, and only one grocery store was still standing. “They are the only place one can buy groceries from,” a resident complained to us bitterly, “and they have tripled their prices.” That made me very angry. “Exploitative bastards,” I thought to myself, “feeding off the misery of others.”

Today, I know that my reaction was misplaced – just like the complaints of everyone who’s taken issue with Uber’s dynamic pricing. In case you missed the controversy, cabs and autos in Mumbai recently went on strike to protest against the competition they got from the likes of Uber and Ola. Since people had to get to work, the ironic short-term beneficiaries of this were the very parties they were protesting against. So when demand for a particular product or service goes up and supply can’t keep pace, what happens? That’s right, the prices go up, and Uber uses a mechanism called dynamic pricing which is an incredibly efficient way of arriving at an appropriate price for their service based on demand and supply. So commuters who switched on their Uber apps in the morning were informed that the base price had gone up by as much as 5x. Naturally there was much outrage and shouts of ‘exploitation’ and ‘predatory pricing’, and Uber, rattled by the bad press, announced that they would suspend dynamic pricing for the duration of the strike, and operate at their usual base fare. They put this into effect, and I woke up the next day, switched on my app, and found that no Uber cab was available.

Do you see what happened here? When demand goes up relative to supply, two things can happen. The price can go up to reflect the growth in demand; or, if the price is fixed, there is inevitably a shortage of the product or service in question. In Uber’s case, with their dynamic pricing disabled, all their cars quickly got booked, and whichever customers switched on their apps after that found that there were no cars available. Their need could have been urgent: they may have needed to rush to the airport to catch a flight they couldn’t afford to miss; or take an aging relative to hospital; or head to town for a make-or-break meeting. But even if they were willing to pay more, too bad.

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


*  *  *

Speaking of prices, another company that disrupted an industry, Amazon, has announced that it will pay authors on its Kindle direct publishing program according to pages read, not units moved. This is an opt-in program, applying only to self-published authors on their DP platform, but authors on my Facebook timeline have already reacted with horror. Their instinctive aversion to the idea is understandable: commoditization of art and all that. As in the movies, they can imagine a publishing executive in a suit telling them to clip their novel by 30% and have only one 8-letter-word-per-100,000 because more than that diminishes page-turning rate. The horror! But those fears are overblown. I think this development, like almost everything Amazon has done with regard to books, is visionary and good for authors.

Look, there isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a central politburo that decides how much authors get paid according to some high-falutin notions of literary merit. Authors get paid, quite simply, based on copies sold, and how many people want to read them. Literary authors accept that they will not make remotely as much as those who write airport potboilers. That’s just fine, because if they’re good at what they do, they’ll find an audience that appreciates their work anyway.

Amazon’s new system achieves the same end—paying writers according to the demand for their writing—with greater granularity. Good literary writers will still make money – I devour every word Alice Munro or Anne Tyler write—because their work is compelling. But if I get bored with a writer after reading ten pages of his work, I don’t see why he deserves any more of my money than those ten pages represent.

It’s somewhat silly for an author to have a sense of entitlement, and believe that other people should pay him money even if he can’t produce work they want to read. As silly, indeed, as for an Uber user to feel entitled to the service at a lower price than others are willing to pay, at the expense, therefore, of the service provider. Such arrogance is priceless.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 July, 2015 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse


We Are All Sharks

This is the 36th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

A few days ago, I was shooting the breeze with a friend of mine when he told me about a couple of business ventures he was planning, and the investors he’d lined up for them. ‘You won’t believe how gullible they are,’ he said. ‘If there’s one thing I’ve learned from poker, it’s how to find fish and exploit them. And there are so many fish in the business world.’

It’s a good thing I was sipping lemonade at the time and not my usual hot Americano, or I’d have singed myself. Having recovered from the shock of his statement, I shook my head sadly. Poker is a beautiful game, and it can teach you a lot about life. But the lesson my friend had learned was entirely the wrong one.

Poker is a zero-sum game. (A negative-sum game, in fact, if you’re playing a raked game.) The only way you can win money is if someone else loses it. So it’s natural that the key skill in poker lies in exploiting the mistakes of others, sometimes after inducing those mistakes in the first place. It is a mathematical exercise that plays on the frailties of human nature. The game is played by consenting adults, and as your opponents are also trying to exploit you and take your money, they’re fair game. But the real world works differently.

Life is a positive-sum game. This is most eloquently illustrated by what the libertarian writer John Stossel once described, in an old column, as the Double Thank You Moment. When you buy a cup of coffee at a café, you say ‘thank you’ when you are handed the coffee, and the person behind the counter says ‘thank you’ on receiving your money. Both of you are better off. Indeed, the vast majority of human transaction, including all business transactions, are like this. Both people benefit – or they wouldn’t be transacting in the first place.

This amazing phenomenon, which we take for granted, is responsible for the remarkable economic and technological progress of the last three centuries. The economies of nations across the world have grown in consonance with the rise of free markets within them. Think about it: if every transaction leads to both parties benefiting, and a consequent increase of value in the world, then the more people are free to transact, in whatever form, the more we progress as an economy and a society. This is why libertarians such as myself consider it a crime to clamp down on any kind of freedom, be it economic or social.

The positive-sumness of things is unintuitive, and many people reflexively speak of the world in zero-sum terms. For example, socialists, with all their talk of ‘exploitation’, the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor and the need for redistribution. But that is not how the world works; it is not a game of poker. Just as in poker there is no possibility of a Double Thank You Moment, in life, we can all be sharks.

So much for learning the wrong lesson from poker. What does poker teach us about life that is useful to us? Well, the most important lesson I have learnt from poker is not to be results-oriented. Luck plays a huge role in the short term, you only get what you deserve in the long run, so just focus on doing the right thing and don’t worry about the fruits of your actions. The Bhagawad Gita teaches the exact same lesson. Lord Krishna would have crushed the games.

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 February, 2015 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


An Economic Message from God

The editors of Okonomos, the economics journal of the Hansraj College in Delhi, asked me to write a guest article for the current issue of their magazine. Here it is.

Imagine one day God comes down to Earth. He’s an old man with a beard, hanging out in the clouds, and he latches onto the wing of a plane and sits there, cross-legged, until the flight lands. A communist man who took a reclining-emergency-row window seat for the legroom has to be taken off the plane on a stretcher, for he faints after seeing 1), a gentleman who is obviously God on the wing of the plane, and 2), the T-shirt God is wearing, which says, in fluorescent pink letters, ‘Free Markets Rule.’

God is instantly met by waiting paparazzi, and an impromptu press conference is convened. ‘Oh God,’ says an overwhelmed young lady, who appears to be on the brink of orgasm, or something equally divine, ‘Oh God, please tell us: why that T-shirt?’

‘I was hoping someone would ask me that,’ says God. ‘Or rather, I made you ask me that. This is why I have come down here. You should know that I’m a bit of an efficiency buff.  I made the universe, and then the earth, and then amoeba and fish and monkeys and all you folk, but the thing is, I was not much into micro-management. The universe is full of tons of shit, and fine-tuning every small aspect of each creation would take eternity. And while I do have that much time, why sweat the small stuff, so I decided to just put systems in place and take a nap.

‘When I went to sleep, there was primordial ooze. I put natural selection in place, and as I slept, evolution happened. I knew that something like you humans would eventually evolve, though I must confess I couldn’t have anticipated Honey Singh or Kim Kardashian. Wtf , really? Anyway, I put systems in place for you folk too, so you could reach reach your optimum levels as a species, in the pursuit of happiness. But when I wake up I find, hey, what’s going on here, the most beautiful, elegant aspect of my creation, which was meant to help you reach fulfilment, is being maligned. I’m talkin’ about free markets. So here I am, to put the record straight, and to set you on the right track as a species. So listen up carefully, because I won’t be back to repeat this: I have to rush after this to North-West Andromeda, and I could take quite a while there, a black hole has been acting up, keeps spitting galaxies out, wtf?’

‘Oh God,’ says the young lady we have already met, on the verge of rapture. ‘Tell us everything. Oh God!’

‘Right,’ says God. ‘Listen up, here come some basic truths about economics that are really just common sense, but you may consider them divine revelation if you wish.

One: Life is a Positive Sum game. Every time two people make a trade, they do so because both of them benefit. One of my blessed children, John Stossel, illustrated this by coining a phrase, ‘Double Thank You Moment.’ You buy a cup of coffee, and as you pay for it and take the cup, you say to the guy behind the counter, ‘Thank you,’ and he says the same thing to you. Two Thank Yous! And indeed, in every single transaction that takes place across the world, both people benefit, or they wouldn’t have entered into that transaction. This is how productivity goes up, how the amount of value in the world rises, how societies grow prosperous. For my sake, think about how drastic progress has been since the 18th century, when free markets started becoming common. Look at the two Koreas, identical once upon a time, and now so different because of the different paths they chose. And listen up, listen up, to what I say next:

‘Since every trade leads to both parties benefiting and value being created in the world, anyone who comes in the way of free trade anywhere is sinning. Yes, you heard me, it is a sin to get in the way of free enterprise. Tariffs and duties are evil, and regulations and license rajs are man’s way of trying to play God. Don’t you dare!

Two: Business is better than charity. Given what I told you above, how does a human being make money? Only by increasing the value in the lives of other people. Put another way, you can only enrich yourself by enriching others. That is exactly what business is. You make money by giving people what they want. The more value you create for others, the more value you create for yourself. Thus, it’s nonsensical to speak of a system where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In a free market, that’s not possible. The rich can only get richer if the poor also get richer.

‘And this is why I consider businesses better than charities. Both aim to help others, but the survival of businesses depends on their ability to do so, and I like those incentives better.

Three: Money Trickles Up, Not Down. No respectable economist has ever spoken of trickle-down economics. There is no such thing. It is a straw man. (You are all like straw to me, but never mind that.) In a free market, money trickles up, not down. In a business, it is the suppliers and the workers who get paid first, and the consumers who get served, and only then, right at the end, do the owners make any money. They are at the end of the chain. Ask anyone you know who runs a business how it works.

Four: Capitalists are among the biggest enemies of capitalism. Raghuram Rajan, a man I created in my own image (aren’t I handsome?), once co-wrote a book titled ‘Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists.’ Note that sentiment. People often think that defenders of free markets are defending the actions of evil capitalists and big businesses gaming the system. Wrong. Established capitalists are the ones who have the most to fear from competition, and they are the ones who lobby governments to manipulate markets in their favour. To take an example, look at India. When India gained Independence, a group of its top businessmen came up with something called the Bombay Plan, which was their vision of what the economy should be like. They wanted an interventionist state, with plenty of regulation and many curbs placed on free enterprise. Historians have presented this in support of the argument that hey, even capitalists wanted unfree markets, so free markets can’t be all that great, right? But think about it: of course the entrenched businesses would want government to keep out competition. Like, duh!

‘So beware of crony capitalists and the governments they partner with. And every time a new regulation or tax or tariff is introduced, consider who it is likely to benefit.

Five: Government is a false God. If offends me when people have blind faith in entities other than me. Like government. Governments came into being to serve the people and protect their rights, but instead, have ended up ruling the people and infringing their rights. Think about it, if any individual or group of people forced you to pay a third of your income every year to them, which effectively meant you were enslaved to them till April every year, you’d be pissed, and would correctly call them thieves. If they regulated all your activities, curtailed your freedom even when you were causing no harm to others, and took a cut of all your purchases, you’d feel that a mafia was running your life. But when an entity called government does all this, and sanctimoniously tells you that this is for your own good, and it’s your duty to obey it, you somehow accept it. And furthermore, you expect it to be the solution to all your problems, even when the biggest problems around you are caused by government itself. What a con job!

‘The biggest force in human progress over the last few centuries has been free enterprise. And the biggest enemy of free enterprise – indeed, a sinner in my books – is government. And yet, you worship this false God, while forgetting all about me and the beautiful, natural system I put in place for you, tailored perfectly to human nature. So here’s a commandment for you: Embrace freedom – and question everything that your governments do.’

God stops here, and the young lady we mentioned earlier takes advantage of the lull to shoot a quick selfie with Him. As soon as she clicks the button on her cellphone, God, having delivered His message, disappears. The communist man of the reclining-emergency-row disappears with him. And far away, in North-West Andromeda, an alumnus of JNU is hurled into a black hole and is promptly hurled back out, for it is a universal truth that all transactions should be voluntary.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 February, 2015 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics


Seven Thoughts on Modi’s Mandate

All right, here are some quick thoughts on the election results:

One, I’m overjoyed that the Congress got hammered. We are close to seeing the end of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in politics, which is fantastic. This vile family has caused incalculable damage to our country with its destructive economic policies, which has kept our country poor for the seven decades since independence. It’s impossible to quantify the effect of this, but I believe that this family has orders-of-magnitude more blood on its hands than, say, a Narendra Modi would even if all the allegations against him were true. I’m glad to see them finished as a political force, though it is likely that they will continue to be a political spectacle for a while yet, which I welcome. Pappu provides much amusement.

Two, I’m ambivalent about Narendra Modi but I’m glad he has a decisive mandate. Here’s why I’m ambivalent: I’m classical liberal (or minarchist libertarian, if you will), and freedom matters a lot to me. I want a free society with free speech and free markets. In conventional terms, I’d be right-of-centre on economics and left-of-centre on social issues. The BJP is right-of-centre on both. So I worry about issues like freedom of speech—but remember that the Congress had a deplorable record on this front, and was, in fact, the party that banned the Satanic Verses. We have so far been a reasonably pluralistic society; that, and our (meagre and somewhat inadequate) constitutional safeguards should protect us if the RSS nutjobs get out of hand. One can only hope.

On economics, Modi can’t do worse than the UPA did. Yes, I worry about crony capitalism, but Modi has done a lot to create a conducive environment for small businesses in Gujarat, and his main campaign slogan, ‘minimum government and maximum governance,’ is music to my ears. But it will take a lot of doing, and this is why I’m glad his mandate is so overwhelming, and he is free of the constraints of coalition politics. He now has the power to get the job done, and no scope for excuses. He can carry out the measures that are essential if we are to be the manufacturing superpower that he has said he aspires to make India. (I’d start with labour reforms.) He can reduce the number of ministries at the centre, cut down on red-tapism throughout the country, and reform agriculture and education, moving from a culture of patronage to one of empowerment. He has the power to do all this; we will now see if he can walk the talk.

Three, this is a seminal moment in Indian politics, and the political landscape has changed forever. It is estimated that around 100 million people voted for the first time in these elections, part of a demographic shift that is going to continue. If these new voters alone were a country, that country would be the 12th largest in the world, bigger than Germany, France or the UK. This country is where the Modi wave happened.

While this nebulous wave might have been embodied in the figure of one man, consider what it stands for, and why so many first-time voters exercised their mandate: These people are shrugging aside considerations of identity and patronage politics: caste or the Gandhi family do not matter to them. They want progress, development and also, implicitly, the eradication of poverty, which goes hand-in-hand with the first two. For seven decades, parties have only paid lip service to that last aim, and followed policies that perpetuated poverty and nurtured vote banks. Modi embodies the hope that we can break away from this. Even if he doesn’t deliver, and these new voters, and other new voters to come next time, abandon him, we can see the parameters based on which they are making their choices. Those won’t change. The parties that don’t adapt themselves to this new political marketplace will be ejected with, as Pappu would say, ‘the escape velocity of Jupiter.’

Four, It will nevertheless not be easy for the BJP to replicate this performance the next time around. Consider that a big part of this wave was the party winning 71 out of 80 seats in UP, masterminded by their brilliant strategist, Amit Shah. Now, one can expect the BJP to also win the next UP assembly elections. So at the next Lok Sabha elections in 2019, they’ll face double incumbency in UP. They’ll be fighting on the basis of performance, not promises, and perceptions of the former will depend not just on Modi’s governance, but also extraneous factors like the last monsoons and the state of the world economy. A few percentage points could lead to a huge swing in terms of seats.

Five, Consider the percentages. In terms of seats, the BJP did 6.4 times better than the Congress. In terms of vote share, they did 1.6 times better. (31% to 19% of vote share respectively, nationally.) The Congress is moribund, relying on feudalism, led by morons, and I expect their vote-share to drop. But note that relatively small swings in terms of votes can lead to much bigger swings when it comes to seats in parliament. Don’t take anything for granted in 2019. A 4% swing away from the BJP, for whatever reason, would almost certainly result in a coalition government.

Six, AAP has shown itself to be the political economy’s equivalent of candlelight vigils and online petitions, both futile gestures made by self-righteous people who want to feel good about themselves and lack an understanding of how the world works. Leave aside its constituency, the party itself was a meld of contradictions, defined only in opposition to others. It articulated a faith in government and leftist economic policies that would take our country backwards, not forwards. It claimed to speak for the common man—but the common man chose the chaiwallah over the income-tax officer.

What really got my goat was the coverage given to AAP by our Delhi-centric media. This was a party expected to get at best 10 seats in a parliament of 543. (I expected them to get one [Rakhi Birla], they surprised me and got four [Punjab].) And yet, from the media coverage given to them, you’d think they were a major contender to form the government. William Dalrymple, in fact, referred to Arvind Kejriwal as one of ‘the three front-runners’ in these elections. Immense WTFness.

Seven, What about 2002? Was Modi personally responsible for engineering the riots? If he was, nothing else matters, and that would be enough to condemn him. But was he? I’ve spent a fair bit of time going through the evidence to implicate him (quite convincing) and the defences in his favour (also, weirdly, convincing). I know that almost all my friends will jump on me for saying this, but I no longer believe that it is possible for anyone on the outside to know, for sure, whether he engineered those riots. The facts are such that what you choose to believe will be what you want to believe, and will reveal more about you than about him. This is an epistemological position, not an ideological one; and I therefore have no choice but to consider him innocent until proven guilty, though he can be proven neither innocent nor guilty, but I know where the burden of proof lies.

In any case, as I’ve written before, I believe that Modi acts purely out of self-interest and not ideology. At the centre, he will do whatever he believes will increase his political capital. I don’t think communal violence will be part of that equation. I think development will. That gives me hope.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 May, 2014 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | News | Politics


First Lessons

The quote of the day comes from Thomas Sowell:

The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.

I got the quote from an excellent piece by David Boaz on the fallacies in many arguments for a bigger role for the state: The Empty Case for Big Government. Read the full thing.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 October, 2012 in Economics | Freedom | Politics


The Two Roads to Happiness

In an interview with Abheek Bhattacharya, the Chinese economist Zhang Weiying says:

We human beings always seek happiness. Now there are two ways. You make yourself happy by making other people unhappy—I call that the logic of robbery. The other way, you make yourself happy by making other people happy—that’s the logic of the market. Which way do you prefer?

Or what John Stossel once called ‘The Double “Thank You” Moment’. It’s a ridiculously simple insight, which makes it all the more amazing that so many people just don’t get it.

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 October, 2012 in Economics


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