A friend and I, jailed;
We agreed to stay silent
(But I still confessed).
The others are also excellent, read ‘em all.
Posted by Amit Varma on 01 September, 2008 in Economics
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.
To buy it online from the US, click here.
I am currently on a book tour to promote the book. Please check out our schedule of city launches. India Uncut readers are invited to all of them, no pass required, so do drop in and say hello.
If you're interested, do join the Facebook group for My Friend Sancho
Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.
And ah, my posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.
A friend and I, jailed;
We agreed to stay silent
(But I still confessed).
The others are also excellent, read ‘em all.
Posted by Amit Varma on 01 September, 2008 in Economics
This is an excellent idea, and achieves the following ends:
1] It solves the stray dog problem in our cities, and it ensures that when I go for a walk at 2 am, I won’t be at risk from street dogs that have, ironically enough, been vaccinated with the taxes I pay.
2] It is good for the dogs as well, and puts the onus on those who care about stray dogs to put their money where their mouth is, instead of making others pay for their sanctimony.
3] Because the owners of each dog are liable for damages caused by it, there is more accountability, and less people bitten by dogs.
Read the full piece. There will still be protesters, of course, because the word ‘privatize’ is part of the article. Stray dogs are our navratnas, after all.
A shorter version of this piece was published in Friday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal Asia.
It was a gunshot heard across a subcontinent. On Monday, Abhinav Bindra, a 25-year-old shooter from India, took aim for his final shot in the 10-meter air rifle event at the Olympic Games. The pressure was intense, but Mr Bindra shot an almost-perfect 10.8 to win the gold medal. His fans and supporters jumped up in delight in the stands, as wild celebrations began across the country. India’s 24-hour news channels became 24-hour Bindra channels, and there was much talk of national pride.
Mr Bindra’s achievement warrants such celebration. On a national level, this was, astonishingly, the first gold medal India has won in an individual sport in any Olympics. And on the more important personal level, it was a testament to the years of single-minded hard work Mr Bindra dedicated to his sport. Not surprisingly, the government immediately took credit for his achievement.
India’s sports minister, Manohar Singh Gill, came on television and said, “I congratulate myself and every other Indian.” But while India’s shooting association is better than most of the bodies that run sport in the country, it was Mr Bindra’s family that enabled his success. Mr Bindra was lucky that his father is an industrialist who dipped into his personal wealth to support his son. He built a shooting range for Abhinav in his farmhouse in Punjab, and made sure he never ran out of ammunition, which is not made in India and has to be imported.
India and China are studies in contrast. The full might of the Chinese state goes into creating sportspeople who will bring it pride. The Indian government, on the other hand, does a pathetic job of administering sports in the country. Rent-seeking bureaucrats run the various sporting federations – or ruin them, as some would say. A great illustration of this is hockey, a sport once dominated by India, which failed to qualify for Bejing. Even though there is no Indian hockey team at these Olympics, four hockey coaches have duly made their way to Beijing. Franz Kafka would feel at home as an Indian sports journalist today.
Most of India’s finest sportspeople are self-made athletes who owe nothing to the system – Viswanathan Anand, the world chess champion, is a case in point. The sport where India has been most successful, cricket, is not administered by the government. Surely, nationalists would argue, there is a case to be made for pumping more money into our sport.
Such arguments are wrong. India’s leaders need to have a clear sense of priorities, and there are two things they would do well to consider. One, despite the gains sections of our economy have made since the liberalization of 1991, India remains a desperately poor country. Two, unlike China, India is democratic, and its government thus carries a certain responsibility towards its people, and the taxes it collects from them.
Any money that the government spends on sport could be better spent on building infrastructure: roads, ports, power-generating units etc. It would also do a lot of good simply left in the hand of the taxpayers, who would then spend it according to their own individual priorities. Hundreds of millions of Indians are forced to part with their hard-earned money through direct or indirect taxes, and it is perverse if that money is spent towards something as nebulous as an outdated notion of national pride.
For too long now, India has been an insecure nation craving validation from the West. Even many of us who speak of India as a future superpower have one ear cocked towards the west, straining to hear similar forecasts in a foreign accent, ignoring the condescension that such pronouncements sometimes carry. Similarly, we look to the sporting arena for affirmation of our self-worth. That attitude might have been understandable during the days of the cold war – but it no longer is.
Sport is a zero-sum game – for one nation to win, another must lose. But real life is non-zero-sum, and nothing demonstrates the win-win game of life as well as globalisation, with nations (and individuals) trading with each other to mutual benefit. In these times, it is clear we do not need Olympic medals to be a great nation, but economic progress that all Indians have access to. It is beyond the scope of this piece to spell out the many reforms that are needed for that happen – but spending taxpayers’ money responsibly is a key part of the puzzle.
I shall go against the prevailing wisdom, then, and say that I don’t mind if our government spends less money on sport, or even none. Where will our Olympic medals come from then, you ask (as if the last few decades have brought us a slew of them). Well, lift enough people to prosperity, and the sporting laurels will roll in. Ask Abhinav Bindra.
Four students from a school in Garhshankar town in Punjab’s Hoshiarpur district have gone “missing” in the United States during their educational trip to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The teacher who accompanied them did not return either, but sent an e-mail saying that she had got married.
I wish the men and women who make India’s economic policies would ask themselves what it would take to make India a similar land of opportunity.
I needed to book some train tickets today, so I optimistically hopped over to the IRCTC website to use their online booking facility. The user interface was horribly designed, but as long as I could figure out how things functioned, I didn’t care. I chose my train, filled in my details, made my credit card payment. But after I clicked the last confirmation button that I had to, the screen just went blank.
I thought maybe my tickets had been booked, and clicked on ‘booked tickets’. No luck. So I called their customer service people. The first time I got through, the woman at the other end heard what my problem was, went mmm, hmmm, and hung up. I tried again. This time, I warned the lady who picked up not to hang up on me. Then I gave her my user id so she could access my account details. Then this conversation happened:
IRCTC lady: So what is problem?
Me: The problem is that after I made my credit card payment, the screen just went blank.
IRCTC lady: Just a minute. (Pause.) Sir, was your ticket worth Rs 365?
IRCTC lady: Don’t worry, sir, the money has been deducted.
Me: Ah. Yes, well, but my ticket history is not showing that I’ve booked any ticket.
IRCTC lady: Yes sir. That is because the ticket has not been booked.
Me: What? The money has been deducted from my account but the ticket hasn’t been booked?
IRCTC lady: Yes sir. That happens. It is an online site, no?
I was too flabbergasted by this to even lose my temper. She eventually said that I would get a refund, but no doubt that’ll involve bureaucracy and online forms that go blank and so on, and I’ve mentally said goodbye to these 365 bucks.
If the government simply outsourced its ticketing to competing private vendors, I suspect I wouldn’t have this problem. Where there is an unthreatened monopoly, what else can one expect?
Update (8.48 pm): More than 40 readers have written in since I made this post, vouching for the efficient service of IRCTC, and assuring me that I’ll get my refund easily. Given the number of people vouching for the website, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt for now. What’s more, I will head over there and try to book a ticket again. Let’s see how it goes now.
Pakistan investors stormed out of the Karachi Stock Exchange, smashed windows and cursed regulators after the benchmark index fell for a 15th day, the worst losing streak in at least 18 years.
“I have lost my life savings in the last 15 days and no one in the government or regulators came to help us,’’ said Imran Inayat, 45, a protester and a former banker who retired early and said he lost 300,000 rupees ($4,175) on the market.
The article does not elaborate on who put a gun to Inayat’s head and forced him to invest his money in the stock market. Instead of calling on others to help him, the man should accept responsibility for his own actions. Did he really think the stock market is some kind of giant safe deposit box?
But the most WTF moment of the pieces comes towards the end:
“We demand that all stock prices be frozen at current levels,’’ said Kauser Javed, who heads the Small Investors Association.
Sigh. Prices, of course, are determined by supply and demand, by what people are willing to pay. If stock prices are falling and the government fixes them at an artificially high level, it will simply mean that those stocks will have no buyers, and their value will effectively be equal to zero. That will no doubt give Javed more cause to protest, and the gent might then demand that the government put together a rescue package for the small investor. Such fun all this is.
(Link via email from skthewimp.)
One of my friends is in the process of setting up a new business, and I was chatting with him a few minutes ago. Here, with his permission, is an excerpt from the transcript:
[Friend]: I spent half a day in the excise department office yesterday
it’s one of the most depressing places on earth
me: jesus. bribes and shit?
[Friend]: yeah, paperwork
That says it all, but my friend then chose to elaborate, so here’s his unedited rant in full, which I throughly enjoyed, below the fold:
Check out the latest 10 Yuan banknote issued by China:
(Via Marginal Revolution.)
Like many of my friends in Mumbai, I am delighted that private taxis now ply in the city. They can be summoned by telephone and provide comfort and great value for money. In particular, I use Meru Cabs, whose service I was also pleased with when I used them in Bangalore recently.
A triumph of the free market? Perhaps. But now Raj Thackeray, who owns Maharashtra, wants a piece of the action. DNA reports that the MNVS, the transport union of Raj’s party MNS, has “registered 450 drivers attached to Meru as its members and has demanded the drivers be made permanent.”
Now, I have no issues with drivers joining unions and making demands, provided all negotiations are peaceful and there is no coercion or violence being used. But does that sound like Raj Thackeray to you?
If the negotiations fail, MNVS has a separate plan to execute. On Friday, it gave a glimpse of what may follow. Some Meru drivers who are now with MNVS assaulted their 10 colleagues for plying the cabs despite a strike of sorts in Dharavi and Matunga.
“Till now, the fight with Meru was held in a democratic way. If Gupta refuses our demands, we will turn the fight into undemocratic ways. I need not explain what those ways would be,” Sheikh warned.
He hinted that if Meru were to shut down its business due to MNVS attacks, the party will start its own cab service. “We will not allow the drivers to remain unemployed. We will take care of them,” he said.
In other words, either the MNVS has its demands conceded and becomes a powerful interest group within Meru Cabs on the basis of nothing but the threat of violence, or it uses violence to get Meru out of the market so it can take its place. Once it does that, no doubt it would then also find similar ways to deal with competition.
A free market, of course, can only exist when the rule of law is strong. Not in India; not in Mumbai. I have no doubt that Mumbai’s police will not protect Meru’s drivers and property, or take action against these thugs after they strike. I’m sure Meru’s owners know that as well. All that remains to be determined is the nature of the hafta—and whether it is paid to the MNS or to a stronger gunda (Balasaheb?) for taking care of the MNS threat. (The stronger gunda may even be the government, mind you.)
So if ever a Meru driver is late or misbehaves with you, a possible reason is that he is not accountable any more with a gunda union protecting his ass. The point of the business, instead of being customer satisfaction, will become the provision of jobs, which is exactly the wrong way around. And just because it is a private company, don’t blame the free market for it: it doesn’t exist in this sector.
The article also sheds light on how Meru managed to get set up at all, given the licensing restrictions that exist everywhere.
A heavyweight politician from Uttar Pradesh is believed to have helped V-Link Taxis Private Limited, which runs the Meru service, to revive the expired national permits from New Delhi. A Meru driver, Nana Sonawane, revealed, “Maharashtra government has not issued any taxi permit since 1996. Hundreds of permits had expired because they were not transferred. V-Link legally got those permits renewed by paying a heavy penalty. They even paid Rs1 lakh to the drivers who owned the permits.”
Imagine, then, how hard it will be for entrepreneurs without political connections to set up a business in this space. What kind of free market is this?
That’s the question Deepak Shenoy asks in an email directing me to the image below, posted by Prieur du Plessis, of a dinner bill in Zimbabwe. Note that it’s a dinner for one; imagine how much a date would hurt. Even if you’re a rich man, the maths has got to be daunting.
Posted by Amit Varma on 16 June, 2008 in Economics
Here’s the second edition of Over the Wicket, my fortnightly column for NDTV Convergence: Yes, the IPL really is about accountability.
The IPL reveals India’s bench strength (May 8, 2008)
Celebrating Twenty20 Cricket (April 20, 2008)
Opportunity, choice and the IPL (March 13, 2008)
There’s Nothing Wrong In Being ‘Commercial’ (Feb 24, 2008)
The Twenty20 Age Begins (Aug 8, 2007)
This piece of mine was published this Sunday in Mail Today (pdf link).
We live in times when progress is often denoted in statistical terms: the Sensex rises by this much, the economy grows by that much, inflation is so much, poverty is that much, and so on. In a complex world, any single piece of data always tells just part of the story. So which statistics do a good job of illustrating India’s progress? One very good one, in my view, is the divorce rate.
Divorce rates are going up across India. The figures that exist for our cities and towns show a sharp increase in the last decade or so. Many commentators bemoan this trend, speaking of the breakdown of families, the loss of family values and the influence of the West. But to me, the rising rate of divorces is a trend to celebrate. It is the single best statistical indicator we have of the empowerment of women.
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. We do not need to credit either feminism or Western culture for this – the emancipation of women in real terms, across the world, has been enabled by technology, and can be explained most easily with economics.
In economic terms, the biggest factor behind human progress is the division of labour. If we all hunted our own meat and grew our own food, we’d still be hunter-gatherers. Adam Smith used the example of a pin factory to illustrate how division of labour improves productivity: if one man attempts to make pins all by himself, he might make about one pin a day; but his productivity can increase by as much as five thousand times if every person in the factory focuses on just one aspect of the pin production. This is true of everything in our lives, such as this newspaper you are holding: if every employee of Mail Today set out to write, design and produce the whole newspaper, it would take weeks for each person to put together a single issue, and they would all be substandard in one way or another. Instead, they specialise, and the result is in your hands every day.
Well, in the words of Tim Harford, who devotes an excellent chapter to this subject in his book The Logic of Life, the family is “the oldest pin factory of all.” In old days, before the advent of modern technology, for a single man or woman to earn a living and look after the household all by himself or herself was immensely difficult. It became a little easier if two people came together and split both tasks half and half. But it became exponentially easier if they specialised. For evolutionary reasons, and because women were stuck with child-bearing, it so happened that men traditionally got the role of earning a living while women raised kids and looked after the house.
These gender roles evolved out of circumstance, and not necessarily because women weren’t capable of earning a living. Indeed, in cases where the wife was better at both earning a living and keeping house, the traditional role allocation would still make sense for them as a unit if the husband was especially bad at housekeeping. (Economists call this “comparative advantage”.) Thus, the incompetence of men at keeping house might have played a greater role in the perpetuation of gender stereotypes than any shortcoming women might have had in the workplace.
These gender roles got reinforced culturally. If men earned a living and women looked after the house, it made economic sense to bring up children to specialise in those areas. Thus, the boys got a better vocational education while the girls were taught to cook. This also reinforced prejudices in the workplace, intimidating women from taking up a profession. Women thus became dependent on men, unable to break out of bad marriages because they simply didn’t have choices available to them. No wonder divorce was so rare.
All this changed in the 20th century. The catalyst for these changes was technology.
Technology freed women in two ways in the last century. One, household technology made it possible for women to finish off household work quickly, while it was otherwise enormously time-consuming. The cooking range, the microwave, the mixer-grinder, the pressure cooker are all commonplace kitchen items today, but imagine how arduous preparing a meal was before they existed. (It still is in poorer parts of the world and our country, which partly explains why the oppression of women varies with class.) Once these gadgets entered the kitchen, women found themselves with more free time at their disposal, which they could use to take up a job or to get an education.
Two, the pill allowed women to delay child-bearing and plan parenthood. This meant that they could be sexually active without the risk of pregnancy, and thus delay marriage. That allowed them to study further and be as qualified as men for the workforce. And, most importantly, it gave them options.
A qualified woman who chose family over work is much better placed than a woman who hasn’t got any skills to help her earn a living. She has more leverage within the relationship. One, it is easier for her to quit the marriage if she feels unhappy with it. Two, because that option is open to her, her husband cannot take her for granted, and has to treat her better than he otherwise would.
Harford, in his book, points to a study by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers that showed that as states across America passed ‘no fault’ divorce laws, allowing women easier routes to divorce, “domestic violence fell by almost a third.” When incentives were in place for men to behave better, men tended to behave better. Thus, technology not only enabled women to walk out of bad marriages, it also made them more powerful within a marriage.
In India affluence acts, in some cases, as a substitute for technology. In Mumbai, for examples, the typical middle-class house is too small for household devices like washing machines and dishcleaners. But in families that can afford household help, maids take care of those functions, freeing up women’s time in ways that technology does in the West.
Families have such sanctity in Indian tradition because until recently, people needed the division of labour that a family provides. Indeed, joint families used to be common here because, when we were a poorer country, they made economic sense. (A common kitchen for 20 people provided economies of scale.) But times have changed, incentives have changed, and to value these things for the sake of tradition alone is irrational.
As a society, our highest value should be to ensure that every individual has the maximum opportunities possible to find happiness. This means educating our daughters to be independent and removing the stigma that comes from a broken marriage. Every divorce means that two people have a better chance at finding fulfillment than they did in the marriage, and that is surely cause for celebration. In America, divorce rates climbed back down after the surge of the 1970s, mainly because young people took greater care in getting married, and premarital relationships were not considered sinful. Change is happening at different rates across classes in India, and the divorce rate will continue to rise for many, many years. That is a sign of progress, and we should be happy about it.
* * *
For more on this subject, I highly recommend checking out the chapter on divorce in Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life. It’s written in an American context but its insights are universal, and it cites a number of studies that you can Google and read for yourself. My review of Harford’s book is here. I’ve also briefly touched on this subject in these two old posts: 1, 2.
For more essays and Op-Eds by me, click here.
“The IPL shows it is time to liberalise cricket,” wrote my friend Barun Mitra of Liberty Institute in a recent email, and the thought is echoed by Neelakantan of Interim Thoughts, who draws a comparison between the IPL and what liberalisation did to the IT industry in the 1990s.
Needless to say, I agree with them—though I wish the extent of both liberalisations was greater. Just as the government retains a stranglehold over many areas of our lives, the BCCI retains its monopoly over representative cricket. Deeper change will be a long time coming—though I’m grateful for the little that has come so far.
On celebrating a mutiny that took place 150 years ago. MSN reports:
India spent Rs 130 crore to celebrate its First War of Independence, 1857 revolt, without constructing a memorial for the martyrs or their directory.
A day after the government officially ended the year-long celebrations, a member of the National Implementation Committee (NIC) on 1857 revolt has termed most of the expenditure as “waste” on a “national tamasha”.
A tamasha it is, and an ironic one at that, for our government is closer in spirit to the British forces of 1857 than to the mutineers—this waste of our money, coercively taken from us, is a great example of that. Will we ever rise up against such theft?
Also read: The Republic of Apathy.
The foreign correspondent Edward Behr had titled one of his books Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English? It pithily shows journalistic callousness, where reporters hardened by tragedy cannot respond in a humane way to a crisis. But it is one thing to be moved, quite another to be moved by the idea of being moved. And honest reporters try to avoid falling into that trap by reporting facts, letting them speak for themselves.
Read the full piece. Sainath, I have always felt, is an excellent reporter when he is doing the honest reporter’s job of reporting facts. But when he lets his ideology take over, his pieces lose their way. Faulty government policies are responsible for the plight of our farmers, and it is disingenuous of Sainath to offer more such government interference as a solution. It is convenient to blame “neoliberal economics”, as if free markets have ever been allowed in agriculture or in rural India, but the truth is that only free markets and free enterprise can give our farmers the choices they deserve. (I’ve written on this subject often, but points 15 and 16 of this post sum up my thoughts on it.)
In other words, Sainath rocks at description but sucks at prescription. What a pity.
Also read: Salil’s cover story on farming in the April 2008 issue of Pragati.
This sentence, from The Economist, says it all:
A pessimist would reply that the other big killer, obesity, keeps spreading, especially among the poor.
The emphasis is mine, of course.
Posted by Amit Varma on 29 April, 2008 in Economics
This is beautifully crisp:
Producers exist to satisfy consumers; production is the means and consumption is the end. Protectionism is a policy built on the premise that consumers exist to satisfy producers.
That’s Don Boudreaux in Cafe Hayek, of course.
Posted by Amit Varma on 22 April, 2008 in Economics
If Mr Obama truly seeks to rein in institutions that systematically reward bad behavior, he should scale back government and forget about intruding into the private sector. In private markets, Smith spends only Smith’s money. Smith profits or loses depending on the prudence of his choices. This tight connection between each person’s actions and the consequences that he or she bears provides remarkably effective carrots and sticks encouraging private persons to behave responsibly. In the so-called “public sector,” in contrast, Smith spends Jones’s money. Smith profits or loses depending on how effectively he uses Jones’s money to buy votes from Jackson, Johnson, Williams and other persons who are assured by Smith of their moral right to free-ride on Jones’s resources. Surely, there is no surer recipe than this for rewarding bad behavior.
This reminds of what Milton Friedman once said:
There are four ways in which you can spend money. You can spend your own money on yourself. When you do that, why then you really watch out what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money. Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone. Well, then I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost. Then, I can spend somebody else’s money on myself. And if I spend somebody else’s money on myself, then I’m sure going to have a good lunch! Finally, I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get. And that’s government.
The quote of the day comes from a piece in The Times of India by Mohammed Wajihuddin that reexamines suicides in Vidarbha:
Why would he choose to jump into a well which was three kilometers away from his house when he could have easily killed himself by swallowing pesticide?
On 62 sandstone elephants in Lucknow. Their cost, according to CNN-IBN: Rs. 38 crore. They will be part of the Ambedkar Memorial, which, according to The Economic Times, is being built at “a whopping cost of Rs 7 billion.”
That’s Rs. 700 crore.
Yes, yes, I know that’s your money, and mine. But it’s not like we were planning to do anything useful with it. The nation needs an Ambedkar Memorial. And the memorial needs sandstone elephants. No?
(Link via email from Akshat Kaul. For more on how our government loots us, check out my Taxes Archive.)
Headline of the day:
Oh, wait, it’s not Sitaram Yechury, it’s some random woman in Germany. I suppose I was misled by the amount of hot air in this recent Yechury piece. Consider, for example, this line:
If India needs to insulate itself relatively from this [subprime] crisis, then it must abandon all such measures of financial liberalisation that will inexorably tie India to the growing global uncertainties.
Let’s all just stay poor then, so there’s no danger of losing the money we haven’t had a chance to earn anyway. Such logic!
(Fox link via email from Gautam.)
Update: As some readers have pointed out, I made a mistake by attributing Yechury’s article to Prakash Karat when I made the post a few hours ago. I know, same difference, but it was a silly mistake I shouldn’t have made. Corrected now.
A couple of months ago, I had praised Gautam Adhikari for setting out a classical liberal direction for the Times of India editorial pages. Well, Sauvik Chakraverti writes in to argue that my praise was undeserved, as demonstrated by a recent editorial in the newspaper that Sauvik calls “illiberal, intolerant and unsympathetic.” Sauvik has a piece on it that I recommend you read. An excerpt:
[T]he editorial is blind to reality. It asks the totally stupid question: “How is it that the drug trade in Goa is flourishing, that too, in full public view and under the nose of the state police who’s duties include cracking down on such activities?” The drug trade is flourishing all over the world, including New Delhi. I myself scored marijuana in London a stone’s throw from the headquarters of Scotland Yard. The duties of the Goa police also include ensuring road safety. Every Goan, local as well as tourist, would be safer if this duty was performed. The drug trade should be legalized – but this is probably ‘too liberal’ an idea for the editor.
I admire Sauvik immensely, and agree with his thoughts here, but I have a problem with the way he expresses them. Consider this sentence: “This illiberal, unsympathetic and ignorant editorial then descends to rank idiocy.” This may be true, but the harsh language alienates the neutral reader who might be coming across some of these ideas for the first time. A better approach would be to calmly lay the facts and the argument out, and to respect the reader enough to let him come to his own conclusion without shouting it at him. This is especially true when those ideas—legalizing the drug trade, for example—sound radical to a normal guy, which makes it important for the tone to be measured and reasonable.
I hope I’m not coming across as preachy here, for Sauvik is a much sharper thinker than I am. (He also won the Bastiat Prize a few years before I got lucky.) But I’m angry that such a fine mind, which can open so many doors for so many people, does not find a platform on the editorial pages of a single major newspaper in India, many of which are filled with mediocre writing. I’m quite sure that the tone of the writing, not the content, is responsible for that.
And while on drugs and Goa, I’d mentioned in a recent post that I was in favour of legalizing drugs as well, and will elaborate on that in a longer piece soon.
Update (March 21): Sauvik writes in to inform me that he does indeed have a regular column in the Sunday edition of the New Indian Express. My apologies. I shall watch that page regularly.
This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.
More than a century after the company’s great forbear Jamshedji Tata scoured Ohio looking for steel expertise, India’s tech major Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) opened a 1000-seat delivery centre outside Cincinnati on Monday, marking a small but significant counter to overwrought reports about job flight from the United States.
To be honest, I quote the only part of the Obama speech that made no sense. The rest of it was flat-out brilliant. He spoke of race in America with a nuance and subtlety that is rare in political discourse, but his rhetoric against free trade and profit, which are the driving forces of human progress, was archaic and befuddling. He was making a speech for posterity, not just for the Democratic Party nomination, and his populist pandering, which lacked the nuance that set the rest of his speech apart, struck a discordant note.
That said, even if he really believes his economic spiel and wasn’t just pandering, even if many of his ideas are wrong, I admire this man immensely. He could have taken the safe way out and “denounced and rejected” Jeremiah Wright. But instead, as the Philadelphia Inquirer put it, he “condemned the sins but embraced the sinner.” That takes courage and conviction, so hats off for that.
For more, check out the reactions linked from Real Clear Politics.
(Link via email from Gautam.)
Posted by Amit Varma on 18 March, 2008 in Economics
Taxpayer money running into several hundred crores is being splurged annually on the upkeep of bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi.
These bungalows, used by India’s political and bureaucratic leadership, are white elephants in terms of running costs, thanks to their elaborate colonial style construction, huge lawns and staggering security paraphernalia.
The residences of the Gandhi family — Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka — saw a spend of nearly Rs47 lakh collectively during these three years.
I don’t have an issue with senior functionaries in the government getting perks with their jobs, but why on earth should the taxes you and I pay go towards Priyanka Gandhi’s plumbing and electricity expenses? Truly, the Gandhis are a royal family. I suppose I should just be glad that we live in the 21st century, or they’d have me hanged, drawn and quartered for my audacity in questioning their entitlements.
For more on how our government loots us, check out my Taxes Archive.
Don Boudreaux speaks out against that particular myth. Well, okay, not that particular myth, but an even sillier one.
One could argue that perhaps volcanoes that have erupted have done so because they haven’t been fed enough virgins. Such is ideology, and politics. What to say now?
Posted by Amit Varma on 17 March, 2008 in Economics
Manas Chakravarty explains the budget.
During my recent visits to the Amazon pages of books by Chris Anderson and Neil Gaiman, I found that those pages now carry their latest blog posts. If Amazon does this across all its books, then it represents a great way for widely read authors to become widely read bloggers, as chances are that many readers interested in their books will end up discovering their blogs. This doesn’t guarantee success, of course, as they need to convert those first-time visitors into regular readers with compelling content, but the fact that they’re successful authors indicates that writing is their core competency anyway—the rest is adaptation to this new medium, and the desire to adopt it.
And yes, I know, Amazon doesn’t actually direct traffic to the author’s blog, but to their mirror of it. But, as in Gaiman’s case, it specifies that the content is syndicated from his journal, and links to it. And once you get hooked to it, the chances are that you’ll go to the original site, not to its Amazon mirror. Of course, Gaiman’s blog already has a significant readership and doesn’t need to be promoted on Amazon, but that isn’t true of most other writers.
So all I need to do to expand my blog readership beyond current levels is write a bestselling book. That can’t be too hard!
Chris Anderson explains “why $0.00 Is the Future of Business.” An excerpt:
On a busy corner in São Paulo, Brazil, street vendors pitch the latest “tecnobrega” CDs, including one by a hot band called Banda Calypso. Like CDs from most street vendors, these did not come from a record label. But neither are they illicit. They came directly from the band. Calypso distributes masters of its CDs and CD liner art to street vendor networks in towns it plans to tour, with full agreement that the vendors will copy the CDs, sell them, and keep all the money. That’s OK, because selling discs isn’t Calypso’s main source of income. The band is really in the performance business — and business is good. Traveling from town to town this way, preceded by a wave of supercheap CDs, Calypso has filled its shows and paid for a private jet.
I am reminded here of Christian Lander: the author of Stuff White People Like has built up a phenomenal readership by offering up free blogposts, and this will surely help him become a best-selling author when (surely not ‘if’) his book on the subject is released. (I first blogged about that site on February 27, and it has notched up more than 4 million pageviews since then.)
This kind of cross-subsidizing has been common since the days of Gillette, as Anderson points out, but is only one of many ways to make money with free content—read his full article for more.
Also read, if you haven’t already, Anderson’s seminal 2004 article, “The Long Tail”, which led to his excellent book of the same name. (My posts on that: 1, 2.) This article is an appetizer for his forthcoming book, FREE, which I am waiting eagerly to read.
(Link via email from Rohan D’Sa.)
Posted by Amit Varma on 06 March, 2008 in Economics
Clive Crook writes in Financial Times:
When Texas and Ohio vote in Tuesday’s Democratic primaries, they may bring Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency to an end. If she loses either of those states, her bid is over barring the formalities. This is a position few expected her to be in. Not long ago, success in the primaries and victory in the general election were regarded as almost inevitable. What went wrong?
For the answer, one should turn (as always) to the teachings of Marx. “The secret of success in life is sincerity,” Groucho once famously observed. “If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
This truth about the human condition applies with particular force to politics. Mrs Clinton tries hard to fake sincerity – so hard it is painful to watch. Sometimes, in fact, I suspect that she really is sincere and only looks as though she is faking. Barack Obama, on the other hand, may actually be sincere – and if he is not, he fakes it so well it makes no difference. Elections are won and lost for many reasons, but if I had to point to just one in the present case, this would be it.
Exactly. As I wrote on Saturday, it all comes down to acting: Obama has chosen the right part to play, and is playing it well. Clinton, on the other hand, has muffed it up.
Having said that, in her latest campaign commercial, she plays a Republican quite convincingly. Watch:
And here’s Obama’s brilliant reply:
Some readers have got the impression from my recent posts on the American elections that I’m supporting Barack Obama. Not yet. I’d love him to get the Democratic nomination, but I have reservations about some of his positions—in particular, on NAFTA. Check out this excellent piece by Steve Chapman on why Obama and Clinton are wrong on NAFTA.
Click here for more posts on politics.
Dear Purba Dutt
In a feature in the Sunday Times today, you refer to the IPL auctions as “human auctions”, and compare it to the slave trade. You invoke Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and speak of indentured labourers being sold in “a heartless transaction.” You miss something here.
Contrary to rhetoric, the cricketers were not on sale during the IPL auctions—their services were. The eight IPL franchises were effectively bidding for the services of the players as per contracts enabled by the BCCI that the players had willingly signed. This is quite unlike slavery—indeed, it is how you and me get by.
If you choose to leave the Times someday and look for a job, you will effectively put yourself on the market just as these cricketers did. You will evaluate prospective employers, and go to whoever makes you the most appealing offer. There may not be a formal auction setup for it, but it will effectively be just that: your services will be on offer, and different employers will bid for them.
So please, please, don’t compare this with the slave trade. Thank you.
Ps. You might also want to read this.
Headline of the day:
(Link via email from Nandini Nagarajan.)
This piece of mine was published today in Mail Today (pdf link).
Wherever there’s big money floating around, politicians emerge and start squealing. The recent auctions at the Indian Premier League have roused the ire of both the Left and the Right of Indian politics. On the right, the inimitable Balasaheb Thackeray has described the IPL auctions as the “gambling of industrialists”. On the Left, Gurudas Dasgupta is complaining that this will make “every youngster not a good sportsman but a man hungry for money.”
Sundry politicians and commentators are telling us that this obscene spending will corrupt the spirit of the game, that these players are selling their soul, and so on. They behave as if “commercialization”, a term used repeatedly by shocked observers, is The Great Indian Sin. I have a question:
What, precisely, is wrong with commercialisation?
If Thackeray and Dasgupta pondered the history of human affairs, they would note that human progress is possible only because of the profit motive. The only way to make a profit is to fulfill the desire of fellow humans, by manufacturing goods or providing services that they need. The search for profit fuels innovation and enterprise. It leads to new technologies and better service. People trade to their comparative advantage, they specialize, and this makes economies more productive, and raises everyone’s standard of living.
Without such “commercialisation”, we’d be stuck in the stone age.
If Thackeray really has a problem with industry - for that is what the industrialists he condemns are all about - then he should step wearing clothes. All the clothes he wears are produced for profit, by industrialists, who clothe him not because they care for him or want to defend Hindu culture, but because he pays them money. How vulgar!
If Dasgupta has a problem with people “hungry for money”, he should immediately go on a fast. The people he gets his groceries from provide it in exchange for money, as do the restaurants that serve him food. There is only one appropriate response to this shocking commercialisation and rampant consumerism: Stop eating.
One blogger bizarrely compared the cricketers up on auction to prostitutes. Firstly, in the absence of coercion, I don’t see what is wrong with prostitution, or why we should look down on prostitutes. Secondly, if selling a service makes one a prostitute, then I am unquestionably a lady of the night, and this is my short, black, leather skirt that you’re reading. We are all whores in our own ways - and there is nothing wrong with that.
Back to the cricket. Besides the mere fact that money is involved, many people are also complaining about the amount of money the cricketers are getting. Some say cricketers should not be so well paid when other sportspeople in this country are so poorly paid. Other say that it is an outrage that Ishant Sharma should get more than Chaminda Vaas, and Rohit Sharma more than Ricky Ponting.
Look, who determines these prices? In the long run, you and I do. The businessmen putting that cash on the table do so because they estimate that those are the returns they’ll get on their investment. Those returns will come from us: We’ll buy the merchandise, we’ll watch the matches - which determine the value of TV rights - and their appeal to us will determine the value of the endorsements that flood in.
What if the team owners are wrong, and overpay for some players? Well, then they’ll duly learn their lessons when their team’s performance doesn’t justify the investment, and their bottomline suffers. What if some players are underpaid? Well, if they perform beyond their renumeration, they’ll receive their rightful value when the transfer season begins.
Twenty20 is a new form of the game, and the IPL is a new venture. It will take some time for the market to start functioning smoothly, and getting the values right. Until then, there is no point begrudging these cricketers their earnings.
The argument that this money would be better spent on other sports is bogus. If you feel Indian football should get more attention than Indian cricket, then here’s what you should do about it: Go out there and watch some local football games. Put your money where your mouth is. If you contribute your eyeballs, advertisers will open their chequebooks. If other sports don’t have a following in India, it is not because people don’t put money into them - it is the other way around.
Back to the IPL. Despite the BCCI bungling up sp much of the process, I think the IPL, if it succeeds, will be revolutionary. The reason for that is that it introduces into cricket the best guarantee of quality and efficiency: Competition.
The market for cricket has so far been a monopsony: There has been only buyer for a cricketer’s services. An Indian cricketer who wants to play cricket at the highest level can only sell his services to the BCCI, and is dependent of its selectors picking him - an imperfect process open to politics and the whims and fancies of individuals. That will change if the IPL takes off. A young, talented cricketer will have a number of people he can sell his services to, from the Bangalore Royal Challengers to the Delhi Daredevils to the Chennai Super Kings. If he is good, they will compete for him, thus guaranteeing him his true market value.
The BCCI, when it comes to cricket in India, has essentially had a captive market. The IPL teams will have to compete. The competition will threaten their existence, and they will have all the right incentives to excel. They will eschew the local politics of selection. They will search for differentiators in terms of training and scouting new talent. Like some football clubs do in Europe, they might establish youth academies to find and hone new talent. They will do so not out of love or duty to the game, but with regard to their bottomline. Cricket will benefit, as its machinery will flow that much smoother.
For a cricket purist like me, there is a flip side to this: What will happen to Test cricket? If the IPL succeeds, Test cricket will surely suffer. Already, one hears rumours of the ICC schedule being subject to the demands of Lalit Modi and his men. Given the amount of investment, in terms of time, that Test cricket requires from its viewers, it is possible that Test cricket will slowly die out.
Hordes of commentators and politicians will then start squealing about how the demands of the market have killed Test cricket, and how the market is a cruel, malign force.
Personally, I believe that Test cricket will have enough of an audience to survive—even if it ends up being a niche audience. But if it doesn’t, here’s my question: Should people who don’t watch Test cricket be forced to subsidize it? Remember, commerce is all about giving you what you want. If Test cricket dies, the killer won’t be commercialisation, or the IPL, or the greed of businessmen - it will be us.
* * *
IBNLive and Rediff links via email from Praveen Krishnan.
For more, check out my essays and Op-Eds archive.
Rahul Bhatia explains how the IPL arose out of the unintended consequences of something the ICC did way back in 2000. Immense irony.
This piece of mine was published in the Indian Express today.
“Where in the world are truly free markets?” a friend asked me the other day. “The kind of economic freedom you libertarians dream of just doesn’t work. Freedom leads to chaos. All markets need to be regulated by the government, which alone can safeguard the interests of the people.”
“Have you been online recently,” I asked.
“Don’t change the subject,” he said.
“I’m not,” I replied.
A couple of years ago, the libertarian blogger Warren Meyer was asked why there were so many, well, libertarian bloggers. His reply, in a nutshell, was that the internet is a libertarian space. “Libertarianism resists organization,” he wrote. Libertarians tend to be “suspicious of top-down organization in and of itself. Blogging is therefore tailor made for us - many diverse bottom-up messages rather than one official top-down one.”
In many ways, the online world is like the beautifully functioning free market that governments have never allowed in meatspace (the ‘real’ world). To begin with, the government does not pose an entry barrier to individuals who wish to have a presence online. You want to start a blog? It’ll take you three clicks to set one up. You don’t need a license for it, and you won’t have inspectors coming over and scrutinising your methods of work.
The blogosphere is a meritocratic space. Each blog finds the audience it deserves. If you like economics, you’ll find tons of good economics blogs, often much better than anything you’ll see in the mainstream media, because they’re written by specialists, not generalists. You want gardening? Literature? Technology? You’ll find content in any niche you can think of.
There is a lot of junk on the internet, but readers navigate through it easily, and soon settle on a few sites they regularly visit. Information percolates so quickly that a good new blog doesn’t take much time to build a readership. You write something nice, people who like it link to you, their readers check you out, and so it grows. Marketing and hype are generally wasted, and everything is viral. If you provide compelling content, readers come. If you write rubbish, readers go. Competition is the best regulation.
The blogger Ravikiran Rao once speculated on what would happen if the government decided to protect users from “bad blogs”, and regulate blogging. If government babus started deciding what content was appropriate for audiences, good bloggers would be intimidated away, not bothering to enter a space where there were so many hassles. Established bloggers would lobby for regulation to protect them from pesky newcomers. The quality of blogging would go down, not up - and readers would be shortchanged.
Far-fetched? Well, it works that way in many fields - such as, as Rao pointed out in his post, “private schools and educational institutions.” Indeed, in India at least, it is pervasive.
If only our government understood the power of free markets. I wish our bureaucrats read “I, Pencil” by Leonard Read, one of my favourite essays. It is a first-person account by a pencil of its genealogy – and by the end of it, you realise that a mere pencil is such a thing of wonder that no government could have put it together. It takes legions of people, possibly across continents, doing disparate things without knowledge of one another to make sure that when you need a pencil, and go to the shop to pick it up, it’s there. It’s a miracle, almost beyond comprehension, and certainly beyond planning or oversight. It takes a free market, not a benevolent central planner - economists call this process spontaneous order.
The internet benefits from this freedom. Consider Wikipedia, for example. It once used to be laughed at - how can a few volunteers produce better content than experts? - but is now a classic example of what spontaneous order can achieve. It is much broader than the Encyclopedia Britannica, and often deeper as well. It has its own self-correcting mechanisms, and its rules of use have evolved from the bottom up, and not been enforced from the top down. It shows that the voluntary actions of people working towards their self-interest is a far more powerful force than the self-important and sanctimonious supervision of governments. Online, we’re all free.
Supporters of free markets stress on the importance of the rule of law - and the internet is not a lawless zone. The laws of the real world apply to what we do online - sometimes to worrisome effect, as jailed bloggers in countries like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia have discovered. But on the whole, the internet is free of the kind of needless, suffocating government regulation and barriers to trade that bedevil the rest of the world. Long may it stay that way.
* * *
Also read: In Defence of Blogging.
You can browse through more of my essays and Op-Eds here.
Michael Totten quotes John Derbyshire in the context of Cuba:
Wherever there is a jackboot stomping on a human face there will be a well-heeled Western liberal to explain that the face does, after all, enjoy free health care and 100 percent literacy.
Here’s the Derbyshire piece that’s from. It was written in 2000, but will always, I fear, be relevant.
With hartals. Such positive externalities!
Timothy Egan rebuts Steve Jobs. Good show.
With India’s new affluence comes the divorce generation, says a headline in the International Headline Tribune. The story, by Anand Giridharadas, described how divorces are on the rise in India. It gives me great hope for the country.
I know there will be voices bemoaning the breakdown of the family and suchlike, but to me, more divorces = less women trapped in bad marriages. An increasing divorce rate indicates that women are being empowered with more choices, and that is a great trend. I hope it grows.
(IHT link via email from Gautam.)
Dear Arvind Swaminathan
Assuming there is no coercion, what’s wrong with prostitution?
(Link via Smoke Signals.)
And also: The Population Myth.
Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2008 in Economics
Headline of the day:
You can’t deny there’s a certain logic to it.
(Link via email from Shrek.)
This story says it all:
India have scrapped a training camp for this month’s Thomas and Uber Cup qualifiers because of a lack of shuttlecocks, badminton officials said on Thursday.
The federation sent home over 30 players due to start training on Thursday, blaming the state-run Sports Authority of India (SAI) for not supplying the stock or allowing them to import.
The emphasis is mine.
Apropos of nothing, I’m reminded of the Amartya Sen Fallacy.
(Link via email from Shruti.)
In case you missed it, here’s the original.
Also see: Megan McArdle on her moment of Bastiat irony.
(Links via email from Ravikiran.)
Andy Mukherjee turns to satire, with fine effect.
... the Labour government is using tax-breaks to incentivize polygamy. Heh.
Don Boudreaux writes another great letter.
... are hazardous to the taxpayer, reports IBNLive.com. A study has found that “the health costs of thin and healthy people in adulthood are more expensive than those of either fat people or smokers,” and “healthy people live longer and may develop long-term diseases in old age like Alzheimer’s which are very expensive to treat.”
The solution here is not to prevent people from living long and healthy lives. Instead, it is to question what our governments do with the money it coerces out of its citizens. Is it fair to take money from the obese to pay the medical costs of the relatively healthy, as is effectively the case here? Would it be fair the other way around? Is the government taxing us to provide certain basic services like law and order, or to redistribute it according to the interests of a few politicians in power?
I hope to live a long and healthy life— and even if I don’t, to be a burden on nobody. Is that unusual?
(Link via email from Andy.)