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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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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.


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Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.


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


Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Essays and Op-Eds

One Bad Law Goes, but Women Remain Second-Class Citizens

This is the 12th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

This has been a year of glorious gifts from unelected middle-aged men. The Supreme Court of India is churning out enlightened judgements as if oppression is going out of fashion: Privacy, 377, and now Adultery.

On Thursday, the court struck down Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code. This section read: “Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offence of rape, is guilty of the offense of adultery, and shall be punished.”

As the part about the consent of the husband indicates, the law treated women as the property of their husbands, and adultery like a form of theft. Justice DY Chandrachud wrote in his judgement: “The history of Section 497 reveals that the law on adultery was for the benefit of the husband, for him to secure ownership over the sexuality of his wife. It was aimed at preventing the woman from exercising her sexual agency.”

As Chandrachud elaborates in his judgement, this has been a ubiquitous attitude towards adultery throughout history. Babylon’s ancient Hammurabi Code prescribed that a married woman caught in adultery “be bound to her lover and thrown into the water so that they drown together.” (No such punishment for an unfaithful man, mind you.) Ancient Greco-Roman societies considered adultery to be “a violation of a husband’s exclusive sexual access to his wife,” and Judaic and Christian laws followed a similar logic.

This went beyond ancient times. In 1650, England introduced the death penalty for adultery with the Act for Suppressing the Detestable Sins of Incest, Adultery and Fornication. Section 497, which they later thrust upon this particular colony, was an adulterated version of this.

In the 21st century, no law should deny the autonomy and agency of a woman. But what if society itself is regressive, and denies women basic human dignity, as is the case in India? Chandrachud remarks, “Law and Society are intrinsically connected and oppressive social values often find expression in legal structures.” But he adds, “The Constitution, both in text and interpretation, has played a significant role in the evolution of law from being an instrument of oppression to becoming one of liberation.”

One bad law has gone, but we remain a nation in which women are second-class citizens. Firstly, similar laws remain in the books, such as Section 498, which deals with “enticing or taking away or detaining with criminal intent a married woman,” and also treats women as the property of men. Secondly, hell, look at Indian society around you.

Some of us Engish-speaking elite types imagine that things must be getting better because we see so many strong, articulate women around us. But that’s the Selection Bias at play. Outside these circles, women in India are having a tough time. Women still fill government forms that insist on Father’s/Husbands name, as if to establish ownership. One telling metric: female participation in the workforce has actually gone down in the last two decades.

Much of what we call ‘empowerment’ is on the terms of men. So many men signal how modern they are by boasting about how they ‘let’ their wife work, or how they ‘help out’ with domestic chores. They behave as if they deserve a pat of their backs for not beating their wives, and chaining them to the kitchen. We have set the bar so low that not being a monster is now a matter of congratulations.

Men tend to be oblivious of how women carry their gender as a burden. Something I realised recently – and shame on me for being so late to realise it, in my forties – is that my gender is not a factor in my everyday life. I can ignore and take for granted my maleness. But in every single thing a woman does, her gender comes into play. An empty compartment at a train station, the tone of voice in a job interview, the supercilious, sniggering men who always interrupt, whose eyes travel like you know their hands would if they had the license.

Every day, women have to confront and make peace with their own thingness. Every day they find new reasons to question themselves. The ever-present human anxiety about what others think of us is amplified for women, and restraint becomes a reflex.

I have a secondary rant here. Just as the adultery law saw women as the property of men, many of our laws, and parts of our constitution, treat citizens as the property of the state. We are subjects of a mai-baap master, which can regulate our speech and our behaviour. We take this for granted, just as many women take the oppression they face for granted.

We cannot be a free society until we address this. The Supreme Court cannot deliver us from ourselves. No matter how ugly the sight, we must look within.

Also check out:
‘Misogyny is the Oldest Indian Tradition’—Amit Varma
‘Misogyny and Our Legal System’—Episode 58 of The Seen and the Unseen
‘Consent Won a Battle This Week. The War Remains’—Amit Varma
‘I am a Feminist. You should be too’—Amit Varma
‘Claiming Your Space’—Episode 76 of The Seen and the Unseen

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 September, 2018 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | The Rationalist


Cricketers Focus on Process, Not Results. So Should Fans

This is the third installment of my cricket column for Cricket Next., and was published on September 15, 2018.

Every time India loses a Test series abroad, the doomed relationship between the Indian Cricket Fan and the Indian Cricket Player comes into focus. The Player usually disappoints the Fan; and when the Fan is delighted, it is often for the wrong reason. This is because the Player and the Fan look at the game in completely different ways. So different, in fact, that we might be talking about different sports here.

The crux of this difference: the Indian Cricket Fan is results-oriented.

There have been many loud judgements made by Fans in the course of this series against England, all expressed with great passion and conviction. Hardik Pandya should not have played the first two Tests. Virat Kohli was right to pick Hardik for the third Test; redemption! Kohli was wrong to pick Hardik for the fourth, and he must be dropped. (I have heard these three come from the same person, though they are absurd together.) KL Rahul should be not be in the side. After the fifth Test, wait, oops.

What these judgements, and so many others through the series, have in common is that they are based on results. Consider the different types of judgements Fans tend to pass.

Judgements around selection. So-and-so should not be picked instead of you-and-yo. Example: picking Rohit Sharma instead of Ajinkya Rahane at the start of the Test series in South Africa.

Judgements around events. What a horrible shot Rishabh Pant played to get out in the fifth Test. Bad boy!

Judgements around a side’s approach. Why were Rahul and Pant so aggressive after tea on the fifth day in the fifth Test? Maybe we could have gotten a draw if they had tried to play the day out.

Judgements around, well, results. We lost 4-1. We are a horrible side!

I’m not taking a position on these specific judgements, but on the basis on which they are made. At this point, you would be justified in asking me, WTF columnist bro, if we don’t make judgements based on results, what do we base them on? Don’t players look at the game the same way? Shouldn’t they?

Well, no. All elite sportspeople think about the game probabilistically, and aren’t results-oriented. They value process more than results. That is the only route to success in anything – and I learnt it, viscerally, when I shifted from being a Fan to a Player.

Not a cricket player, don’t worry. After about a decade in cricket journalism, I chucked it around eight years ago, and spent five years as a professional poker player. Poker is a game of skill, but has a higher quantum of luck than other sports – in fact, it has been said that the key skill in poker is the management of luck. This might well be true to any other sport, and of life itself.

One of the early lessons I learnt in poker was that one cannot be results-oriented. I won’t bore you with poker talk, so let me give my favourite illustration of this. (I promise this is relevant to cricket and Kohli and 4-1, so bear with me!)

Let’s say you have an evenly weighted coin, that will fall heads or tails 50% of the time each – over the long run. A friend offers you a deal. You will flip that coin an unspecified number of times. Every time it hands on heads, he will give you Rs 51. Every time it lands on tails, you give him Rs 49.

It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out why this is profitable. You calculate the Expected Value (EV) of a single flip to be Rs 1. (If you flip it 100 times, you get 51x50 and lose 49x50 to gain 100 rupees. Divide by 100.) The more you flip, the more money you make. It is clearly right to accept the bet and start spinning that coin.

But here’s the thing: thinking probabilistically tells you that the decision to flip the coin is always profitable (to the tune of one rupee), but the actual result is always a harsh binary. You either win 51 bucks or lose 49. Let’s say you flip the coin once, it lands on tails, and your friend takes the money and walks off. Does that make it a bad decision?

Maybe he sees your downcast face and spins it again. Tails again. Now? Hell, he could even get ten tails in a row – unlikely as that seems, ten tails in a row is actually inevitable at some point if you spin the coin enough, and you just got unlucky here. (To get a sense of this, do read my old piece, ‘Unlikely is Inevitable’.) So you end up as a big loser – but does this mean your decision-making was flawed?

The key to winning in poker is to keep making the best decision you can, and not worry about the short-term variance of results. This is also the key to winning in life – but I won’t bore you any more on this. (For a deeper explanation involving football and parallel universes, do read my old essay, ‘What Cricket Can Learn From Poker’.) My point is that all actions in all sports carry probabilities with them, and have an inherent EV.

For example, when Lionel Messi find the ball at his feet three feet outside the box with two defenders converging to get in his way, he knows the probabilities of a) trying to weave his way through them to score directly, b) drawing them away from the goal and passing into the space his run would have created for his colleague Luis Suarez, c) Suarez scoring from there, d) Messi just going for a direct shot on goal now, e) Messi sprinting into the box and falling, hoping for a penalty. These numbers would be internalised by Messi’s coaches, and the optimal behaviour in such a spot would be second nature to Messi.

The thing is, he could make the optimal move, with a 15% chance of success, and miss. He could do something sub-optimal, with a 5% chance, and succeed, as he will one-twentieth of the time in that situation. The first decision would not be wrong just because he did not score. The second would not be right just because he did. We have no way of knowing – though Messi is in the best position to judge – and we can only tell how good a player’s decision-making is over an extremely long term, when we have good enough sample sizes to draw reliable conclusions.

In cricket, that long term is not possible. Now, consider the many kinds of EV a captain like Virat Kohli has to calculate when he takes the field.

One is of the strategic value of aggression. Should batsmen be aggressive and show ‘intent’ in Test matches? The merit in this: you don’t let bowlers get into a rhythm; you could take the game away in one good session; if it works, the confidence can create a decisive virtuous cycle. The danger: you could lose too many wickets too quickly when it doesn’t work, and lose the game in a session; the players who fail thus could lose confidence; this could create a vicious cycle.

This is a tough decision. Every Test match has uniquely different conditions, and it is impossible to get a large enough sample size to come to any conclusion. I’d need data from tens of thousands of games with and without this approach to have confidence in a judgement. In the absence of such a sample, a captain like Kohli has to go with his gut to form a philosophy around this.

He has chosen aggression, and prefers free-scoring batsmen like KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan and Hardik Pandya to plodders like Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. (He is no doubt biased by the good results of his own aggression, ignoring the fact that the risk-reward ratio is different for him because he is a superior player to all the guys named above.)

From the EV of a strategy, let’s move to the EV of a specific decision: picking Hardik Pandya in a Test XI in England. I am a fan of Pandya, and I think Kohli’s rationale for playing him would be the same as mine. He is an under-rated batsman, whose aggression can swing a game in a session. Even if he averages five-runs-an-innings lower than a specialist No. 6 batsman, the ten useful overs he can provide in a day, giving rest to the specialist bowlers, is worth those five runs. Playing him instead of a specialist No 6, in my opinion, carries a positive EV.

Now, he was our matchwinner in the third Test, and Kohli’s faith in him seemed vindicated. He flopped in the fourth, and had to be dropped following the public outcry from Fans. But this is indisputable: his EV in the third and fourth Test was identical. The results, though, were very different.

What is that EV? Should he play Tests for us? We can make our own judgements on that. But those two results, which drew such acclaim and derision respectively, are, for all practical purposes, random noise.

At the moment, the results indicate that Kohli is a bad captain, and made mistakes in this series. But are five Tests in England enough to judge, in a season where this batch of the Duke’s ball swung more than normal, tosses were decisive, and England won all the tosses? Could the probabilities have been on his side, but not luck? Are Fans being harsh by judging Kohli on the results of the series? What are the possible counterfactuals?

I don’t want to defend Kohli or take a specific stance here. Nor am I arguing that we should suspend all judgement entirely. But we should be aware that what happens on a cricket field is an inadequate way to evaluate a game, because it is a tiny fraction of what the sport is about. The real drama of cricket, the ebb and flow that matters, lies in the possibilities and probabilities of what can happen, not in the boring binaries of what does. Watching the game would be a richer experience for us if we focussed, as the players do, on the journey and not the destination.

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 September, 2018 in Essays and Op-Eds | Sport


What Virat Kohli Should Consider About the Machinery of His Brain

This is the second installment of my cricket column for Cricket Next., and was published on September 5, 2018.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote a play called Man and Superman. You could steal that title and use it for a film on Virat Kohli’s life right now. As a batsman, he is in superhero territory: he plays every match on a different, easier pitch than his colleagues do, and has established himself as an all-time great. English conditions were once held to be his Kryptonyte, but he’s put that to rest with his sublime batting in this series. Leaving aside costume requirements—he still wears his underwear inside his pants—he is every bit a batting superhero.

Kohli is also the captain of his side, though, and in that avatar is just a frail human. India was walloped in South Africa earlier this year, and just lost the fourth Test in England to go 3-1 down. Both these opponents were themselves far from at their best, and the decisions Kohli made as captain have gotten much of the flak for these defeats. Especially selectorial decisions: Why Rohit over Rahane at the start of the SA series? Why drop Cheteshwar Pujara in the first Test in England? Why persist with Hardik Pandya when he doesn’t seem to bring enough value with either bat or ball?;

I agree with some of those criticisms, but not others, and I feel the critics may be making a mistake by being too results-oriented—I’ll elaborate on that in my next column. It is certainly true, though, that while Kohli has transcended his human limitations when it comes to the skill of batting, he hasn’t done so when it comes to decision-making as a captain. Like all of us, he has a flawed machine inside his skull, with modules that evolved as features in prehistoric times, but which are bugs now. There are cognitive biases and flawed heuristic that can lead us astray in our decision-making, and I’ll try to address some of them in this piece.

Note that while I will cite examples of specific decisions, I am not taking a position on any of them here. Maybe they were good decisions unfairly criticized; maybe they were bad ones; maybe we will never know. I am just going to lay out some of the traps that anyone who selects a cricket team can fall into—and these apply to all of us, in everything we do. Do they apply to Kohli? That is something for you—and him—to think about.

First up, there is the Availability Heuristic, which is defined as “a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision.” There are various ways this can play out. Number one, when a captain speaks up in selection meetings, he is likely to favour players he has actually seen up close, as opposed to those who have performed as well but he hasn’t seen so much of them.

This could lead Kohli, for example, to be more likely to bat for players who qualities he knows personally from teams he has played for, like RCB. Or it could lead to the Status Quo Bias, where he opts to stick with players he is familiar with, rather than take a risk on the relatively unknown. This can also come from the Ambiguity Effect, “a cognitive bias where decision making is affected by a lack of information.”

Kohli is not the sole selector, of course, and you could argue that they often pick fresh talent from the IPL more than from domestic cricket because the IPL is much more in the spotlight. Domestic first-class cricket is supposed to be the feeder system for Test cricket, and by that logic, you’d imagine Mayank Agarwal, with his prolific performances in the Ranji Trophy, would be in the Indian squad. Could his absence be because he had a mediocre IPL, and the Availability Heuristic kicked in?

All humans give in to the Narrative Bias, “our tendency to make sense of the world through stories.” This is actually a necessity, for how else can we navigate a complex world, but we must beware of getting wedded to a false narrative. For example, let’s say that Kohli decides that Rohit Sharma has too much talent to be left out of the Test side, plays with the correct intent, and must be persisted with. (I’m not expressing a view on the merit of this particular narrative, just using it as an example, since it’s a common criticism of Kohli.)

Once Kohli has picked this narrative, he is wired to ignore all evidence against it, and consider only all evidence that supports it. This is called the Confirmation Bias, defined as “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.” You see this all the time among political and ideological tribes on Twitter. In the context of our example narrative, it could mean that every time Rohit (derisively and unfairly called ‘NoHit’ by his detractors) does well, Kohli says, Ah, I knew it all along, and every time he fails, Kohli shrugs it off as an aberration. It becomes easy to do Post-Purchase Rationalisation, and explain Rohit’s failures by citing small sample sizes – which is a reasonable argument in its own right.

A related tendency is the Backfire Effect, which is “the finding that, given evidence against their beliefs, people can reject the evidence and believe even more strongly.” So if Rohit makes a quick cameo and gets out, that could actually strengthen Kohli’s belief rather than weaken it. The Endowment Effect may have something to do with it. This is “the hypothesis that people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them.” In this case, Kohli would own the decision to persist with Rohit, and it would seem better to him than it actually is.

Here are some other biases that could apply to this narrative. The Ben Franklin Effect: “a proposed psychological phenomenon [that] a person who has already performed a favor for another is more likely to do another favor for the other than if they had received a favor from that person.” The Semmelweis Reflex: “a metaphor for the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms.” Do consider also the Optimism Bias and the Ostrich Effect, which I hardly need to define.

Another factor that comes into play when sticking with a bad decision is the Sunk Cost Fallacy, which can also be described as Escalation of Commitment. This is “a human behavior pattern in which an individual or group facing increasingly negative outcomes from some decision, action, or investment nevertheless continues the same behavior rather than alter course.” An everyday example of this: we buy a ticket to watch a movie, hate the first half, but don’t walk out at the interval because hey, the money we spent on the ticket will be wasted. The correct approach is to view the ticket money as a sunk cost, and optimise our enjoyment in the time to come. But no, there is this fallacy.

This might also lead to The Gambler’s Fallacy: “The mistaken belief that, if something happens more frequently than normal during a given period, it will happen less frequently in the future.” An example: you flip an evenly weighted coin three times, and each time, it lands on ‘tails.’ So you feel that ‘heads’ is ‘due’, and the next one will surely be ‘heads’. (The probability remains 50% for any individual spin of the coin because coins don’t have a memory.) Similarly, a batsman’s chances of succeeding in the next innings are what they are: past failures does not mean that a success is ‘due’.

Kohli might also suffer from the Curse of Knowledge: “A cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, communicating with other individuals, unknowingly assumes that the others have the background to understand.” Is it possible, for example, that he unfairly expects less talented players like Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane to bat at a similar strike rate to him because he himself knows how to bat at a healthy momentum, and has the skill to do so?

Even if he does, his teammates are unlikely to dissent too much, which might lead to the False Consensus Effect: “The tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others agree with them.” This would ensure that he gets no negative feedback from within the team. What about from outside? Well, Indian captains have a tradition of ignoring the media, which a smart thing to do these days given the quality of it. But could Kohli also be giving in to the Hostile Attribution Effect: “The tendency to interpret others’ behaviors as having hostile intent, even when the behavior is ambiguous or benign.”

I could go on forever, but you get the drift. The purpose of this piece is not to criticize Kohli, or even the individuals mentioned in the example, such as poor Rohit/NoHit, who was finally removed from the Test side when it all got too much. We are all hardwired with these cognitive biases. We would all improve our decision-making if we were aware of them. Our quest as humans, always, is to transcend ourselves. Kohli has done this as a batsman, and I hope he manages to do it as a captain.

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 September, 2018 in Essays and Op-Eds | Sport


Consent Won a Battle This Week. The War Remains

This is the 11th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

Remember, remember, the sixth of September. In many ways, this date in 2018 is as momentous as August 15, 1947 was. On that day, India gained freedom from a foreign ruler, but Indians remained unfree, subjects of an oppressive Indian state instead of an oppressive colonial one. We were denied so many types of freedom, and took that condition for granted. This week, though, an important sliver of liberty was finally handed to us. This is also Independence Day.

The repeal of Section 377 is an emotional victory, but the tears are bittersweet. The fact remains that it took five unelected men to set this right. In this great democracy of ours, where the voice of the people is supposed to find expression in its politics, not one political party in the last 71 years tried to repeal 377. Parties don’t have principles, only incentives, and all of them behaved this way because they feared that voters would not approve. That tells you what every gay person in this country already knows from lived experience: our society is homophobic. Not just that, our society and the state do not give a damn about Consent.

The central principle of this 377 judgement was Consent: no one has the right to come between two consenting adults. Consent is the foundation of all human rights, and should be the foundation of our Republic. And yet, despite this one historic judgement on one domain of Consent, we remain a land that does not care for this principle.

Consider the arts. We are a country where films made for adults by adults are routinely censored. Books are banned. ‘Objectionable’ art exhibitions are shut down or vandalised. Artists and patrons, consenting adults all, are prevented from enriching each other.

Consider free speech. As in any other marketplace, all of us benefit when there is competition in the marketplace of ideas. And yet, we have laws in the Indian Penal Code, like 295(a) and 153(a), which allow anyone to claim offence and shut free speech down. Like 377, these laws are colonial artefacts. But they are actually validated by the most illiberal part of our Constitution, Article 19(2), which allows caveats to free speech on grounds like ‘public order’ and ‘decency and morality.’ Those are open to interpretation, and anything goes.

Consider food. The government regulates what you may or may not eat. Consider health. You cannot take cannabis for medical use, or any other medicine not approved by a government body. Consider education. You could get arrested for home-schooling your children if you find government schools inadequate, and there are so many restrictions placed on private schools that come between consenting parents and consenting teachers.

Indeed, markets are as big a battleground for Consent as bedrooms or kitchens. If we don’t interfere between consenting adults in a bedroom or kitchen, what moral justification is there for doing so in the marketplace? Every time a voluntary exchange happens between two people, it does so because both people benefit. Life and markets are a positive-sum game. And yet, governments ‘regulate’ and stop voluntary exchanges between consenting adults all the time. Often acting on behalf of entrenched interests, they restrict competition, harming consumers aka citizens, and benefiting cronies.

The most poignant victims of this are our farmers. Our entire agricultural crisis is a result of our farmers having their autonomy snatched away from them. They are the least free of Indians, and are trapped in a cycle of dependency. But this is a subject for another column, perhaps.

71 years after the British left is, we have the mentality of the colonised. We behave as if we are subjects of a mai-baap state, and not its masters. The state should exist to serve us, not the other way around. We give the state a monopoly on violence so that it can protect our rights, not so that it takes them away with the threat of violence. It is not a safeguard for our liberty, but the biggest threat to it.

We got lucky this time with the Supreme Court ruling, but we cannot rely on the court every time. There are too many freedoms to fight for, and unless the parties that run this country see political capital in it, they will not grant us those freedoms. But I have hope.

The outpouring of joy at the repeal of 377 may indicate that things are changing. Have we started caring about each other, and about freedom, a little bit more? Are we beginning to recognise that a nation cannot truly be free until all its citizens are free? Are we going to bring about more trysts with destiny?

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 September, 2018 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | The Rationalist


Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

This is the first installment of Politics Without Romance, my monthly column with Bloomberg Quint. As the name indicates, this column will look at Indian politics through the lens of Public Choice Theory.

One more Independence Day comes up, and it’s time to ask that annual question again: Where have all the leaders gone?

It’s a common lament that the politicians of today are the opposite of the freedom fighters who got us this Independence. We had giants then. We have pygmies now. Our leaders then were driven by principle. Our leaders now are driven by the lust for power. Why?

If you look at politics through the lens of economics, which I will do in this column over the new few months, the answer lies in incentives. Why do people get into politics? What do they want from it? What can they realistically expect? What do they need to do to get to the top? What trade-offs do they need to make? What do they need to do to stay on top?

Right from the 19th century, our freedom fighters had little personal upside to their battles. We were ruled by the British Empire, and these men had no chance of coming to power and enjoying its rewards. The downside was significant, though. If you were in a position of influence, you could lose it. If you were not, and fought too vigorously, you could land up in jail or worse.

The generations of men and women who rose up to fight against the British empire did so because they were animated by a higher cause. There was no personal upside to it. There was a principle at stake. For example: Freedom is my birthright, and I shall have it. And they cared about that principle so much that some of them were willing to die for it.

Once Independence was achieved, the incentives changed. Firstly, getting the British to leave was so miraculous, coming after a decades-long struggle, that our leaders did not notice what we did not achieve. Yes, we got political independence, but we still weren’t guaranteed the personal and economic freedoms that we had fought for.

One of the seminal moments of our Independence struggle was Mahatma Gandhi’s protest against the tyranny of the salt tax. Well, consider that the tax on salt is far higher today, not to mention other taxes or other tyrannies.

Here’s what we did on August 15, 1947. We replaced one set of rulers with another. Only the colour of their skin changed. And those who had fought against those in power were now in power themselves. Their incentives changed. Would they change?

In the early years of our independence, our politics was ruled by those who had come into the freedom struggle for the sake of principles, not power. I’m willing to give them the benefit of doubt. Their mistakes were honest mistakes – such as the embrace of the Fabian socialism that kept India poor for decades longer than it should have. That flawed thinking was the fashion of the times, and was not driven by bad incentives. The drive towards Big Government did, however, change incentives further.

Henceforth, it was natural that those who would be drawn to politics would be driven by the lust for power. Now that it was possible for Indians to join the ruling class, people were bound to want to do so. Now that we had achieved Independence, there no longer seemed a burning need to fight for higher principles. Principles would become a rationalisation, a way to position a political brand to differentiate it from others. 

Those who did enter politics for reasons of principle would soon find themselves having to compromise on those principles for pragmatic reasons. So much so that by the time they actually achieved power, there could be no trace of those original principles. There is an old truism that power corrupts. It is equally true that the quest for power corrodes character. There may be politicians who start off idealistic—but they cannot remain that way, no matter what their public positioning.

Why is this? Incentives. Achieving power requires two things: Money and Votes. (As you can only get Votes by spending Money, this is arguably one thing, but I’ll speak of them as two to illustrate the different directions that politicians are pulled in.)

First, money. Over the decades, it has gotten more and more prohibitive to fight an election. One needs crores to contest even a local election. Where does this money come from? Who can afford such large sums?

The money always comes from interest groups who expect a Return on Investment. There’s always a quid pro quo involved. I give you money, but when you come to power, you do XYZ for me. First, money leads to power. Then, power must lead to money. This is the chakravyuh of politics.

For example, if a big industrialist gives a political party money, what could he want out of it? One, he may want regulation that protects his industry or company from competition. Place tariffs on foreign goods, deny a license to a competitor, and so on. (All these can be done citing seemingly noble principles.)

Two, he may want special privileges that the government, using its monopoly on violence, can get him. For example, if he wants land for a factory, the government can use eminent domain to get it cheaply from villagers and hand it to him. Three, he may want soft loans from a Public Sector Bank, which he otherwise may not get from a private sector bank that has different incentives and does due diligence.

Contemporary examples of this abound. Consider the interest groups that benefit from any government policy, and you can follow the trail. You may oppose FDI in retail, for example, because small traders form a large chunk of your donor base, as is the case with AAP (and the BJP, until recently). You may allocate natural resources to favoured cronies, as the UPA was alleged to have done with coal and spectrum.

All of these, you will note, amount to a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, from us citizens to moneybag interest groups. This is how Power provides RoI to Money.

Needless to say, you don’t make money only for those who fund you, but also for yourself. (This might even be the prime personal incentive for wannabe politicians.) Our system of big government is especially lucrative. Wherever there is power, there is discretion, and there will be corruption. And our government is designed to give enormous amounts of power to those in charge, which makes immense corruption inevitable. This is not a function of the party in power, but of the incentives in play.

And now, to votes. In our democracy, elections are the process by which we decide which of the competing mafias will get to rule us for five years. There is just one way for these mafias to win our votes: by bribing us. The party in power may hand out immediate sops. The parties in opposition will promise them.

In the political marketplace, just as in any other marketplace, every brand does not try to woo every customer. (Unlike in a regular marketplace, of course, there is usually only one winner.) Parties will have vote banks that they will nurture over time, and reward when they are in power. The immense power of the state makes patronage politics lucrative.

For example, you can promise reservations in government jobs to a group of your choice. Or, even without explicit promises, you can make sure the state favours the groups you are wooing, either by giving them jobs or contracts or looking after them in other ways. (This is analogous to how a mafia rewards and protects those who give them hafta, except here it is legal.)

Or you can just bribe them directly, with free biryani or pressure cookers. This can become a vicious circle. For example, everyone wants farmers’ votes, and once one party promises farm loan waivers, every other party has to follow suit. Loan waivers are a temporary anaesthetic that perpetuate the problem, but politicians do not have the incentives to make the deep structural changes that are required in agriculture. Those will take years to play out, much beyond an election cycle – and parties need votes now.

The great tragedy of Indian politics is that all our politics is identity politics that centres around state patronage. All parties are guilty of this. Smaller regional parties nurture their own caste vote banks. The Congress pandered to minorities for decades. The BJP caters to the worst bigots among us – and there are enough of them now to make the party a force. They also manipulated the caste politics of UP masterfully in 2014 and 2017. As for AAP, they have pandered to Khalistanis and Kanwariyas alike, and a prominent supporter of theirs was made to apologize to a Jain Muni for the reason that Jains were a powerful vote bank for AAP.

All this is inevitable. What can a party do without votes? What can a party do without money? The imperatives of our democracy make politics morally corrosive. To get to power, you must privilege the means over the ends. And even if your ends were noble to begin with, by the time you are done, your only goal is power. You become the monster you might have tried to fight.

What could change this? Well, if the state had less power, it would offer less RoI to investors. There would be less money and less patronage for parties to bribe voters with. Imagine a limited government that existed just to protect our rights and nothing else. The incentives would change. It would have so little power that those who lust for power would be forced to look elsewhere for career options. (Maybe they’d join the mafia.) Interest groups would stop funding politicians because politicians would not have power to do something in return for them. Voters could not be induced with short-term sops or goodies.

Can that change in the design of our government ever take place? Who will have the incentives to make that change? Not the moneybags and the interest groups, that’s for sure. But what about the voters? If enough citizens demanded reform, the government would have to listen. Supply has to obey Demand.

Andrew Brietbart once said, ‘Politics is downstream of culture.’ This is exactly right. Before we change our politics, we must change our culture. This is as noble a battle to fight as the one our great freedom fighters fought against the British empire decades ago. Will new leaders emerge to fight it?

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 August, 2018 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Politics Without Romance


Test Cricket Is Dying, but Cricket Is Not

This is the first installment on a cricket column I have started for Cricket Next, in which I will write about cricket from the lens of other disciplines, such as economics, psychology, game theory etc.

During his second innings in the Lord’s Test, Virat Kohli could be seen grimacing, and a nation grimaced with him. Kohli has a chronic back problem. The rest of the country has a chronic cricket problem. Why can’t our batsmen play the swinging ball in Test matches in England? Why did this particular lot look so incapable? Why are they worse at this than previous generations? Can an asteroid please give us deliverance by hitting Earth, wiping humanity out and ending this pain?

I am both a Cricket Tragic and an India Tragic, and I will make three tragic arguments in this piece. One, Indian batsmen of the future will be even worse against the swinging ball in England. Two, it doesn’t matter because Test cricket is dying, and there won’t be any Test matches in England 20 years from now. Three, that also doesn’t matter, because cricket will flourish nevertheless, and other forms of the game have as much drama and nuance as Test cricket does, if in different ways.

This may sound dismal to you, so its apt that I make my argument through the lens of the allegedly ‘dismal science’ of economics. In particular, I want to look at Incentives: what are the incentives of those who view the game, play the game, and run the game? How is their behaviour moulded by these incentives? What are the implications of this?

First up, consider the concept of Opportunity Cost, which, put simply, refers to what alternative uses you could have made of the time or money you spent on something. The opportunity cost of watching a Test match, for example, is what else you could have done with the five days you spent watching it. This boils down to the options available for your time.

For most of cricket’s existence, there haven’t been that many alternatives. There is a cliché about cricket and Bollywood being the two great 20th century passions of India, but think about it, what else did you have for entertainment? Not much television, and no internet, Facebook, Whatsapp, Youtube, Netflix or easily available porn. That has changed today.

We’re inundated with options of what to do with our time. That means that the opportunity cost of watching a Test match has shot up, and our incentive for doing so has declined. Most cricket purists I know don’t actually spend much time watching Test cricket. (Look up another concept from economics, ‘Revealed Preferences’.) The TV ratings of Test cricket have been plummeting, and if not for the subsidy from other forms of the game, there would already be no commercial reason for the game to exist.

What is remarkable about Test cricket is that it exists at all. Most other popular sports can be viewed in easy-to-digest nuggets. Football lasts 90 minutes, not nine hours. Tennis matches, hockey games, badminton encounters can all be done with within an evening. And because there is no longer form of the game to compare these sports to, no one complains about how they lack drama or depth.

I believe that we complain about Twenty20 cricket because Test matches came first, so we put that on a pedestal, and consider that the basis of comparison. (Another economic concept to look up: the ‘Anchoring Effect’.) Had T20s come first, we might have viewed Test cricket through a different prism of values – and found it wanting.

Use the tools of economics on a T20 game. Each team is given as many resources (11 players) as in a Test or a one-day match, but far less overs (only 20) to play an innings in. This relative scarcity of overs changes the value of all the resources. A dot ball becomes more expensive for the batting side, as every ball carries more value. A wicket has less value than in an ODI, as your batting resources need to be spread out over only 20 overs rather than 50. The risk-reward ratio changes, and the value of aggression goes up.

This changes the incentives for batting sides. Aggression is rewarded, the value of ‘building an innings’ goes down, and to finish an innings with batsmen still waiting in the pavilion counts as a waste of resources. (Opportunity cost, again.) Batsmen, thus, have to innovate far more, and find new ways of playing the game.

Consider the much-touted 360-degree game of AB de Villiers. There, invention came out of necessity, the new format making demands on batsmen to expand their repertoire. ABD is just the most spectacular player around. Many other batsmen started practising new strokes, playing them reflexively, expanding not just their repertoire but also the orthodoxy. Who is to say that the reverse-sweep and the ramp shot don’t now belong in batting textbooks?

Contrary to a popular canard, bowlers did not turn into bowling machines. Their response to more aggressive batsmen was more deception, and not just by bowling more slower balls and wide yorkers. Spinners actually began flighting the ball more, inviting batsmen to hit them, like back in the romanticized days of yore. Think back on the bowling of the spinners like Rashid Khan, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal in the last IPL: the flight, the loop, the aggressive intent. Bowlers figured out that one way to counter the momentum of a batting side was to take wickets. Attack became the best defence.

This might seem contradictory. On one hand, the value of a wicket goes down for a batsmen because runs are more important. On the other hand, the value of a wicket goes up for a bowler because it can slow a batting side’s momentum. So how much do wickets matter?

Questions like this make it a fascinating time to be a cricket lover. There is an ongoing conversation between batsmen and bowlers, with both innovating new skills as they test this hypothesis or that. This is why watching the IPL is so eye-opening and mind-boggling. A game is evolving in front of our eyes: its grammar and structure, its mores and norms, through a conversation between batsmen and bowlers and captains that we get to see in real time.

If you love cricket, how can you not be enthralled? 

Now consider how the incentives change for everyone concerned. Viewers prefer T20s to Tests because the opportunity cost of watching a T20 game is far less. (Besides, it is an incredibly rich experience, having that added dramatic element of urgency that Tests do not have.) Because of this, there is more money to be made excelling in this shorter form of the game. So players are incentivised to optimise for it. Every minute that a batsman spends expanding his repertoire of aggressive strokes, though, carries the opportunity cost of not practising for Test match skills, such as how to leave a swinging ball.

The inevitable outcome of this is that batsmen will always train to play T20s, and will be unequipped for those specialised skills that Test matches demand.  (Especially Test matches in England.) India tours England once every few years. Why should KL Rahul, who I consider a batting genius, spend much time preparing for conditions he will encounter so infrequently?

Another indication of how these incentives play out: only Cheteshwar Pujara bothered to go to England early and prepare for this tour. He did so only because he has been discarded in the other forms of the game. Incentives. Contrast this with the fact that the Indian batsmen of the generation immediately preceding the IPL era, the Dravid-Tendulkar-Ganguly generation, all played county cricket. But why should KL Rahul or Rishabh Pant bother with that?

It is not fair to make a value judgement about this. All these players have made rational choices, responding to incentives. Who is to say that one specific ‘balance between bat and ball’ is better than some other balance? Who is to say that Test cricket is superior to one-day cricket? Even many who do state that as a personal preference don’t actually put their eyeballs where their mouths are.

People who love Test cricket, as I do, can take succour in the fact that the cricket boards will keep the form alive even when it is no longer commercially viable, by subsidising it from income that comes from shorter formats. But for how long will this posturing be necessary? When the 15-year-old of today is 35 years old, who will care for Test cricket? Especially if that kid is an Indian viewer who watched this Lord’s Test and thought to himself, “Ya whatever. Why even bother?”

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 August, 2018 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Sport


Every Act of Government Is an Act of Violence

This is the 9th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

There was outrage on Twitter this week when it was revealed that the union government had spent Rs 4880 crores since 2014 on government advertising. The outrage is justified—but it is not enough. It is not just this amount or this use of government money that we should question, but the whole concept of government spending. And indeed, government action.

We in India seem to think of Government as the solution to all our problems. (I often argue that India’s biggest religion is not Hinduism but the Religion of Government.) We behave as if the State is a benevolent entity with unlimited resources of its own with which it should fulfil all our wishes: ban what we don’t like, build what we want built, spend on what we think are good causes. Statues, loan waivers, awards for sportspeople, ministries for cow protection, and so on.

In all this, we ignore one essential truth: Every act of government is an act of violence.

Think about what the state needs in order to exist: our taxes. Money taken from us by force. No one pays taxes willingly. Without the threat of imprisonment—basically, abduction by the one entity that has a monopoly on violence—there would be no taxpayers. There are two words that mean the act of taking someone’s property without their consent: no wonder people say that Taxation is Theft.

Indeed, it is more than that. Assume that you pay 25% of your income in taxes. That amounts to one-fourth of your time and labour. It means that, for all practical purposes, from January to March every year, you are a slave to the state. Taxation is not just theft, it is part-time slavery.

Contrary to a common canard, everybody pays taxes. Taxes are not just income tax. Your domestic help is parted from her money when she buys a bar of soap. The beggar at the traffic signal near you loses money to the government every time he buys salt. Even inflation—usually caused by the government printing money—is basically a tax on the poor.

I am not arguing that we should pay no taxes and live in anarchy. The state is a necessary evil. We need it to protect our rights, and there is no way around the paradox that by allowing it to exist, we give away some of our rights. The state has to tax us to protect us, and the violence it thus commits is necessary to protect us from greater violence.

Regardless of what your ideology may be, none of what I have said above is contestable. It is plain fact that no one pays taxes willingly, and that the threat of coercion is involved. It is plain fact, thus, that every government action involves violence and coercion. Most people would also accept that some amount of this violence is necessary, for we need the state to protect our rights. The larger question then is, what actions of the state are justified, given the violence involved at every step?

This is where ideology begins. Person One (a libertarian like me) could argue for a minimal state that only protects our rights and nothing else. (If you feel the state should do other things, give me the moral justification for your preferences being funded by money coercively taken from others.) Person Two may advocate a state looking after its less fortunate members, proving free healthcare and education. Person Three may care about national glory, and want to build grand statues. Person Four could argue that building infrastructure is necessary, and has positive externalities.

(It is beside the point, of course, that political parties are driven by imperatives beyond ideology. They need money and votes to exist and win, and when in power, use the state as a tool to reward those who gave them money and votes—always at the expense of us citizens.)

The purpose of this column is not to argue for or against any of those ideologies. I just ask that every time you advocate government action of any kind, remember that the action comes at a cost. That cost is not just a financial cost, but a moral one. That cost involves violence committed on all of us—not just rich industrialists, but also the poorest of the poor.

Can you justify that violence?

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 August, 2018 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | The Rationalist


I am a Feminist. You should be too

This is the 8th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

Would Aditi Mittal have become a stand-up comedian had she not studied in a girls’ college? Appearing as a guest in the latest episode of my weekly podcast, The Seen and the Unseen, she told me that studying at Sophia College enabled her to perform in front of others with confidence. Had there been boys in her class, she said, she would not have been able to claim the space of the class jester.

This came as a revelation to me, though it should not have. No male comedian would have experienced this; but every woman knows what it is like. Aditi’s point was that even though she was so privileged—born to English-speaking, liberal parents—she began her career facing obstacles her male peers never considered. At least she made it through: there are 235 million people who did not.

One reason for India being such a poor country is that we treat half of our greatest resource—our people—as inferior to the other half. This has a huge cost, which people have recently begun to quantify. Here are some numbers: only 26% of Indian women are in the workforce, next only to Saudi Arabia among G20 countries. A story in the latest issue of the Economist reveals that if female labour participation was as much as of that of men, there would be an additional 235 million women in the workforce. (Even many of those who do work now would be more skilled and productive if treated equally with their brothers in childhood.) According to a 2015 McKinsey study, our GDP could go up by 60% by 2025 if female participation in the workforce matched that of men. (For more, read Namita Bhandare’s outstanding series in IndiaSpend.)

India’s misogyny carries much more than just an economic cost. It is a humanitarian tragedy. No other term suffices when more than half a billion people are treated as subhuman and prevented from reaching their full potential. A recent study named India as the most dangerous country in the world for women, which is no surprise given that women are essentially treated as the property of men. (These cultural attitudes are reinforced by actual laws that take this approach.) Even though we live in the 21st century, our attitudes towards women belong in the 19th. We must fix this.

Let me declare it upfront: I am a feminist. And because that particular F-word has so many shades of meaning, let me define what I mean by it: Feminism is the belief that women deserve the same respect as individuals that men do. The same moral consideration. The same legal rights. My feminism arises out of my belief in the primacy of individual rights, with ‘Consent’ as an absolute value. Indeed, I tell my fellow libertarians that to be libertarian is, by default, to be feminist. A (male) friend of mine even says, “If you are not feminist, you are not a good human being.”

Why does feminism get a bad rap then? This is because just as there are all kinds of human beings, there are all kinds of feminists. Not all stop at the principle of equal rights, and offshoots of feminism can often contradict each other. (Google “gender feminism vs equity feminism.”) Many feminists feed into an identity politics in vogue today, which can be as toxic as the ills it purports to be fighting. Also, the tactics that some feminists employ can make some uncomfortable, such as the recent ‘list’ of alleged sexual offenders in academia, who were to be deemed guilty until proven innocent.

But even that list had an important function, which is the same one that the #MeToo movement highlights: women are angry, and won’t put up with this shit any more. Men seem to be oblivious to the extent and ubiquity of this anger, as well as to the fact that it is justified. Indeed, one central cultural disconnect of our times can be summed up like this: Women are angry. Men are clueless.

This is made worse by the fact that many men who declare themselves to be feminists are just being performative. (Basically, virtue signalling to get laid, as men are hardwired to do.) I find this irritating, but I won’t turn away from declaring my feminism either because of this or because of my discomfort with the tactics of some feminists. The reason for this is twofold: One, women being treated as second-class citizens hurts us all, and diminishes us as human beings. Two, it is a sad truth that because of the power dynamics around us, men can actually make more of a difference than women can, especially when outspoken women are being constantly minimised and mocked.

Therefore, it is imperative for us men to also fight this good fight. Not because of what our ancestors did or how our fellow men behave, but because it is the right thing to do.

*  *  *

Also check out:

‘Claiming Your Space’—Episode 76 of The Seen and the Unseen

‘These Funny Times’—Episode 75 of The Seen and the Unseen

 

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 July, 2018 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | The Rationalist


Purists, keep quiet. Cricket is changing, not dying

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

All around me, the air is filled with the anguished groans of cricket purists. England scored 481 against Australia a few days ago in a one-day match at Trent Bridge, despite a slowdown in which no boundaries were hit in the last four overs. In their previous ODI at the venue, against Pakistan, they had made 444. And it isn’t just this venue: everywhere, it would seem, mishits are going for six, record scores are being posted, and bowlers are settling down in bathtubs to slash their wrists.

The purist lament is simple: for a variety of reasons, the balance between bat and ball has been upset. Heavier bats, shorter boundaries, bad regulations, the malign influence of Twenty20 cricket. “In the good old days,” my friends declaim in sophisticated accents, “cricket was not a spectacle but a contest.” Also, though they do not say this, petrol was two rupees a litre.

As these notional nostalgics collapse at my feet, I want not to console them but to whack them on their unhelmeted heads. “Yes, cricket has changed,” I want to tell them. “But it has changed for the better. Get over yourself. Go watch a game.”

First up, let’s consider why the balance of the game has shifted towards run-scoring. Heavier bats are just part of the reason. The main cause is that batsmen have been forced to develop new skills because of the changed imperatives of T20 cricket. Having ten wickets in hand but only 120 balls in an innings means that the value of a run goes up, the value of a wicket goes down, and the cost of a dot-ball is immense. This mandates greater aggression.

Batsmen have thus developed a wider array of skills than previous generations needed to. (Consider AB deVillier’s 360-degree game.) Fielders are now better than ever in the past, because each run saved is that much more important. And bowlers have also adapted.

That old cliché of T20 cricket being a slugfest where you can replace bowlers with bowling machines is nonsense. Bowlers, who once focussed on restricting runs, have realised that the best way to keep the score down is to take wickets. Attack is the best defence. Modern spinners like Rashid, Chahal, Kuldeep are not scared to flight the ball in search of wickets, in contrast to the flat ODI spin bowling of the past. The top teams in this latest IPL were the ones who bowled to take wickets, not to restrict: consider how MS Dhoni used his CSK fast bowlers.

These skills have migrated to the other forms of the game—and have enriched them. The writer Gideon Haigh, in an episode of my podcast The Seen and the Unseen, once mentioned why he found the 2015 ODI World Cup fascinating. “You got Test match quality bowling—because the only way to slow down batsmen these days is to get them out—and T20 batting skills.” That illustrates how the game has evolved into a deeper, more complex beast—which is a good thing.

And yes, in all this, the ‘balance between bat and ball’ has shifted. But why was the older balance—say from the ‘70s, when 240 was a good score in a 60-over ODI—better in any way? Is it because that’s the one we are used to, and which forms our comfort zone and anchors our expectations?

Here’s a thought experiment: if T20 cricket had been invented before Test cricket, and Tests came later, how would people have responded? Would we wonder what the point of five-day cricket was, without the challenging constraint of having a limited number of balls to score your runs in?

Another thought experiment: if someone introduced a five-day baseball game, or a nine-hour football game, how would people react to them? Would they immediately diss the shorter form?

Beyond the skills argument, there is also a pragmatic reason to celebrate T20 cricket. Few people, even performative purists, have five days to watch a game of cricket these days. Or even one whole day. There are just too many other claimants for your time. Cricket was heading for commercial death when this new form came to the rescue: long enough to pack in immense drama; short enough to finish in an evening. In future, T20s will end up subsidising Test cricket and keeping it alive.

Indeed, I celebrate T20 cricket not because I like it more than Test cricket. They are different sports requiring different skills, and I find it graceless when fans of one sport disparage another. I celebrate it because T20s have enhanced Tests by bringing new skills and strategic learnings into the game. And they will keep Tests alive in commercial terms. That is why every purist should celebrate Twenty20 cricket.

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 June, 2018 in Essays and Op-Eds | Sport | The Rationalist


Seven Lessons of Middle Age

This is the 50th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Don’t make your happiness dependent on other people, and all will be well.

When I look back on my younger self, the 24-year-old Amit from 20 years ago, I feel alarmed. There is just nothing he is doing right. His outlook to life, his ambitions, his work ethic, his food ethic, his attitude towards other people: they are all wrong. He is obnoxious, arrogant and delusional, and it seems certain to me that this cannot end well.

I cannot reach out across time and warn that kid, and he would not listen to me. This is a common lament of middle-aged people like me: Oh, if we only knew then what we know now. Still, I am lucky to get here and no longer be that guy. I know similarly aged people who have not lost their youthful delusions, and wake up every morning unhappy. I feel bad for them – but not too bad, for reasons that will be obvious by the time you finish reading this.

This is the 50th edition of Lighthouse, and my last column in this space, so in the spirit of a happy ending, I want to bow out with a list of learnings. Here are a few things I learned along the way from being that guy to this guy.

One: You are not special. You are one of over seven billion people on this planet, which is one of 100 billion planets in the Milky Way, which is one of 100 billion galaxies in the known universe. So forget what the self-help books tell you: you are not unique or different in any way. You are one accounting error of genetic composition away from a gorilla, and everything you are is a result of luck: the genes you happened to have, and the environment you were born and raised in. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it should be a relief.

Two: You are not entitled to anything. I am shocked sometimes to see how entitled some young millennials feel, till I remember that in my time, we felt as entitled. This is a quality of youth. (And the natural consequence of thinking you are special, which we are hardwired to do, for how else would we live?) But the world owes you nothing, and the more entitled you feel, the more you will be disappointed. If you feel entitled to nothing, on the other hand, everything good that comes your way will feel like a delightful bonus.

Three: Stop looking for validation. Our lives can be dominated by the need for the approval or admiration of others. This is foolish for one simple reason: others don’t give a shit, and are caught up in their own corresponding anxiety. They aren’t thinking of you all the time. You are only the center of your own universe. So stop caring about what others think of you. It doesn’t matter – unless you take it seriously, in which case you are doomed to unhappiness, as you will be sweating over what you cannot control.

Four: Focus only on what you can control. One sure route to be unhappy is to make your happiness dependent on things you cannot control. You will then feel helpless and exhausted as you are buffeted by the winds of chance. Instead, you should only feel good or bad about events in your immediate control. The rest is what it is. (If you take the route that there is no free will, you could even achieve a Buddhist sort of complete equanimity – or you could just panic. Leave that aside for now.)

Five: Focus on process, not outcome. This follows on from the last lesson: you cannot control the outcome, but you can control the process. The happiest writers are those who take joy in the writing, not in the awards or the money. If you are stressed about outcomes, you will spend your whole life stressed, because outcomes are never satisfactory, and when we do get what we want, we immediately revise our expectations. If you just take joy in the simple act of work, and leave aside the results, much of the stress in your life will just vanish.

Six: Focus on the positives. I know people consumed by negativity, who wake up every morning angry and bitter that the world has not given them their due. They are the sole cause of their unhappiness. The world is full of things that can make you either happy or unhappy. Focus on the positives. This creates a virtuous feedback loop: you feel better and work better when you do this, and that creates even more joy for yourself. Cut everything that is toxic and negative out of your life, including people who are always cribbing. Life is too short to spend it sunk in despair. (Some might argue that it is because life is short that we spend it sunk in despair – but you cannot control that.)

Seven: Happiness lies in small things. What makes you happy? If you make it dependent on the fulfillment of big dreams, or the actions of others, you will be chasing an elusive goal. The biggest lesson I have learnt is that happiness lies in small things: the rich taste of strong coffee on a rainy day; a few moments of laughter with friends or loved ones; getting lost in a book, or transported by a song, or giving in to the magic of a film. Look around you, and I’m sure you will find many things that make you feel blessed. What else do you need? Why?

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 June, 2018 in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Personal


We Should Regulate the Government, Not the Other Way Around

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

From the way this government behaves, you would think that the people of India are a great danger. A few days ago, the government floated a tender asking for vendors who would build for it a “comprehensive analytics system to monitor and analyse various aspects of social media communication and World Wide Web.” Put simply, a surveillance system that will track all your online activity, and know everything about you, so that you behave. This tender came on the heels of an earlier proposal mooted by Smriti Irani, then the I&B Minister, to regulate online media.

These specific proposals were par for the course. Any government looks for ways to expand its power over its citizens. As much as we should protest these attempts, we should also consider that the real problem lies elsewhere. The biggest danger to our democracy is not one set of people lusting for power, but the mindset that all of us have.

The Indian people still behave as if we are subjects of an empire. We have no rights except those that our rulers are kind enough to grant us, and they are our mai-baap. Yes, since the British left we have a procedure to elect our own rulers – but we remain the ruled.

In a democratic republic, the people should be in charge, and the government should serve. The only legitimate role of the state is to protect the rights of its citizens – that’s what laws are for. And yet, in this inversion of roles that we have accepted, laws become the tool by which our rulers keep us in check. The mere rule of law is never enough for this, and the state always seeks to expand its power with that magic word, ‘regulation’. We accept and encourage this: whenever we see a social or economic problem of any kind, we assume that the solution must lie with government, and demand ‘regulation.’

We need to reverse our thinking. We should regulate the government, and not the other way around.

You should always be suspicious of any sentence with the phrase ‘government regulation’. Most of the time when someone proposes any kind of government regulation, it is something that will harm the common citizen, help a special interest group and expand the power of an oppressive state. Let me explain.

First of all, let’s take for granted that the fundamental role of the state is to protect the rights of its citizens. It has to maintain the rule of law. In any marketplace, whether of goods, services or ideas, this is all it needs to do. Punish cheats and thieves. Enforce contracts. Ensure that all interactions are voluntary and there is no coercion. It needs to do no more than this.

Now, consider what happens when the government decides to ‘regulate’ something in the ‘public interest’. The state is not a benevolent godlike force that works in society’s best interests. Politics is an interplay of power and money, and those in power have always been captured by special interests. There is already a power imbalance in favour of these special interests. To grant the government more power is to increase that imbalance.

Usually, in any market, competition is the best regulation. A common form of government regulation is to increase entry barriers in a marketplace, thus reducing competition. This hurts the consumers – or us common citizens. It helps entrenched special interests.

This is as true of the marketplace of ideas as it is of the marketplace for goods and services. Social and online media are already subject to laws that fight criminal activity—including many laws against free speech that should not exist. Further regulation is an attempt to protect one set of ideas and intimidate another. This reduces the possibility of dissent. This is bad for democracy.

The issue here is not which party happens to be in power at a given time. Whenever you concede a certain set of powers to a government, imagine the worst possible person in charge. It could be Yogi Adityanath or Sonia Gandhi or Arvind Kejriwal—whoever you dislike most. The state should have so little power, and such strong checks and balances, that the worst person imaginable being in charge will not be a threat to the nation.

So the next time someone proposes government regulation of any kind, with the most noble rhetoric behind it, raise your voice. It is the natural tendency of the state to try to grab as much power as possible. It is the duty of the citizen to resist.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 June, 2018 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Media | News | Politics | The Rationalist


It’s Modi vs Modi in 2019

This is the 49th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

In next year’s election, only Narendra Modi can beat Narendra Modi. And he might just do it.

I had a strange dream the other night. I dreamed that Narendra Modi was in a room, all alone, surrounded by full-length mirrors. Mirrors to the right of him, mirrors to the left of him, mirrors behind, in front, on the ceiling. He was in an ecstatic frenzy, turning hither, looking thither, admiring himself from every angle. And then, suddenly, he realised that these were not all just reflections. No, all these Narendra Modis in the mirrors were Narendra Modi all right – but they weren’t him. They were all different Narendra Modis, and at any moment, one of them could stride forward and attack him. He must keep an eye on all of them! A Narendra Modi could not be trusted!

Ok, so obviously I did not have that dream – or if I did, I don’t remember it. But I wonder if Modi feels like that sometimes. Surrounded by sycophants, does he feel he has nowhere to turn but to himself? And yet, after all these years of playing to different galleries, who is he really?

Enough metaphysics. The most remarkable thing about Indian politics in this decade is how suddenly and completely it shifted from revolving around one family to revolving around one man. The 2014 elections, like every elections before, was Congress versus Everyone Else – and the Congress is the fiefdom of one family. After 2014, Indian politics remained unipolar, though that pole shifted from being the Congress to being Narendra Modi. Just as all elections until now have been Congress vs Everyone Else, the 2019 elections will be Modi vs Everyone Else. Like him or hate him, you have to hand it to Modi: this is a phenomenal political achievement.

Modi has been helped by the lack of stature of the opposition leaders. I suspect he smiles every time he thinks of Rahul Gandhi. The young Gandhi – Rahul is 47, but still a toddler compared to the doddering dotards of Indian politics – is a shy, graceful man who is almost too nice to be in politics. He is also, despite much coaching and recent efforts to revamp his image, not the sharpest kid on the block.

While a new face of the party, he is also the old face of the party, and has no new vision to offer the country. He lashes out at Modi for all the right reasons, but all he promises is a return to the Congress of old, and he often defends even the disastrous economic policies of his grandmother, Indira. That Congress mindset kept India poor for decades, and it was partly a backlash to that that brought Modi to power. Gandhi does not seem to understand this, and so his party flounders.

But just as Gandhi is a gift to Modi, Modi is a gift to Gandhi. Young Rahul lacks the charisma or vision or political skill to become prime minister on his own, but he may yet get there because someone else might beat Modi for him. That someone else is Modi himself.

I predict that the 2019 elections will be decided entirely by Modi. There will be a fight between a positive vote for him and a negative vote against him. If the negative wins, then by default someone else will take charge. Despite the comic posturing of various regional leaders, it will probably be Gandhi. Lucky lad.

There are various reasons for this negative vote. Reason one: While he continues to excel in optics, he has failed in governance. Demonetisation crippled our economy, the botched implementation of GST hurt it further, and he has carried out no reforms. He has shown the command-and-control mindset of Nehru, who he no doubt has a man-crush on, going by how often he invokes him. And he is Indira’s true heir, both in terms of economics and that authoritarian streak. Law and order is also in bad shape, and the BJP state governments seem particularly clueless.

Reason two: In 2014, Modi put together a brilliant identity-based coalition that is now unsustainable. In UP, for example, the BJP cobbled together an unlikely coalition of the upper castes, non-Yadav OBCs and not-Jatav Dalits. After they won the state elections there, they’d all expect patronage gains, and there’s never enough to go around. Something has to give. The perfect storm that saw the BJP get 71 out of 80 seats in UP, 25 out of 25 in Rajasthan, 27 out of 29 in MP and all 26 in Gujarat cannot be repeated.

Reason 3: In 2014, as people fed up of the previous regime engaged in wishful thinking, Modi could be like a Rorschach test, all things to all people. But those who saw in him a reformer or a statesman should know better now. The ugly, petty venality of some of his electoral utterances – such as his recent jibe at Rahul Gandhi about his Italian roots – might please the converted, but are sure to repel others.

Reason 4: His shudh Hindi is impressive, but the South is fed up. You can’t condescend to Tamilians. You can’t tell Keralites not to eat beef. I don’t think the BJP think tank even understands South India.

When Modi came to power, someone in the know told me that Modi was boasting about being in power for at least 10 years. A couple of years ago, I would have thought it likely. 2019 seemed like a done deal. But nuh huh, not anymore. Modi might lose next year, struck down by the man in his mirror.

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 May, 2018 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics


The Tamasha All Purists Should Love

This is the 48th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Twenty-20 cricket is the best thing that happened to cricket. It will keep Test cricket alive – and make it better.

The next few weeks will be hard on cricket purists. They will sit in the dark, drink whisky and listen to ghazals by Ghulam Ali. After months of exciting Test cricket, the IPL will dominate the headlines. The wives of these purists—for they are almost always men—will dress in scanty clothes and wear make-up to try and cheer them up. But their husbands will think of coloured pajamas and Russian cheerleaders, and gloom will descend like a fog that no fast bowler can penetrate.

I am a cricket purist. I love Test cricket. But if God existed, I would thank Her for Her kindness in bringing about the IPL. T20 cricket is the best thing that happened to cricket – and if five-day cricket is still alive 30 years from now, it will be because of the four-hour version of the game. Lest you think I am yanking your chain—and there is a special joy to trolling purists of any kind—let me lay out the four reasons for my saying this.

One, T20 leagues like the IPL increased opportunities for players. Before they came along, cricket was a monopsony. A monopsony is a marketplace with only one buyer. If an Indian player wanted to play at the highest level, he would have only one buyer for his services: the Indian team, or the BCCI. And to get there, he would first have to perform for his state association, and so on down the line. If he was treated unfairly somewhere because of bias or politics or nepotism, he would have no options.

But within a league like the IPL, there are multiple buyers for your services. The more the number of buyers, the more empowered a seller is, and the greater the price for his services. No wonder so many cricketers make a good living today, as compared to the past.

Two, there is more efficient discovery of talent. Consider incentives. A BCCI babu’s job, at any level, depends on politics, and not on how well he finds or grooms talent. (In any case, what can you compare his performance with?) But in the IPL, the bottom line of all the teams depend on how well they perform. As a matter of survival, they have to find and groom the best talent. The incentives are right, which is why all the IPL sides have excellent talent scouts, and so many fine players have emerged from this league.

Three, T20 cricket has led to the development of new skills. The compressed format of the game—only 20 overs for 11 players—has led to the cost of the dot ball rising and the cost of a wicket falling. Batsmen need to bat faster, and have developed new skills as a result: consider the 360-degree game of AB deVilliers, for example. Fielding and fitness levels have taken a quantum leap upwards—and despite the false cliché about this being a batsman’s game, so has bowling. A list of players who have had the greatest impact in recent seasons of the IPL will be filled with the names of bowlers like Bhuvi, Bumrah, Unadkat and Narine.

These skills enhance the other forms of the game as well. Batsmen counter-attack more in Test cricket—and bowlers figure out more ways of keeping them quiet or getting them out. There’s an added element to the drama.

Four, T20 cricket has made the game financially viable. Through most of the last century, Indians had just two forms of entertainment: cricket and Bollywood. No wonder there was an audience for five-day epics. But there are so many ways to pass the time today. The opportunity cost of a Test match is five days, and even that of a one-day match is eight hours. People don’t have so much time to spend on a sport. Even my fellow purists don’t actually watch enough Test cricket to make it profitable.

If the eyeballs are not there, where will the money come from?

There are many good arguments for T20 cricket. It has given a better life to cricketers, expanded the talent pool, enhanced the skills in the game. But the most important one if that by bringing down a match to the length of a football or tennis game, it has expanded the audience for the game. Cricket would otherwise have died. Now it won’t. Earnings from T20 cricket will subsidize the other forms of the game – and Test cricket will survive only because of this.

So all you cricket purists, put away your cassettes of Ghulam Ali ghazals, and stream some party music instead. Life is good.

*

Earlier pieces by me on this subject:

Opportunity, choice and the IPL (2008)
The Lesson From This IPL: Frontload Your Innings (2014)
Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Lamborghini (2015)
The New Face of Cricket (2015)
What Cricket Can Learn From Economics (2016)
National Highway 420 (and the EV of Aggressive Batting) (2016)
The Winning Mantra for this IPL: Attack, Attack, Attack (2017)

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 April, 2018 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Sport


The Nehru Defence

This is the 47th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Narendra Modi seems to have one answer for every attack on him. But Jawaharlal has been dead for 54 years.

The Candidates tournament for the World Chess Championship is going on right now. Eight of the best chess players in the world are playing each other twice for 14 rounds of gruelling action. The winner will take on World Champion Magnus Carlsen for the title later this year. It is a close tournament and anyone can win, but I am a chess nostalgic with a fondness for symmetry, and I’m rooting for Vladimir Kramnik.

Kramnik first won the title at the turn of the century, beating Garry Kasparov at his peak. His masterstroke in that match was reviving an old opening for black called the Berlin Defence. Kasparov could not breach that wall, and the Berlin has since become an impregnable cliché in grandmaster circles.

This tournament is being held in Berlin, and I write this column after the third round, in which Kramnik played the Berlin against pre-tournament favourite Levon Aronian and won a spectacular game to go into the lead. It is as if the fates gathered around and decided, He revived the Berlin. Now Berlin will revive him.

Back in India, on the political chess board, Narendra Modi has found a similar defence for all seasons. It’s called the Nehru Defence. No matter what attack is unveiled against him, he counters it with the Nehru defence. Economy’s doing badly? Nehru started it. Problems in Kashmir? Nehru, doh. Modi hugs foreign leaders too much? Nehru hugged Edwina.

Well, not the last, but you get the drift. The obvious response to the Nehru Defence this is to point out that Nehru died in 1964. What he may or may not have done is irrelevant to Modi’s performance now. Modi may not like many of the policies that exist today because of Nehru, but hey, he got a mandate in 2014 to overturn them. Why hasn’t he?

There were a host of reforms Modi could have carried out in the last four years to make India more free. He hasn’t implemented any of them. Indeed, he has shown the same command-and-control mindset that was Nehru’s great failing. He has combined it with the authoritarianism of Nehru’s daughter, Indira, who he most resembles. If he hates them, then he hates them so much that he loves them. His actions indicate that he wants to be them.

What irritates me more than the irrationality and dishonesty of the Nehru Defence is how the discourse has been shaped by it. Everybody is thinking in binaries. One side thinks Nehru was a monster who ravaged India. The other side thinks Nehru was a great statesman who built everything that is good about this country. Both these narratives hold some truth, but you’re not allowed to acknowledge both. Either Nehru was evil or he was a God. You are either a patriot or an anti-national, depending on which simplistic fairy tale you believe.

These binaries apply to everything today, not just Nehru. This is a form of historical revisionism. Nothing can be grey any more. Everything must be black or white. You must take sides. Any attempt at nuance is considered a cop-out, and both sides could come after you. So it makes sense to either be unflinchingly partisan – or to stay shut altogether. And when those who care about nuance withdraw from the conversation, we are left with Republic TV.

Think about what this does to the discourse. Let’s continue the chess analogy. Aronian, Kramnik’s hapless victim and a cultured, thoughtful man, once said that a game of chess was like a conversation. One player asks a question; the other replies, and asks one herself; and so on, in the mutual quest for truth. I found this analogy moving – and also heartbreaking, because there is no space for such a respectful conversation in Indian politics.

If they play chess at all, the two sides in our politics – and there are two now, because of the forced binaries – are playing not against each other, but against imaginary opponents on adjacent chess boards. They are talking past each other, and each is convinced of possession of the truth. One side repeatedly plays the Nehru Defence. The other side, on the other board, plays I-don’t-even-know-what, it’s not coherent.

Maybe the game in question is not chess at all. Maybe it is mud-wrestling. And maybe in some parallel universe, a man in a pinstripe suit with a name on it wrestles a man in a sherwani. The man in the sherwani has been dead for 54 years, so he keeps getting flung to the ground. Finally, unable to take the gratuitous posthumous humiliation, he springs back to life and catches the man in the pinstripe suit, and then something strikes his eye. He realises that the name on the pinstripe suit of his opponent is not ‘Narendra Modi’ but ‘Jawaharlal Nehru’. What kind of man wears a suit like that?

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 March, 2018 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics


It is Daft to Worry About Inequality

This is the 46th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Inequality and poverty are different problems, requiring different, even opposite, solutions. India’s problem is poverty.

Let me begin this column with a question, dear reader, which I urge you to read carefully and answer before reading on:

In which of these two countries would you rather be poor: the USA or Bangladesh?

Most people I ask this to go, Duh, of course I’d rather be poor in the US than in Bangladesh. Well, here’s something I’d like you to consider: the USA has far greater inequality than Bangladesh does. A measure called the Gini Index measures inequality across the world, and the USA, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United Kingdom all have greater inequality than Bangladesh, Liberia, Pakistan and Sierra Leone. And yet, that second group of countries is by far poorer than the first group

It has become fashionable these days, especially in elite, privileged circles, to agitate about inequality. But as my question and the data above make clear, inequality and poverty are very different things. Some of the poorest countries in the world are among the most equal. (Some Communist countries of the last century came close to achieving equality in poverty.)

So here’s my contention, in three propositions:

One: India’s big problem is poverty.

Two: The more we reduce poverty, the more we are likely to increase inequality.

Three: It is perverse, therefore, to worry about inequality. We should only keep our eye on poverty, and not worry if inequality goes up.

There is a fundamental fallacy at the root of the obsession with inequality. We think of the world in zero-sum ways. That is, we behave as if there is a fixed pie, and the rich can only become richer if the poor become poorer. In this vision of the world, the more inequality increases, the more abject the suffering of the poor. Redistribution is the only solution.

And yet, this narrative is wrong. The world is not zero-sum but positive-sum. The size of the pie increases with every voluntary transaction. Every time I buy a cup of coffee from a café, both the café and I are better off – otherwise we would not have transacted to begin with. The amount of value in the world has gone up.

The more you allow and enable such voluntary exchange, the more people trade to mutual benefit, and we all become better off. And the larger these economic networks of voluntary exchange, the greater the scope for such mutual enrichment. That is why people migrate to cities from villages, and rarely the other way around.

In fact, within a country, cities are far more unequal than villages are. If inequality was such a bad thing, why would so many poor people vote with their feet by migrating to cities? They embrace this greater inequality because they want to escape poverty.

The reason India remained a poor country for so many decades after Independence is that, with the zero-sum vision of our leaders, we frowned upon free markets. While the rest of Asia shot ahead, we restrained the natural ingenuity and enterprise of our people with our mai-baap vision of politics. We did reform a bit in 1991, but too little and too late. Our poverty levels did go down a bit, though, even as we grew more unequal, illustrating the fact that there is no correlation at all between poverty and inequality.

I don’t want to talk only in terms of abstract ideas, so let me illustrate one way in which reducing poverty would raise inequality. There is consensus among economists today, even left-wing ones, that we have crippled our manufacturing sector for decades with a series of bad laws, such as our labour laws, which don’t allow small businesses to grow, and force much of our nation into the informal sector. These regulations stopped us from becoming a manufacturing superpower like China. What would happen if these restrictions were to magically disappear one day?

You would have growth in the manufacturing industry. There is no question that there would be far more employment generated, which would reduce poverty. You would also have some of these businesses achieving scale and becoming behemoths. Poverty would go down and our per-capita income would go up; but because of the winners at the top, inequality would also go up. Would this be a bad thing? I don’t think so.

The zero-sum instinct is ingrained in us: we evolved in prehistoric times when we lived in small tribes amid scarcity, and the positive-sum view of the world would have been unintuitive. It is also natural to resent the super-rich among us, especially when they behave in ostentatious, obnoxious ways, and game the system with their money, which happens a lot in our crony socialist state. Maybe a country that has eliminated poverty can have the luxury to think about Inequality. But not us.

It is a moral shame that seven decades after Independence, we still have millions of people living in poverty. We need to fight this. We should not be distracted by false metrics.

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 February, 2018 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics


The New World Upon Us

This is the 45th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Alpha Zero’s achievement in chess is staggering. It showcases a quantum leap for Artificial Intelligence.

If there is one thing that sets human beings apart from other species, it is this: we think too much of ourselves. Just because we lucked upon opposable thumbs and a powerful brain, both of which allowed us to dominate other species, we behave as if we are masters of the universe. It’s pathetic. We’re bawling babies in front of a bacterial onslaught, and we will soon find ourselves inadequate in front of machines that we ourselves will make. It is time for humility.

A few days ago, Alpha Zero beat Stockfish. We humans talk about Ali-Foreman and Federer-Nadal and Fischer-Spassky, but the most momentous match in human history might well have been the chess match between these two machines. But first, some context.

Here’s the Artificial Intelligence context. In 1950, when AI was in the realm of science fiction, Alan Turing came up with the Turing Test. Wikipedia defines this as “a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.” So if you’re having a text conversation with a party you cannot see, a machine would pass the Turing Test if you do not realise that it is a machine. I would hold that AI has achieved this easily, although many humans would probably fail. (Check out Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.)

Here’s the chess context. Until the early 1990s, the thought of a computer beating a human in chess was laughable. But technology progressed quickly, and in 1997 a machine called Deep Blue beat the then-World Champion, Garry Kasparov. Computers soon left humans far behind. Today, a program on your smartphone can thrash the best player in the world.

Now, you’d imagine that this would mean the end of chess. Everyone would use computers in their analysis and pedagogy, and we’d all start playing like machines. But exactly the opposite happened, and chess was instead enriched.

There was once a study that aimed to see how many moves a grandmaster and a novice could think ahead in a game of chess. The answer was that they saw the same number of moves ahead, but the GM saw the right ones. Learning chess is less about calculation and more about pattern recognition and heuristics. The more you play, the more patterns you learn to instinctively recognise, with an understanding of how they interact with other patterns. A strong player can glance at a position on the board and understand its salient aspects.

And then, the heuristics. Heuristics are simple rules that allow people to make decisions. For example, a chess player will be taught that it is important to occupy the center early, to take her king to safety by castling, to develop her pieces as much as she can, and so on. Now, humans cannot possibly calculate everything on the chess board. (The number of possible positions in a 40-move game is greater than the number of electrons in the observable universe.) So they use shortcuts – or these heuristics.

All humans learn chess by learning heuristics. These have evolved over centuries, and are a common body of knowledge that every player has to learn to reach a certain level. The famous Soviet School of Chess was the embodiment of this. Given this common body of knowledge, chess players actually played in a similar way, with individual style appearing on the margins.

Computers did not need heuristics, because they had the computing power to actually calculate every move and every position. (This is called ‘brute force’.) This did not make chess more homogenous, but less, as computers looked beyond the set of heuristics that were instinctive for players. This meant that the new generation of players who used chess programs as an analytical tool were no longer bound to the dogmas of the past, useful as they were. All the principles earlier generations had learned had exceptions, and all the exceptions could be explored using these programs.

As a result, the current generation of players has more stylistic variation than ones before. Younger players think about the game in unique ways that older ones can’t fathom, and is outside their playbook. And while all top players use programs like Stockfish for analysis, none of them plays games against it because Stockfish would thrash them, and it would be too demoralising. It’s like trying to race a car.

So what did Alpha Zero do? Well, Alpha Zero was built by Deep Mind, an AI division of Google. It is a self-learning program, and the rules of chess were fed into it, but nothing else. No opening databases, no heuristics. It played against itself for four hours to learn the game. Then it played Stockfish in a 100-game match. Alpha Zero won 28 games, and the rest were drawn. After four hours of learning, it beat a chess program into which years of development had gone.

Astonishingly, Alpha Zero achieved this by playing like a human. While Stockfish examined 70 million positions per second, Alpha Zero looked at only 80,000. While teaching itself chess, it discovered, developed and then used heuristics that seem to go beyond the ones humans discovered. For example, human are taught not to move the same piece multiple times in the opening when others lie undeveloped. Alpha Zero did this again and again, favouring activity over development. It also made long-term positional sacrifices, with no immediate gain, which machines otherwise do not do.

The games released by Alpha Zero are spectacular. Alpha Zero plays like a human, but an enhanced human. The grandmaster Peter Heine Nielsen, Magnus Carlsen’s coach, told chess.com: “After reading the paper but especially seeing the games I thought, well, I always wondered how it would be if a superior species landed on earth and showed us how they play chess. I feel now I know.”

The implications of the Deep Learning that Alpha Zero demonstrates are fantastic and unfathomable, and not just for chess. AI is already embedded in our lives – your smartphone would have seemed like science fiction in 1990 – and will become more so. It has become fashionable to be worried about AI, but I am optimistic. Technology will make us all better versions of ourselves – and that journey begins by accepting that we aren’t all that awesome to begin with.

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 December, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Sport


Facts. Don’t. Matter

This op-ed of mine was published in the Hindu today.

Politicians like Trump and Modi play to our worst impulses as people believe what they want to believe.

The most surprising thing about these Gujarat elections is that people are so surprised at our prime minister’s rhetoric. Narendra Modi has eschewed all talk of development, and has played to the worst impulses of the Gujarati people. His main tool is Hindu-Muslim polarisation, which is reflected in the crude language he uses for his opponents. The Congress has a ‘Mughlai’ mentality, they are ushering in an ‘Aurangzeb Raj’, and their top leaders are conspiring with Pakistan to make sure Modi loses. A BJP spokesperson has called Rahul Gandhi a ‘Babar Bhakt’ and ‘Kin of Khilji.’ None of this is new.

Modi’s rhetoric in the heat of campaigning has always come from the gutter. From his references to ‘Mian Musharraf’ over a decade ago to the ‘kabristan-shamshaan’ comments of the recent UP elections, it has been clear that the Otherness of Muslims is central to the BJP playbook. Hate drives more people to the polling booth than warm, fuzzy feelings of pluralism. But, the question is, are the Congress leaders really conspiring with Pakistan to make sure the BJP lose?

Answer: It doesn’t matter.

A Disregard for Truth

In 1986, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote an essay named ‘On Bullshit’, which was published as a book on 2005 and became a surprise bestseller. The book attempts to arrive at “a theoretical understanding of bullshit.” The key difference between a liar and a bullshitter, Frankfurt tells us, is that the liar knows the truth and aims to deceive. The bullshitter, on the other hand, doesn’t care about the truth. He is “neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false,” in Frankfurt’s words. “His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.”

The bullshitter is wise, for he has cottoned on to an important truth that has become more and more glaring in these modern times: that facts don’t matter. And to understand why, I ask you to go back with me in time to another seminal book, this one published in 1922.

The first chapter of Public Opinion, by the American journalist Walter Lippmann, is titled ‘The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads.’ In it, Lippmann makes the point that all of us have a version of the world inside our heads that resembles, but is not identical to, the world as it is. “The real environment,” he writes, “is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance.”

We construct a version of the world in our heads, and feed that version, for modifying it too much will require too much effort. If facts conflict with it, we ignore those facts, and accept only those that conform to our worldview. (Cognitive psychologists call this the ‘Confirmation Bias’.)

Lippmann sees this as a challenge for democracy, for how are we to elect our leaders if we cannot comprehend the impact they will have on the world?

A Fragmented Media

I would argue that this is a far greater problem today than it was in Lippmann’s time. Back then, and until a couple of decades ago, there was a broad consensus on the truth. There were gatekeepers to information and knowledge. Even accounting for biases, the mainstream media agreed on some basic facts. That has changed. The media is fragmented, there are no barriers to entry, and the mainstream media no longer has a monopoly of the dissemination of information. This is a good thing, with one worrying side effect: whatever beliefs or impulses we might have – the earth is flat, the Jews carried out 9/11, India is a Hindu nation – we can find plenty of ‘evidence’ for it online, and connect with likeminded people. Finding others who share our beliefs makes us more strident, and soon we form multiple echo chambers that become more and more extreme. Polarisation increases. The space in the middle disappears. And the world inside our heads, shared by so many other, becomes impervious to facts.

This also means that impulses we would otherwise not express in polite society find validation, and a voice. Here’s another book you should read: in 1997, the sociologist Timur Kuran wrote Private Truths, Public Lies in which he coined the term ‘Preference Falsification’. There are many things we feel or believe but do not express because we fear social opprobrium. But as soon as we realise that others share our views, we are emboldened to express ourselves. This leads to a ‘Preference Cascade’: Kuran gives the example of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but an equally apt modern illustration is the rise of right-wing populists everywhere. I believe – and I apologize if this is too depressing to contemplate – that the majority of us are bigots, misogynists, racists, and tribal in our thinking. We have always been this way, but because liberal elites ran the media, and a liberal consensus seemed to prevail, we did not express these feelings. Social media showed us that we were not alone, and gave us the courage to express ourselves.

That’s where Donald Trump comes from. That’s where Modi comes from. Our masses vote for these fine gentlemen not in spite of their bigotry and misogyny, but because of it. Trump and Modi provide them a narrative that feeds the world inside their heads. Mexicans are rapists, foreigners are bad, Muslims are stealing our girls, gaumutra cures cancer – and so on. The truth is irrelevant. Facts. Don’t. Matter.

Think about the implication of this. This means that the men and women who wrote our constitution were an out-of-touch elite, and the values they embedded in it were not shared by most of the nation. (As a libertarian, I think our constitution was deeply flawed because it did not do enough to protect individual rights, but our society’s consensus would probably be that it did too much.) The ‘Idea of India’ that these elites spoke of was never India’s Idea of India. These ‘liberal’ values were imposed on an unwilling nation – and is such imposition, ironically, not deeply illiberal itself? This is what I call The Liberal Paradox.

All the ugliness in our politics today is the ugliness of the human condition. This is how we are. This is not a perversion of democracy but an expression of it. Those of us who are saddened by it – the liberal elites, libertarians like me – have to stop feeling entitled, and get down to work. The alt-right guru Andrew Breitbart once said something I never get tired of quoting: “Politics is downstream of Culture.” A political victory will now not come until there is a social revolution. Where will it begin?

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 December, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics


We all live in a Cannibal Holocaust

This is the 44th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

A horror film from 1980 anticipated the Age of Instagram. And it is indeed a horror.

William Shakespeare was once confronted by his girlfriend. “You pretended to be so gentle and millennial while wooing me,” she said, “and then you go and write Titus Andronicus. What’s going on in that head of yours?”

“All the world’s a stage,” replied Willy, “and we are all performing. Even I don’t know what I really am.”

We live in performative times. Peeps on Twitter are signalling virtue, peeps on Instagram are documenting what they want others to believe their life is like, and solitary loners are blogging about their solitary aloneness.  All this merely makes explicit what was true for humans all along: we’re putting on an act.

I thought of this recently while watching a masterpiece released in 1980: Cannibal Holocaust. This was one in a wave of Italian cannibal movies that came along in the late 70s and early 80s, and was directed by Ruggero Deodato, known to the French as ‘Monsieur Cannibal’. His work influenced directors like Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth. After Cannibal Holocaust, his ninth film, was released, Sergio Leone wrote to him to say: “Dear Ruggero, what a movie! The second part is a masterpiece of cinematographic realism, but everything seems so real that I think you will get in trouble with all the world.”

He did. He was arrested because it was believed that the murders that took place in the film were real ones, and it was a snuff film, such was the realism with which it was shot. The actors had to show up in court to prove that they were alive. The film was banned in more than 50 countries, before which it grossed US$ 200 million worldwide.

In the film, a group of documentary filmmakers go off into the Amazon jungle to make a documentary about cannibal tribes. They go missing. A rescue team led by an American anthropologist goes off in search of them. After numerous adventures, they discover the mutilated bodies of the filmmakers – and all the footage that they shot. They bring this back to New York.

This footage is like a film within a film within a film, because the filmmakers are like conceited millennials instagramming everything. Whatever you see on camera is a performance, and they record everything, even sex. They are stars of their own reality show. They will use only some of what they shoot, but they shoot almost compulsively. It feels like an addiction.

A few days into the trip, their guide is bitten by a snake. They record his pain. They amputate his leg to save him. They record the aftermath. They leave him to die. The camera is on all the time.

When they reach the tribes, they need spectacular footage, so they stage a massacre, forcing tribe members into a hut, setting it on fire and not letting them escape. This is for their documentary. (For a previous documentary, we are told, they had incited executions in war-torn countries so that they’d get some dramatic footage.) What happens next is not for the documentary.

They trap a tribal girl, and gang-rape her. Every detail of this is filmed, with one man handing over the camera to another when his turn comes. Later, they come across the girl impaled on a wooden stick, and find it hard to hide their glee at getting such a great shot. They do a pop-sociological explanation for the camera by saying she was killed because she lost her virginity.

Later, the tribe comes for revenge. As they scurry through the jungle, one of the two cameramen is hit by a spear. The director shoots him so they can get footage of him being mutilated by the tribals, and tells the other guy, “Keep filming, Mark.” They do, as the tribals cut off their captive’s penis, decapitate him, hack his body into pieces and then cook and eat him.

Then they are on the run again, the director speaking to the camera as they run. His girlfriend, the lone woman in the group, is caught and dragged away. He decides not to try to rescue her, with the surviving cameraman reminding him of his priorities. “Think of the film! Think of the film!”

They follow, they shoot. The girl is stripped, raped, hacked, decapitated. The tribals hold her head aloft and celebrate – and then notice the filmmakers in the bushes, who keep the camera on. The last shot of the footage is the bleeding face of the director besides the fallen camera, and you have to wonder at what point he snapped out of his filming state and realised that this was real. The horror of that moment!

The film was controversial for other reasons. Although no humans were murdered, six animals were killed live on film. With each death, the director cuts off the sound to play the elegant score by Riz Ortolani, and that repeats when the human deaths are filmed. This is also commentary.

Interesting trivia: years later, Deodato played a sophisticated cannibal in one of my favourite scenes in Eli Roth’s Hostel 2. He walks into the room, elegantly slices off a piece of thigh from a conscious captive, and then proceeds to sit at a table and eat it, as a theme from Bizet’s Carmen plays in the background.

Roth was inspired by Deodato, and I consider Hostel 1 and 2 to be great films as well. Isn’t this odd, that I find social commentary in horror films? No, it isn’t. Given what human nature is like, there is no genre more apt.

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If you have the stomach for it, you can watch Cannibal Holocaust here. NSFW, trigger warning, etc etc.

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 November, 2017 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Media


The Gandhis Must Go

This is the 43rd installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

No party that has portraits of Indira Gandhi in its offices can be a credible Opposition.

These are grave times. Our prime minister is an incompetent and delusional megalomaniac. Our country is being polarised across religious lines because the ruling party deems it electorally advantageous. Despite bonanzas like low oil prices and good monsoons, our economy has gone backwards under this regime, mainly because of Tughlaqesque misadventures like Demonetisation. Across the country, millions of young people are coming into the jobs market and finding that there are no jobs for them. There is unrest.

All this is fertile ground for a resurgent opposition with new ideas. And yet, all we are getting is a return of the ‘same-old same-old.’ There seems to be a consensus among Delhi liberals that because we desperately need a strong opposition, we must desperately prop up Rahul Gandhi. At one level, for these three reasons, this seems to make sense: One, the Congress is still the only pan-India party besides the BJP; Two, the Gandhi family is so entrenched that no alternative leaders have emerged; Three, Rahul Gandhi is, at the least, a well-meaning, earnest chap, and not a venal sociopath.

However, this is a terrible idea. It is bad for the Congress, because they need rejuvenation, not this slow slide to death. It is bad for the country, because we need a strong opposition. There are two reasons, one small and one big, on why the Congress needs to move away from the Gandhis.

Reason one: There is no reason to believe that Rahul has suddenly gained the competence (or even the intelligence) that he has so clearly lacked all these years. In the past, he has repeatedly made a fool of himself in speeches and interview, which are embarrassingly numerous on YouTube. His new supporters point to his recent talks and interviews in the US, but those contain mainly rehearsed talking points, so clumsily articulated that it’s sometimes obvious that he’s mugged them up.

He says many of the right things – but so did Modi before he came to power. Words are not enough. Gandhi’s party was in power for most of the six-plus decades before Modi came around – and it did not walk this talk. That is why Modi got his chance.

What is more problematic is that he also says many of the wrong things. He praises bank nationalisations, for example, and seems to approve of Indira Gandhi. (More on this in the next point.) He doesn’t seem to have a basic grasp of economics – or indeed, the capacity to think critically about these subjects. In other words, it appears that he still is what I had referred to him as many years ago: a handsome village idiot, albeit one with a smart team that preps him well, and a witty new social media staff.

I have often been mistaken, and would be delighted to be proved wrong on this. Here’s one way to do this: rather than give rehearsed speeches and answer softball Q&As, let Rahul Gandhi give an interview to an independent, bipartisan journalist who will ask probing questions about public policy to understand the depth of Gandhi’s thinking on these issues. I nominate myself for this. If he can’t hold his own in an interview with me, he doesn’t deserve to be PM.

That will never happen. Meanwhile, here’s my second reason for why we need to move beyond the Gandhis: the legacy of this family is a harmful one, and the Congress can only progress if it comes to terms with this, and moves beyond it.

The sharpest criticism against Modi is that he is the true successor to Indira Gandhi. He has her authoritarian streak; and his economic policies are as damaging to this nation as hers were. How, then, can a party that has portraits of Indira in all its offices be a credible opposition?

Harmful as Jawaharlal Nehru’s economic thinking was – the command-and-control mindset that Modi shares – he was otherwise a great statesman, and his economic ideas were the fashion of the time. It is easy to give him the benefit of the doubt. But it is hard to be gracious about Indira.

I often make the point that some bad economic policies can be termed crimes on humanity. Indira carried out a series of policies – her bank nationalisations, FERA (1976), the Urban Land Ceiling Act (1976), the Industrial Disputes Acts of 1976 and 1982, alongside the many controls she imposed on the economy –that kept millions of Indians poor for decades longer than they should have been. The humanitarian cost was staggering.

The commentator Nitin Pai once estimated that a one percent rise in India’s GDP brings two million people out of poverty. This damage that Indira’s policies did to the country are unseen and unacknowledged – especially by her own party.

What is even more egregious is that Indira did not implement these out of conviction, in which case she would be wrong but not necessarily evil. (Hanlon’s Razor.) Her sharp move leftward came because she needed to differentiate herself from the Congress establishment, and began as an act of political positioning. And then, she got into full populist mode with attractive slogans like Garibi Hatao, which seemed to make sense as her policies harmed the rich. That zero-sum vision of the world she sold was wrong, of course, and her policies harmed the poor much more in the long run.

It is the damage that the Congress did to India for over 60 years that set Modi up for his resounding win in 2014. The Congress needs to come to terms with that, and articulate a new vision for the future. New ideas will only come with new leadership. And those who support the Congress have a responsibility to demand just that. Their message to the party should be, “Don’t keep taking us for granted. We deserve better. The country deserves better.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 October, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics


The Paradox of Democracy

This is the 42nd installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Many political parties are great at campaigning and winning elections. They all botch up governance. Here is why.

I just finished reading How the BJP Wins, an excellent book by the journalist Prashant Jha on the BJP election machine. It left me in awe of Narendra Modi’s political talent and Amit Shah’s management skills. Between them, they crafted a narrative that had wide resonance, constructed a masterplan based on reconfiguring caste alliances, and put together a ground game with booth-level granularity that won the BJP election after election. They redefined political campaigning in India, and the book deserves to be a case study on how to win elections. And as I finished the book, I was left with a disturbing question:

Why is it that the same group of men who are so good at campaigning are so bad at governing?

This is not a partisan question. Every party that has ever been in power in India has aced the campaigning (after all, they won) and provided appalling governance. The problem here is not competence: the BJP showed immense intelligence, ingenuity, will power and hard work on the campaign trail. The problem here is incentives.

The incentives of a party fighting elections are straightforward: they want to win the elections. The spoils of power are tempting, and everyone works hard. But once they come to power, their incentives are not quite so straightforward.

Consider the two things they needed to come to power: money and votes. Let’s start with money. All democratic politics is about the interplay between power and money. You need humungous amounts of money to win elections. Special interest groups or wealthy individuals provide this money. They do it as an investment, not out of benevolence. And when their horse wins, they want an RoI. They used money to buy power; now they want the power to be used to make them money.

So the first incentive for a politician is to make money for the people who gave him money. It’s as crude as that. In a local election, this could mean that a contractor funds a party so he gets pothole repair contracts from them once they come to power. (And of course, he messes up the repairs so he gets another contract the next year.) At a national level, it means policies that affect crores of people get framed to benefit certain funders.

For example, small traders have traditionally been a strong support base of the BJP. What do small traders want? They want to be protected from competition. How does this reflect in the BJP’s policies? They have traditionally been against Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in retail. What is the impact of keeping FDI out of retail? Less competition, and therefore less value for consumers. So this notional value that the consumer loses, where does it go? To the small trader, naturally. Basically, the government redistributed wealth from common consumers to a special interest group, all no doubt with rhetoric that sounds noble.

At an individual level, think of the big industrialists who backed this government, and the many ways in which the government pays them back will become obvious: the infrastructure projects, the defence contracts, and a million little invisible favours.

Besides funders, the politician in power has to keep voters happy. Specifically, he has to please those particular vote banks that brought him to power. This can happen through direct patronage. It can happen through policies that seem to benefit the vote bank in question. Note that policies that appear compassionate might actually be harmful in the long run.

For example, farmers are a big vote bank. But the average farmer will prefer mai-baap benevolence to deep structural reforms. Imagine a politician telling a farmer: “I will remove the minimum support price, remove all price controls, and abolish APMCs. Like it?” Ya, I know. Forget it and give the loan waiver already.

All politics, therefore, amounts to bribery. Whatever you do in terms of governance is not to make sure the nation is better off, but to give RoI to your investors, and inducements to your voters. Governance does not sell.

Government, of course, does not consist only of politicians but also of bureaucrats. Their incentives are aligned towards increasing their own budgets and power. To the extent that they are rent-seekers, they want to expand the scope of that as well. Why would anyone stop a gravy train they are on?

This, then, is what I call the Paradox of Democracy. A party that needs to win elections can never govern well because it needs to win elections again. And it does this by redistributing wealth from all of its citizens to some of them. I rarely quote myself, but I can’t resist ending this column with a limerick I once wrote:

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.’

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Also read:

Politics = Bribery
The Great Redistribution

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 September, 2017 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics


Agarkar’s Donkeys: A Meditation on God

This is the 41st installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

It should be our default position that God does not exist, all believers are delusional and all godmen are frauds.

Dear readers, let me begin this column with a question for you: “If donkeys were to paint their own God, what do you think the picture would be like?”

This question was asked in the late-1880s in a classroom in Fergusson College in Poona, where Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, the second principal of that institution, was giving a lecture on logic. What would the Donkey God look like? Agarkar answered his question silently, raising both his hands above his ears and shaking them.

Agarkar was an atheist and a rationalist, and the institution he built carried that reputation as well. The anecdote above is from BR Nanda’s biography of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and also mentions the time a gentleman named VR Shinde introduced himself as “a Fergussonian” to the Christian reformer, Pandita Ramabai. Her response: “Oh! You come from that Atmosphere of Atheism!”

I graduated from Fergusson College more than two decades ago, and though I am an atheist now, I didn’t have an opinion on the subject of God at the time. There was certainly no Atmosphere of Atheism then, and I suspect that while there has been much progress since Agarkar’s time, his views would be as unpopular today as they were then. We have made wonderful progress thanks to technology, but the human brain is one gadget that cannot be upgraded. It fell into its current design in prehistoric times, and there have been no updates since. Many modules that were features then are bugs now, including a propensity to construct (or be drawn towards) simple narratives that help you navigate a complex world. Religion is the perfect app for that ecosystem.

I wrote about atheism in the very first installment of Lighthouse, this column for BLink. I won’t repeat myself here, but in these days of resurgent religion and gimmicky godmen, here are five things I have to say that I think the good Mr Agarkar would agree with.

One: There is no God. By this, I am taking a default scientific position on everything: unless something can be proven to exist, the default position is that it does not. The existence of God, in many shapes and sizes, has been asserted for millennia without any evidence. The burden of proof is on those who say that God exists, not on those who claim otherwise. (You cannot prove a negative.) Thus, atheism is the common-sense default position, and not something radical.

I should point out here that when I say There is no God, I do not mean There is definitely no God. Instead, I mean There is no God, unless proven otherwise. Please think for a moment about this subtle difference: Atheism is not a belief that there is no God, but an absence of belief in God.

This is an important distinction because it answers those who classify atheism as a belief system just like religion. As a letter writer to the Economist put it many years ago, atheism is no more a religion than not collecting stamps is a hobby.

Two: If there was a God, he’d be a terrible, immoral God, worthy of our contempt. Everything that happens in the universe would be caused by Him. Every rape, every murder, all the suffering of starving infants, all the pain. It doesn’t matter how you justify it, if God exists, he’s a sadist creep. Richard Dawkins once described the God of the Old Testament in terms that would, more or less, fit all Gods:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirst ethnic cleanser; a misogynist, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Three: All religious people are delusional by definition. This follows from point one. It is problematic that you believe in something that cannot be proven. It is pathetic that you reside this belief in someone else’s imaginary friend. At least have an original delusion.

It astonishes me that religious belief is actually looked upon a prerequisite for high office. It should be a disqualifier. Even in the USA, for all the hoopla about the first black president, I wait for the day they have an openly atheist president. There was recent praise for a Supreme Court judgement in India by a five-member bench where each judge belonged to a separate religion. If they were all believers, then this only means that they were delusional in different ways. Big deal.

Four: All Godmen are frauds. Don’t fall for the false dichotomy of good godmen and bad godmen, where the bad ones are rapists and paedophiles, while the good ones are sophisticated and gentle. They are all frauds. They are delusional to begin with – unless their piousness is also faked – and masters at mass manipulation. They all use other human beings as a means to an end, and are therefore on the same moral plane. They all deserve our contempt.

Five: We don’t need God to be moral. The ‘morality’ that comes from religion is morality for the wrong reasons. We do certain things because we want to belong in a group. We behave in a particular way because we want to go to heaven or earn good karma, in which case our behaviour is an instrument towards a selfish purpose, and not an end in itself. The best kind of morality arises from reason. It can come from empathy for others. It can come from self-interest, for we are all in this together. (This is a subject for a whole different piece, actually.)

To end this column, here’s a thought experiment inspired by Agarkar’s donkeys: If we make God in our own image, what would your God look like – and what would that say about you? I can easily imagine mine. He would be an atheist God, lacking self-belief, horrified at His own actions. He would also wonder who created Him.

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Also read: A Godless Congregation.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 September, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse


Misogyny is the Oldest Indian Tradition

This is the 40th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Women are treated as the property of men in India. This is not merely reflected in our culture, but is enshrined in our laws.

Early last year, a 13-year-old girl was raped in Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh. In October, she gave birth to a child. A month ago, she married her rapist. Or rather, she was married off to her rapist. Village elders intervened and felt that to be the honourable course of action.

This is not new, and this anecdote will soon be statistic. Rape victims have been married off to their rapists before. The thinking behind this: now that the girl is ‘damaged goods’, no one will marry her, so why not let the onus fall upon the man who ‘damaged’ her. It’s almost as if a man walks into a shop and breaks a vase, and is then forced to buy it. Who else will buy the vase?

The key word in the paragraph above is not ‘damaged’ but ‘goods’. In India, women are treated as the property of men. It is not only backward villages in the hinterland where this attitude exists – it is enshrined in our laws. I ask you to consider Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code:

497. Adultery

Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offence of rape, is guilty of the offence of adultery, and shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both. In such case the wife shall be punishable as an abettor.

The italics are mine. Consider the words without the consent or connivance of that man. As if a woman’s husband is her owner, and you are wronging him by sleeping with her – even if she consents, which would be a crime on her part.

Now take a look at another law from the IPC:

498. Enticing or taking away or detaining with criminal intent a married woman

Whoever takes or entices away any woman who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of any other man, from that man, or from any person having the care of her on behalf of that man, with intent that she may have illicit intercourse with any person, or conceals or detains with that intent any such woman, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.

Again, the woman’s consent doesn’t matter, as per this law. Two consenting adults could have sex, and it would qualify as a crime on the woman’s husband. (And not the man’s wife, mind you, showing that it is not marriage that is the issue here but gender.)

This misogyny is common in our laws, but you could argue that the IPC is a colonial relic from Victorian times. We Indians treat our women well. Nonsense. Treating women as property is an old Indian tradition, and finds reflection in our epics. In the Mahabharata, for example, Yudhishthir gambles Draupadi away, as if she is not an autonomous human being but his possession. Read up on the way Kunti, Amba, Gandhari and Madri were treated, and you will see that their fates were never in their own hands. (I recommend reading Irawati Karve’s Yuganta for her brilliant analysis of how the Mahabharata treated women.) And don’t get me started on the Ramayana, and Ram’s treatment of Sita.

This attitude percolates down to modern-day India. Reports on rapes will often mention the marital status of the woman, especially if she was a newlywed. (Do a Google search for “housewife raped.”) This carries the implication that the crime is more serious than if she was single, because it is also a crime against the man she was married to.

This is not an attitude only villagers have. A few years ago, the cultured, well-to-do (and repugnant) Tarun Tejpal, in an email to the woman he was alleged to have raped, offered to apologise to her boyfriend. Why? If he had committed a crime against her, why on earth should be apologise to her boyfriend? What kind of patriarchal nonsense was that? (Perpetuating patriarchy and purple prose are the least of the notorious Tejpal’s sins, of course.)

And just look at Bollywood. The Bollywood hero is the perfect archetype for the entitled Indian male. Most Bollywood wooing is basically sexual harassment. You could argue about whether popular culture reflects society or shapes it, but they amount to the same thing.

This dehumanising of women – as a means to satisfy various male urges – might account for our skewed sex ratios. If girls are looked upon as a liability, no wonder the rates of female foeticide are so high. At one level, there is even a perverse rationale to this: why give birth to a girl child in one of the most misogynist countries in the world?

There has been much posturing from our governments – not just the current one – about how much they care for our women. I call it Patriarchal Paternalism. #SelfieWithDaughter is just optics, and all the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Yojanas of the world will amount to just talk unless things change at a fundamental level. Social change does take time, and will not happen overnight. But the government could make a start by changing some of our ludicrous, outdated laws, like the ones mentioned earlier in this piece. Do you think that will happen?

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 August, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse


Beware of the Useful Idiots

This editorial by me appeared today in Pragati.

Many of the intellectuals who supported Narendra Modi in 2014 should have realised their mistake by now. They haven’t. Here is why.

Almost a century ago, Vladimir Lenin is said to have coined the term ‘Useful Idiots.’ The term referred to those intellectuals or eminent people who gave a movement respectability by association, but weren’t actually respected within the movement itself. RationalWiki defines a Useful Idiot as “someone who supports one side of an ideological debate, but who is manipulated and held in contempt by the leaders of their faction or is unaware of the ultimate agenda driving the ideology to which they subscribe.”

If this sounds familiar, it should. Useful Idiots abounded in Lenin and Stalin’s time – many were sent to the Gulag once their utility diminished – and authoritarian despots since, from Hitler to Mao to Chavez – have had their own set. And of course, if you live in India in 2017, there are Useful Idiots here as well.

I want to make it clear that I am not referring to any of the people I mention in this essay as idiots. I will use the term ‘Useful Idiot’ only in the sense outlined above. Some of the Useful Idiots that will come to mind are accomplished individuals, even giants of their field, and their behaviour is as much poignant as it is deplorable. Some of them are people I admired or liked, and as I look at them, it strikes me that in a parallel universe, I could be in their shoes. We are all frail.

Act 1: The Longing for Better Days

When Narendra Modi spoke of Achhe Din, it had enormous resonance for many people. Here are things reasonable people can agree on: India had been ravaged by over six decades of mostly Congress rule; the bad economic policies of Nehru (otherwise a great leader) and Indira had kept us in poverty for decades longer than we should have; government was basically a mafia, and we were ruled by a kleptocracy rather than served by public-spirited statesmen; the ‘liberalisation’ of 1991, forced upon us by a balance-of-payments crisis, had helped but only a little, as many reforms remained to be done; the current dispensation did not show the will to make reforms; the people of India languished as a parasitic beast called government sucked us dry.

In every tunnel, the eye searches for light. It was easy to be seduced by Modi’s rhetoric. (Much of that rhetoric – ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’ – came from outside intellectuals, and not inner conviction.) It was tempting to give him the benefit of the doubt for the riots of 2002 – after all, it is a liberal principle that a man is innocent until pronounced guilty. It was tempting to see him as the messiah.

I am not saying that the beliefs above are correct. (I myself did not hold them, and was undecided.) I am saying that they are reasonable. It was reasonable to look at 67 years of opportunity cost and ask, What could be worse? It was reasonable to look at the derelict UPA government and ask, What could be worse? I would even say that it was reasonable to recognise that things could indeed be worse under Modi, but consider it a chance worth taking.

With the benefit of hindsight, I feel it is unfair to gloat about the people who got this wrong, as they clearly did. Anyone can be wrong once. But to be wrong repeatedly, when all the facts are before you, when the stakes are so high, is unpardonable.

Many of those who supported Modi did so assuming that the social wing of the Hindutva movement would be kept in check while long-awaited economic reforms would happen. The eminent economists Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya voiced their support of Modi. (Their books contain an excellent diagnosis of India’s condition, as well as a road map for the future.) Many people on the ‘economic right’ (more on this phraseology later) walked into his camp. Modi got a resounding victory, and had the mandate he needed to carry out sweeping changes. He did nothing.

Act 2: Mugged by Reality

I outlined, in a keynote speech I gave a few months ago, all the evident failings of Modi’s government since 2014. I don’t want to spend too much time on them, so a brief summary: no reforms; a move leftwards to a Nehruvian command-and-control view of the economy; a continuation (and even expansion) of most of the flawed schemes of the previous government, often with fancy name changes; maximum government, minimum governance; a rollout of GST, which they had earlier opposed, with so many slabs and exemptions that it was a wet dream for those hoping for another Inspector Raj; demonetisation.

And that’s just the economics. (Saffron is the New Red.) At home, Modi mishandled Kashmir, with violence escalating. And the social wing of the Hindutva Project that he clearly believes in is tearing Indian society apart. Quips about it being safer to be a cow than a woman have become a cliché.

As Arun Shourie famously said, NDA = UPA + Cow.

Many who had supported Modi in 2014 now realised that their optimism was misplaced and the worst-case-scenario was unfolding. Public intellectuals like Sadanand Dhume deserve credit for changing their mind when they were mugged by reality, and for having the intellectual honesty to continue to speak truth to power. But many did not.

Demonetisation (or DeMon) was described by a friend of mine as a litmus test that revealed which intellectuals cared about their principles, and which just wanted proximity to power. DeMon, on which I published many pieces, was the largest assault on property rights in the history of humanity. It led to people dying in queues, businesses shutting down, livelihoods being decimated. There was no way any of its goals could be achieved, and there was no way taking 86% of the money supply out of circulation would fail to devastate the economy. All this was evident from the start. Any economist who supported DeMon lacked either intelligence or integrity. I don’t even know which is the charitable explanation.

Modi is a master of optics, and controlled the narrative to actually make short-terms gains from DeMon. But it was worrying and depressing that so many people who should know better continued in their steadfast support of him. Why did they do so? I posit four reasons.

Act 3: Living in Denial

Here are four possible reasons why these Useful Idiots continued to stay Idiots.

One: Rationalisation

These Useful Idiots, having gone public with their support of Modi, had their reputations and self-esteem at threat. They could not simply change their minds. Also, they badly wanted to be right. So they rationalised away Modi’s inaction. When he did not reform, they called it ‘gradualism’, and pretended that change necessarily had to happen slowly. Let him settle in. Give him time. The political economy is complicated. And so on, despite the fact that the man wasn’t even trying.

Confirmation bias also kicked in. Every time he said something they wanted to hear, they clapped vociferously. Every time he did something they would have condemned under previous administrations, they stayed silent. Every time violence erupted against Muslims or Dalits or anyone near a cow, they blamed it on ‘fringe elements.’ They could rationalise everything until DeMon. But how could they continue to do so after that?

Two: The Carrot

The Patronage Economy swung into place after Modi came to power. Ignore the rumours about the BJP’s IT cell having prominent people on their payroll. There were enough legitimate ways to reward cronies. Rajya Sabha seats, Padma Awards, sinecures at government institutions, lucrative directorships in PSUs, seats in the Niti Aayog, and so on. I bought a recent issue of a magazine that supports the BJP, and most of the advertisements inside were by PSUs. Their editor keeps writing in praise of free markets, but is no more than a parasite living off taxpayers’ money. The irony.

To pre-empt the inevitable Whataboutery, let me agree that such a Patronage Economy existed for decades under the Congress as well. But the honourable thing to do then is to dismantle it once and for all. Instead: jobs for the boys!

Three: The Stick

This government is vindictive, and it appears that it will remain in power for a long time. Who would want to mess around? I know of two free-market supporters in Niti Aayog (not Panagariya) who were appalled by DeMon. But they were given orders to support it publicly. Both of them did so, in ways that would make you cringe. Indeed, friends from within the establishment have told me that those orders were given to all their Useful Idiots. Silence was not an option. Even the previously venerable Jagdish Bhagwati debased himself. (In his case, it could have been any of the above three factors. Does it matter which?)

There were Useful Idiots who had spent their lives on the periphery, dreaming of power. Now that they were establishment intellectuals, why would they risk losing that position? For the sake of principles and truth? Come on!

Four: The Lust For Power

For some of us, power is the means to an end. For others, it is an end in itself. Everything you do to get there is a façade. I have been stunned and saddened over the last few months to see how so many people I knew have been transformed by proximity to power. These Useful Idiots never actually believed in anything: their principles were all Useful Principles. Once close to power, they discarded these principles; just as their masters will one day discard them.

A friend I respect told me a few months ago, “Amit, the economic right must ally with the social right. Then we will be an unbeatable force.” I disagreed. Although ‘right’ and ‘left’ are now useless terms, I’d fall into the economic right because I support free markets. I support free markets because I support individual freedom. And individual freedom is incompatible with the agenda of the social right – which, in India, basically means bigots and misogynists. I told my friend that he was wrong, and that people like him would merely give respectability to this ‘social right’, which would eventually spit them out like paan on the roadside. That process has begun.

Arvind Panagariya left Niti Aayog recently, reportedly under pressure from the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, his reputation in shreds. Modi and gang have consolidated their political capital, and no longer need these Useful Idiots. These Useful Idiots will rationalise, will enjoy the trappings of power and money, and will be cautious about pissing off The Supreme Leader. They may even sleep well at night, for self-delusion is the essential human attribute.

I feel sad for what they have done to themselves. But I feel sadder for what is happening to this country.

*

Also read

Saffron is the New Red —Amit Varma and Barun Mitra
The Landscape of Freedom in India—Amit Varma

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 August, 2017 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics


It is immoral to have children. Here’s why

This is the 39th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

One peculiar quality of Indian society is its rudeness. People meet you for the first time at a party and think it is perfectly okay to ask you personal questions. For example, my wife and I often get asked why we have chosen to not have children. It infuriates me that the questioning always flows in this direction. I wait for the day a couple with kids is asked, “Oh you have kids! But why?” And everyone at the party stands and stares at them.

Our decision to not have kids came from separate sets of personal preferences about how we wanted to live our lives. But going beyond personal preference, I have recently come to the conclusion that it is immoral to have children. This might make you gasp – after all, we are biologically and culturally programmed to have kids. Here’s my argument.

Let me start by stating three principles that I think you would agree with. One: We should not cause suffering to others. Two: We should not kill anyone. Three: Consent is all-important, and we should do nothing to others without their consent.

Do you agree with those three principles? Well, then, consider that when you have a child, you are basically bringing a person into this world without their consent, where they are guaranteed to a) suffer and b) die. You are breaching all three of those principles. How can this possibly be ethical?

As my friend, the writer and podcaster Naren Shenoy, once said, “If you really love your children, you won’t have them.”

My contention here is not new, by the way. In philosophy, it’s referred to as Anti-Natalism, and arguments for not having children can be found in the works of Sophocles, the Buddha, the Arabic philosopher Al-Ma’arri, Schopenhauer and Kant. Its most recent standard-bearer is the philosopher David Benatar, who wrote a provocative book on this titled Better Never to Have Been.

Benatar’s argument is a utilitarian one, and boils down to the amount of suffering that humans are inevitably exposed to. “For example,” he writes, “40% of men and 37% of women in Britain develop cancer at some point. Those are just terrible odds. To inflict them on another person by bringing him into existence is reckless.” He points out that the consequences of bringing humans into the world go beyond the kids themselves. “Assuming that each couple has three children, an original pair’s cumulative descendants over ten generations amount to 88,572 people. That constitutes a lot of pointless, avoidable suffering.”

Woody Allen perhaps put it more eloquently: “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering - and it’s all over much too soon.”

I don’t actually agree with Benator’s argument. There are those who would say that the joy of being alive outweighs the sadness, and it ends up being subjective in the end. I find that to be the basic problem with utilitarianism: there’s no way to calculate these things. I’d rather just go back to first principles, and as a libertarian, the first principle I hold most important of all is Consent. In this case, consent is impossible, and therefore the act itself is wrong.

There are two common types of arguments offered for having children. One, that parenting is rewarding, and it’s good for the parents, who become better people or have someone to look after them in their old age, and so on. This is a selfish argument. If we did everything to maximise our own happiness, and didn’t care about the impact on others, then conversations about ‘morality’ would be pointless.

The second argument is, what about the species? It is true that all our impulses have evolved through natural selection so that our genes may be propagated onwards. Many of these have also been codified through cultural norms. That is why not only do many of us feel driven to have children, but all cultures also place a high value on it.

However, unlike all other species, we have evolved to be thinking creatures that can actually fight our biological programming. As Rust Cohle, the Anti-Natalist character in the TV series True Detective says, “The honourable thing for our species to do is deny our programming: stop reproducing.”

When asked by strangers why I don’t have kids, I don’t launch into the above argument. Instead, I like to quote a poem by Philip Larkin, that encapsulates all of this quite perfectly. It’s called ‘This Be The Verse’. Here goes:

THIS IS THE VERSE
by Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 July, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse


Saffron is the New Red

This essay, which I co-wrote with Barun Mitra, was published in Pragati, the online magazine I edit, on June 21.

If God existed and was not blessed with divine computing power, She would have sat through the last century with an abacus in each hand, counting the deaths caused by those on the Left and Right. On the left, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, this many million. On the right, Hitler, Mussolini, Mugabe, that many million. At the end of the exercise, God would have sighed, or perhaps giggled. So much fighting over differences when humans were all the same?

Our hypothetical God would have felt quite as bemused looking at India today. Our discourse is polarised, and the differences in the political battlefield seem too vast to be reconciled. And yet, it is our case that despite our parties seeming to hold opposite visions of what India should be, they are not just all equally bad, but they are bad in the same way. In moral terms, they are identical.

What is common to them is that they all behave as if the end justifies the means.

The Moral Question About Ends and Means

Here’s a fundamental question in philosophy: how do we judge the morality of an action?

Deontologists would say that there is something intrinsic in an action itself that determines its morality. There are certain first principles from which you arrive at sets of rules. For example, you could arrive at the rules, One should not take the property of others by force and One should not kill others. By these rules, theft or murder are wrong in and of themselves. They violate those rules; there is nothing else to consider.

Utilitarians would say that whether an action is good or bad depends on its consequences. Before we pronounce theft or murder to be bad, we have to consider their effects. There are all kinds of hypothetical situations in which theft and murder could be justified because they lead to a net increase of ‘utility’ in the world – however we define it. For example, stealing from one rich miser could enable 10 hungry paupers to be fed for a night. Or imagine a thought experiment where an alien civilisation threatens to wipe out a city unless they conduct a child sacrifice to appease these overlords.

Briefly, utilitarians believe that the end justifies the means. Deontologists disagree. In our view, there are three basic problems with the former position.

Utilitarianism Problem one: Calculation

How does one calculate utility? If you believe that the end justifies the means, you can make up any end you like, and argue that it gives you license to employ any means you like. One of the facilities that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, after all, is the ability to rationalize.

During Emergency, for example, Sanjay Gandhi famously pushed through a program of forcible mass-sterilisation of men. This was based on the premise that over-population is a problem, and his program was a small cost to be paid for the nation. This was a false premise, but even if we assume for the purpose of argument that it was correct, there remains the problem of calculation. How does one calculate the benefit to the nation from this? How does one calculate the pain caused to the victims of the program? How does one offset one against the other?

These are impossible calculations. One can therefore wing it and state any end and make up any calculations and do any damn thing one pleases.

Utilitarianism Problem two: The Distinction Between Persons

In his classic book A Theory of Justice, John Rawls wrote: “Utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between persons.” Utilitarians, like Godlike engineers, aim to calculate the overall utility of an action. Even if this was possible – it is usually not, as we argued above – it would still not be sufficient because victims of the actions would be different from beneficiaries of the action. How can one justify hurting person A by saying it causes pleasure to Persons B and C.

Take the sterilisation example again. The costs were borne by the victims of the forced nasbandi. The benefits that Sanjay Gandhi claimed were dispersed among another group of people entirely, maybe future generations yet to be born. How can this be justified?

Utilitarianism Problem three: The Question of Justice (or Individual Rights)

Harming one group of people for the benefit of another, or of “society at large,” is unjust to the people being harmed. They have rights. The job of the state is to protect those rights, and not infringe them. The whole concept of rights ceases to have meaning if one can hold that the end justifies the means. Society and the rule of law become a charade then.

To go back to the sterilisation example, the state tampered with the bodies of tens of thousands of young men against their will. Were they the property of the state? Was it not the state’s job to protect them from such violence? What is the basis of our justice system then?

Another example would be an innocent man tied to the front of a jeep.

None of us are means to an end

“Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.” — Immanuel Kant.

“Every man has a property in his own body. This nobody has a right to, but himself.” — John Locke.

The quotes above sum up our position. Human beings have rights. Those rights exist prior to the State, and are not granted by it. The State’s job is merely to safeguard those rights. And the end can never justify the means. Individual rights are paramount.

By this way of thinking, the purpose of the state is to safeguard these rights. To do so, however, the state has to be given a monopoly on violence. This means that those individuals who run the state are handed enormous power. Power always corrupts, and thus, the state always grows, and goes well beyond its only justifiable mandate. The servants become rulers.

Coercion and Social Engineering

This brings us to what the Left and the Right have had in common throughout history: they have disregarded individual rights and behaved as if the end justifies the means. Their ends have been different – but the means they have employed have been the same: coercion.

Take a look at Stalin and Hitler and Mao and Pol Pot. It is clear that they all had visions of the kind of society they wanted to see, and to achieve their respective ends, they were willing to employ any means possible. You can differentiate between them based on their stated intentions, but we believe that the morality of an action is independent of such justifications. They were morally equal, regardless of the precise body count they left behind.

And what of India?

Saffron is the New Red

Narendra Modi, a master salesman, positioned himself as a changemaker prior to the 2014 general elections. But his government has turned out to be more of the same. While he spoke of “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance,” we see just the opposite, as government has grown under him. Instead of charting a new way forward, Modi has renamed old government schemes to pretend he thought of them. (Most of them are so dubious that it is baffling someone should want credit for them.) While the social policies of his party can be described as right-wing, his economic policies are resolutely left-wing: and both these formulations rely heavily on coercion.

In other words, like every Indian prime minister before him, he believes the end justifies the means.

Consider the signature policy of his government: Demonetisation. Its stated aims were dubious, kept changing, and were not achieved. Now, think back to those parts of this essay where we used the forced sterilisation of the 1970s as an illustrative example. What if we use DeMon instead?

Not only did the goalposts of DeMon keep changing, it was impossible to calculate its alleged benefits, and you could rationalise all you wanted. The people who suffered – almost all of India, especially the poor – were not the beneficiaries, if at all there were any besides corrupt old-note launderers. And it was an infringement on the rights of 1.3 billion people, which made it, as we like to point out, the largest assault on property rights in human history. Indeed, in moral terms, there is no difference between Notebandi and Nasbandi.

This also applies to Aadhaar. Our problem with it is that it is being forced upon the people of India. Whatever the stated end might be, the means are wrong.

Every government in India has practised left-wing economics, with its inevitable coercion. (Big government requires much taxation, which is never voluntary, and much rent-seeking.) Most governments in India have also believed in different forms of social engineering. Many of those who sanctimoniously criticize this government are actually on the same moral plane. And this government is no better than the previous governments it disparages. (This is not meant to encourage Whataboutery, which is usually meant to exculpate, while our intention is to condemn equally.)

The Politics of Respect

What kind of politics would we like to see then? Well, one in which politicians actually respect the true bosses of a democracy: its citizens.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “If one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself.” That is dead right. We believe that respecting individual rights should be an end in itself. It will then become a means through which society will grow and prosper. If we are to talk of consequences for a moment, we now know, looking back at history, that economic freedom leads to economic prosperity, and personal freedoms, such as the freedom of speech and association, lead to cultures becoming more and more vibrant. In every way possible, freedom makes humanity better off. (Even if it didn’t, we would still argue for individual rights, but our case is strengthened by the fact that it is correct even by the yardstick of utilitarians.)

Freedom, thus, should be both the means and the end. Anything else is immoral.

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


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


Tyranny in the Post-Truth Universe

This is the 38th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

“History does not repeat, but it does instruct.”

These are the opening words of Timothy Snyder’s book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Snyder argues that we must not take democracy for granted. (The book was triggered by the rise of Donald Trump in the USA, but applies equally to us in India.) “The European history of the twentieth century,” writes Snyder, “shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. ”

Everywhere you look, perhaps in human nature itself, tyranny lurks. By understanding how it arises, we can pre-empt it. Snyder offers ‘twenty lessons from the twentieth century,’ and I read them with a deep sense of familiarity. All the lessons of the book apply to us, though in one important way, tyranny in the 21st century might actually end up being worse. I shall get to that, but first, here are some of the lessons.

Lesson number one: ‘Do not obey in advance.’ In authoritarian times, Snyder writes, “individuals think about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.”

This reminds me of what LK Advani asked a group of editors after the Emergency of 1975: “You were all asked to bend — but why on earth did all of you crawl?”

Lesson number two: ‘Defend institutions.’ Both in the US and in India, we take refuge in the institutions that are meant to safeguard us. But who will safeguard the institutions? “Institutions do not protect themselves,” writes Snyder. “They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning.” He adds that one common mistake is “to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions—even when that is exactly what they have announced they will do.”

Consider, as a parallel, what Narendra Modi’s government is doing to our institutions, right from co-opting the RBI as a wing of the Finance Ministry, to using the CBI to carry out raids on political enemies. A friend in government recently told me, “We own the Supreme Court.” Indeed, institutional capture is central to the agenda of this government.

Lesson number three: ‘Beware the one-party state’. Lesson number six: ‘Beware of paramilitaries.’ Lesson number 17: ‘Listen for dangerous words.’ Lesson number 19: ‘Be a patriot.’ (As opposed to a nationalist.) All of the lessons are pertinent, but the one that struck me the most was Lesson number 10: ‘Believe in Truth.’

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom,” writes Snyder. “If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”

Snyder cites the historian of Nazi Germany, Victor Klemperer, to describe the four modes through which truth dies and a post-truth world emerges. The first mode is “the open hostility to verifiable reality, which takes the form of presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts.” Snyder talks of the study that found that during the 2016 US presidential elections, “78 percent of [Trump’s] factual claims were false.” BWF (Bhakt Whatsapp Factories) probably achieve a higher percentage, but beyond the fake news sweatshops, there is much untruth in government spin as well—for example, during demonetisation.

The second mode is “shamanistic incantation.” Klemperer spoke of the “endless repetition” that served, in Snyder’s words, “to make the fictional plausible and the criminal desirable.” The constant painting of all political opponents as anti-national by default is an example of this, as are the false binaries that are employed. If you don’t support Modi, then you believe that “Bharat ke tukde honge.”

The third mode is “magical thinking, or the open embrace of contradiction.” Modi embodies this, by doing the precise opposite of what he had promised in the runup to 2014. He had promised “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance”, but what he is serving up is “Maximum Government, Minimum Governance.” On economics, Modi’s government, in its expansion of state power and disregard for individual rights, is to the left of Nehru. In both his authoritarianism and his dangerous economics, Modi is a true heir to Indira Gandhi. And yet, his followers keep seeing him as a break from the past.

The fourth mode is “misplaced faith.” As Snyder sums up Klemperer’s insight about the Nazis, “Once truth had become oracular rather than factual, evidence was irrelevant.” Much as I deplore labels and pejoratives, there is some logic to referring to Modi’s followers as bhakts.

“Post-truth is pre-fascism,” Snyder writes, but there is one important way in which this age of post-truth might be a permanent one. We live in a time of social media, which I believe to be a huge net-positive, but it does have this one bad effect of enabling echo chambers and alternate realities. Back in the day, we all got our information from mainstream media, and even if there were ideological biases, there was at least a consensus on facts. Those gatekeepers are irrelevant now.

We can now believe whatever we want to, and cocoon ourselves in with likeminded groups, often very large, that confirm our biases and worldviews. This leads to self-reinforcing loops that then polarises discourse. We each just live in our own version of the world, and the real world doesn’t matter anymore. It’s 1.3 billion reality shows.

This is scary, and I don’t know how we will ever come out of it.

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Also read: ‘Why Both Modi and Trump are Textbook Populists’

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 June, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics


Don’t think too much of yourself. You’re an accident

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

I was 17 when I first heard Chris Cornell sing, and I still remember the shock of that moment. The song was Hunger Strike, by a band called Temple of the Dog, and the other vocalist on that song was Eddie Vedder. Cornell and Vedder, with Soundgarden and Pearl Jam respectively, would go on to become the iconic vocalists of their age. Unlike their grunge peers, Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley, they didn’t die young, and actually built a strong body of work.

Wait, strike that: Cornell died last week at the age of 52, and now that I too am on the wrong side of 40, it feels like it was way too young. This column is not a nostalgic musing of a middle-aged man, though. Instead, it’s sparked by something Cornell’s wife Vicky said after he died. He was not the type to commit suicide, she said, and his death was probably caused by an anti-anxiety medicine he was taking called Ativan. The side-effects of Ativan include “paranoid or suicidal thoughts, slurred speech and impaired judgment.” When Vicky spoke to Chris over the phone after his last concert, she said, his speech was slurred.

That mildly tweaking the chemical balance of the brain could turn a person suicidal is not surprising: anti-depressants are so popular because we know you can turn the switch the other way. Indeed, it drives home the fact that what we call our ‘personality’ is actually deeply contingent. It arises from the state of the brain. You damage a tiny part of the brain, or tweak its chemical or hormonal balance, and voila, you have a different person.

Back in the day, the brain wasn’t considered as important as it should be. Bodies supposedly had souls inside them, and people spoke of minds as if they were independent of the brain. We now know that the former is bunkum, and the latter, at best a metaphor.

The most popular case study in neuroscience is probably that of Phineas Gage, a 19th century American railroad worker. When he was 25, an iron rod went through his head, and a large part of his left frontal lobe was destroyed. Miraculously, he survived – but did he survive as himself? His memory and intelligence weren’t affected by his accident, but his personality changed so much that his friends and family described him as “no longer Gage.”

Over the decades, we have learnt that the physical structure of the brain determines personality. For example, sociopathy is not a behavioural defect but a biological one: damage to the amygdala, the part of the brain believed to cause feelings of empathy for others, is the probable culprit. Four percent of us are born sociopaths, though they are over-represented among criminals, bankers, lawyers and politicians. (I’m not joking.) Neuroscientists have even identified parts of the brain that are responsible for spiritual feelings, though I classified being devout as a mental disorder long before I knew this.

The physical structure of the brain is just the start of it. Tweaking the chemical or hormonal balance of the brain can also shape and change personality. That accounts for the popularity of anti-depressants and cognitive super-drugs like Modafinil (which I take occasionally). Similarly, a coffee or sugar high can change behaviour, and hunger or lust can transform us. Most of these processes we are barely beginning to understand, leave alone control, but one day we will be able to shape a child’s personality before its birth using genetic engineering.

The big point I am making here is that what we call our ‘self’ is fragile and accidental. All humans, and their brains, are more or less identical. Tiny differences in our physical brains, and their chemical and hormonal balance, account for who we are. Self-help books teach us that we are all unique, but the truth is that we are basically made of the same matter, differ only in circumstance, and that embracing this truth is the only route to a happiness that is not delusional.

I don’t mean to imply here that Nature is everything. Nurture is as important. As Steven Pinker once wrote, Nature gives us knobs of varying sizes, and Nurture turns them. That underlines, even more, the accidental nature of our identity. We have the brains and bodies that we have; and then, we are born into the circumstances that we are. It’s all just luck.

So the next time you meet a Hindutva nationalist who dreams of Akhand Bharat, ask him if he would have felt the same way if he happened to be born in Lahore and his parents named him Anwar. If the question makes him angry, hand him an Ativan.

But no, in all seriousness, empathise with that dude. There, but for the grace of Luck, stand you.

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 May, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | The Rationalist


The Binary Fallacy

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This is an essay I wrote last week for the magazine I edit, Pragati.

1

A few days ago, a friend and I tossed a coin for some reason I don’t remember now. I called Heads. The coin fell Tails.

“It’s Tails,” he said. “You were wrong.”

“No, I wasn’t,” I said.

“Huh? You said Heads, this fell Tails. You were obviously wrong. And I was right.”

“No, I wasn’t. And no you weren’t. Right and wrong are not the only two options. We were both right. And we were both wrong.”

My friend shot me a bewildered look, and put the coin in his pocket. I later remembered that the coin had been mine.

2

I was hanging with some friends at a birthday party. They were my age. I have never been one for celebrating birthdays, but they seemed happy. At one point, we started talking about the present government of Narendra Modi, and I criticized one of his policies. My infallible logic shut everyone up. The undecided nodded their heads. The devout on the other side, who will be convinced by nothing, shifted uneasily in their chairs. Finally, the Birthday Boy said:

“Amit, You’re such a commie, man. You’re a Lutyens insider. You’re like a courtier of the Gandhi family.”

I sighed. For most of the adult life, I’ve railed against the Gandhis and the Congress, their decades of bad economic policy that kept Indians in enforced poverty, their hypocrisy when it came to liberalism (they were the ones who banned The Satanic Verses), and their pandering to different vote banks. When they were in power, people called me a right-winger, and assumed I must be a Modi supporter. And now that I was criticising Modi, for many of the same reasons, I was suddenly a commie and a Congressi.

I sighed again. Someone handed me a glass of water. I said, “Give me back my coin.”

3

I would, at this point, like to present to you what I call The Binary Fallacy. The term has been used randomly in many other contexts, but never in this specific sense. Here goes:

The Binary Fallacy is the ingrained, mistaken notion that there are just two options in any given situation.

This is a bit like a False Dilemma, but that is a fallacy that is contextual and constructed. It is often a tactic. The Binary Fallacy, I would argue, is an ingrained tendency in us. We have evolved to commit The Binary Fallacy. In fact, it was necessary for our survival.

4

Here’s a common situation evolutionary psychologists often bring up. You are living in prehistoric times. You are in the fields. There are dense bushes near you. You hear a sudden loud sound from the bushes, as if something is moving through them.

It could be a tiger. It could be nothing. You have two options:

a) You get the hell out of there.

b) You investigate what’s in the bushes, as it’s likely to pose no danger given your past experience.

There is no space for nuance here. A data scientist may stop and think, “Ah well, out of a sample size of 641 noises-in-bush heard over the last three years, two turned out to be tigers, which means there’s a .3% chance this is a tiger. In contrast to that, there’s a 13% chance that this is deer, and if so, there is a 54% chance that I will catch it and thus take care of my hunting needs for a week. Plus, I will gain satisfying sex from admiring tribeswomen (70%), and might even be next alpha male (22%). If I attribute a satisfaction score of 80 Happiness Units for hunting needs satisfied, 200 for sexual needs satisfied, 400 for alpha-male status and minus 10,000 for death by tiger, my expected value from exploring the source of the noise is minus 838. I should probably leave.”

Meanwhile, the tiger’s finished his lunch, and your genes aren’t going anywhere.

Here’s the thing: the world is fake news. It’s deeply complex, with millions of events coinciding every moment, sometimes independent, often with chains of connections to each other that the human mind cannot unravel. We cannot deal with all this complexity. If we tried to do so, we would freeze with bewilderment and indecision.

So we tell ourselves simple stories to make a complex world explicable. And over time, decision-making shortcuts, or heuristics, get programmed into our brain as the species evolves. This is necessary for survival. If we didn’t take cognitive shortcuts, the Decision Fatigue alone could kill us, leave alone the tiger.

So here’s the upshot: the guy who runs from the tiger will get chances to propagate his genes. Alternatively, in a safer environment, the guy who catches the deer will get to have more sex, so his genes go forward. The nuanced data scientist will either die by tiger or miss the deer.

5

At one level, The Binary Fallacy is a good thing. We need it to negotiate the world. Also, if you give great importance to outcomes, The Binary Fallacy makes sense. Outcomes are binary. Either something happened, or it didn’t. Either there was a tiger in the bushes, or there wasn’t. You can’t be half-pregnant.

But thinking in terms of outcomes is wrong. I learnt this when I spent a few years as a professional poker player. Poker teaches you to think probabilistically, and to ignore outcomes. For those of you who do not know the rules of poker, I will illustrate this with a coin toss instead of a hand of poker. (The example is taken from this essay I wrote on the subject.)

Let us say I come to you and propose the following bet: we will toss an evenly-weighted coin, chosen or vetted by you. If it falls Heads, I will give you 51 rupees. If it falls Tails, you will give me 49 rupees. You agree, and I flip the coin.

Now, your decision at this moment in time is correct. (In poker terms, it’s a Plus EV decision.) Your expected value from this bet is Rs 1 per toss. (51×50 minus 49×50 divided by 100.) But the outcome is binary. You will either win the toss or lose the toss, win Rs 51 or lose Rs 49. You will never win Rs 1, which is the actual value of the toss to you.

Now, this is a bit of a gamble if you just toss the coin once. But if I offer you unlimited tosses of the coin, it becomes less and less of a gamble. You might get unlucky and have a run of five consecutive tails when we start, but in the long run, you will make money because you made the right decision.

This is what poker players learn, and is also the key insight of the Bhagavada Gita: keep making the right decisions, and don’t worry about the fruits of your actions.

The Binary Fallacy militates against this, though. If your elderly aunt watches you make that bet with me, and the coin comes down Tails, she might be rather upset with you. “You were wrong to make that bet,” she might tell you. “Wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s no surprise that my useless sister has such useless offspring.”

But you weren’t wrong. Your aunt just committed The Binary Fallacy. She is the useless sister.

6

Here’s an example of what this means in contemporary terms. Let us look at classical liberals who supported Narendra Modi in the 2014 elections. Assume that they wanted economic reforms but were wary of social unrest caused by the Hindutva fringe. So how would Modi govern if he came to power? I’d say that there were many possibilities.

X percent of the time he’d carry out economic reforms and keep his Hindutva warriors in check on the social front. Y percent of the time he would carry out zero reforms and unleash communal forces. Z percent of the time he would carry out both reforms and a communal agenda. And so on, with many permutations and combinations.

Now, no one can say what those numbers would be, but X, Y and Z are definitely all more than zero percent. If Y happened, someone who hoped for X would not be proved ‘wrong.’ (And vice versa, of course.) His thinking may have been correct, even if the outcome went the other way.

This holds for almost any historical event. The recent US presidential election was so close that anyone who said Hillary Clinton would win was both wrong and right, just as anyone who bet on Donald Trump was both right and wrong. (Unless they exuded certainty, in which case they were both wrong.) Ditto Brexit or Macron or Goriaghaat.

This brings me to The Hindsight Bias, another tool in the brainkit natural selection gave us to build simple narratives for a complex world. The Hindsight Bias is our tendency to believe that a) whatever happened in the past was inevitable and b) that we knew it would happen. Therefore, someone who makes a fallacious prediction or carries out an action that leads to a bad outcome was… wrong. After all, he wasn’t right, and what other options are there?

(By the way, there were no elections at Goriaghaat. I just made that up to see if you were paying attention.)

7

Let’s take a mild deviation here from our main subject, and muse about both The Hindsight Bias and probabilistic thinking. Consider what would have happened – and this is a fascinating counterfactual – if Sanjay Gandhi hadn’t died in an air crash in 1980.

I think it’s fair to say that Indian history would have been very different. I’d also add that we couldn’t say in what direction, though I’d wager that we would probably be worse off. But the thing to note here is that the history we take for granted is a confluence of unlikely events that just happen to happen. When Gandhi flew off that June morning, he wasn’t guaranteed to die, for there is no such thing as destiny. (‘Destiny’ itself is a consequence of our urge for narrative and comfort, and yes, The Hindsight Bias.) There was a very small chance that the plane would crash, and he got unlucky. If there were a million parallel universes that diverged at the moment, he’s still alive in most of them.

8

The Binary Fallacy has poisoned our political discourse. Part of this is the nature of our times. Our senses are bombarded by more information than ever before. We need to simplify. Who has time for nuanced thinking?

Also, we have evolved in prehistoric times to think in terms of tribes, Our People vs The Other. Culture has gone a long way towards fighting off biology – and culture itself is a consequence of biology, for we have contradictory impulses – but our instincts are what they are. We form teams. And we take everything personally.

I hardly need to elaborate on this binarification. (I wrote a post about it a year ago.) All political discourse has become a matter of you are for us or against us. All arguments have only two sides. If I am against Modi, I am an AAPtard, Fiberal Congressi. If I am against Rahul Gandhi, I am a Sanghi who hates Muslims.

Once I protested at the violence carried out by gaurakshaks, and was asked why I didn’t protest when ISIS killed people in Syria. I have had Whataboutery thrown at me when I have criticized the stifling of free speech by this government, and been asked where I was when Muslims were the one doing the muzzling. Naively, I once produced links to pieces I’d written supporting the brave cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, the Danish cartoonists, and Salman Rushdie (in the context of The Satanic Verses). But to reply to Whataboutery is foolish and futile.

The Binary Fallacy is ingrained in human nature. It is the nature of the beast. We are the beast; and we must also fight the beast. It is not simple.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 May, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Poker | Politics


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.

image

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 Winning Mantra for this IPL: Attack, Attack, Attack

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

When the Indian Premier League began a decade ago, my fellow cricket purists bemoaned what they called a tamasha version of the game. I was an enthusiast, though. I was baffled that so many people felt a three-hour game was too short to be taken seriously as a sport. Football lasts 90 minutes. Hockey is an hour. Tennis, badminton, basketball matches all tend to be shorter. None of them lack nuance or complexity or drama, and are rich in strategic and tactical options. So why should T20 cricket be any less than that?

I expected T20 cricket to have a number of positive effects, and it has delivered on all those counts. It has widened the pool of players who can make a healthy living by being professional players. It was broadened the audience for the game, as many more people are willing to spend three hours watching the game than than they would be to spend five days. And it has enriched the other forms of the game.

Cricketers are now fitter than ever before, and batsmen and bowlers alike have developed tools in their arsenal that were not necessary before. The shorter format demands greater urgency, and players have to approach the game differently. Intent leads to ability. A batsman who needs to play an aggressive stroke to every ball will develop a better repertoire of aggressive strokes. A fielder who is desperate to save every run he can will be fitter, and will have better technique. Bowlers, in turn, will have to adapt to more aggressive batsmen by pushing the limits of what they can do. (And indeed, contrary to early stereotypes, T20 cricket isn’t a bang-bang slog-fest, and bowlers remain matchwinners.)

This has percolated down to Test cricket. Nostalgia makes us overestimate the past, but in terms of pure skill, modern greats are a league above the legends of the past. This is not because they are inherently more talented or hard working. It is because, as an economist would say, the incentives are different. T20 cricket demands more from them, and they have adapted.

I consider T20 cricket to be a separate sport, all on its own, and in that light, the last ten years have been fascinating. We have seen a new sport evolve out of the framework of an old one, and every year has seen the game develop rapidly. The key strategic development has been in the structure of the game itself.

Teams initially came to T20 with an approach transplanted from one-day cricket. Every innings had three broad phases: pinch-hit, consolidate, slog. But this was a mistake. In ODIs, teams have around seven batting resources for 50 overs. In T20s, they have the same number of batting resources for 40% of the overs. The reduced overs mean that the opportunity cost of a dot ball goes up, and the opportunity cost of a wicket goes down. The risk-reward ratio changes, so batsmen should attack more.

In fact, they should frontload, as I like to say – they should begin with attack, and attack all the way through. A team that bats through 20 overs losing only three wickets has probably wasted resources, given the batsmen waiting in the pavilion. They should have attacked more; every over can be a slog over.

Some teams understood this, like West Indies in the last T20 World Cup, or Sunrisers Hyderabad last year. But many teams still don’t get it. I wrote before last year’s IPL that teams are underestimating par scores and not frontloading, so anyone into cricket betting should blindly bet on the team batting second, as the team batting first will score less than optimally. That’s exactly what happened. Out of the first 14 games, 13 were won by the side chasing in an average of 17.2 overs, with an average 6.6 wickets in hand. (Teams adjusted in the second half, so follow that advice this year only for teams that don’t frontload.)

The most important statistic for a batsman, thus, is his strike rate. We might consider a strike rate of 125 healthy by ODI standards, but it is pathetic for T20s. A team batting at that strike rate would make 150 runs, which is well below par. A batsman playing at that strike rate is, thus, a liability to his team – the more balls he faces, the more he is letting them down. (As there should be no consolidation or innings-building phase in T20s, there is no ameliorating factor over a season.)

So here’s one stat you should keep your eye on this season: a batsman’s season-long strike rate minus the overall par-score strike rate (for a par score of 180, that would be 150). Let’s call it the Varma Number. If it is negative, the batsman has failed.

Earlier pieces by me on this subject:

Opportunity, choice and the IPL (2008)
The Lesson From This IPL: Frontload Your Innings (2014)
Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Lamborghini (2015)
The New Face of Cricket (2015)
What Cricket Can Learn From Economics (2016)
National Highway 420 (and the EV of Aggressive Batting) (2016)

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 April, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | Sport | The Rationalist


Adityanath’s rise marks the end of a 100-year-old battle

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

There comes a moment in some lives when a sudden, unexpected event makes you look at the world with greater clarity than before. It could be a happy moment: a childhood friend proposes to you, or you stumble into parenthood. It could be a sad one: you are diagnosed with cancer and told you have six months to live. It makes you look at the world differently, and some things seem so clear that you wonder why you did not notice them before.

In the life of our nation, the rise of Yogi Adityanath to the chief ministership of Uttar Pradesh might well be one such unexpected yet clarifying moment. I was stunned when it was announced; and yet, it makes so much sense that any counterfactual now seems absurd. It was, I have come to believe, a decisive and inevitable event in a conflict that has been simmering in India for at least a century.

The great battle that took place on our peninsula was not between the natives and our colonial overlords, but between a new way of thinking and an old way of existing. While the Enlightenment swept its way across Europe and the USA in the 18th century, its influence was felt in India only in the 19th. Liberalism, however one tries to spin it, was an import from the west, and it is ironic that many of our finest freedom fighters were influenced by British thinkers. The great early figures of our resistance – heroes of mine such as Naoroji, Ranade, Agarkar and Gokhale – were essentially British liberals.

Until Mahatma Gandhi, the freedom struggle was a battle between the British empire on one hand, and Indian elites inspired by Western ideas on the other. Gandhi did catalyse it into a mass movement, but his intellectual influences weren’t Indian either. He was more influenced by Ruskin and Tolstoy than any Indian thinker, and VS Naipaul once called him “the least Indian of Indian leaders.” By the time the British finally quit India, the liberalism of the Gokhale years had been replaced by the soft socialism that was then in vogue. Do note that both these strains, the early classical liberalism and the socialism that is so antithetical to it, were Western imports.

The constitution, intended as an operating manual for this new nation, reflected this. The commentator Nitin Pai, in an essay in Pragati, a magazine I edit, wrote: “On 26th January 1950, the Enlightenment […] was injected into the veins of Indian society in the form of a written statute. We are still dealing with the shock of that moment.”

‘Into the veins of Indian society.’ It is worth reflecting here that the state and society are two different beasts. This difference is a cornerstone of conservatism, which the Encyclopaedia Britannica defines as a “political doctrine that emphasizes the value of traditional institutions and practices.” Who were the Indian conservatives who would lead the fightback of society against the state?

The biggest manifestation of conservatism in India is what we call the Hindutva right. I used to be sceptical of it, as I consider ‘Hindutva’ to be an artificial construct, an insulting caricature of a great inclusive religion. But even if that is so, Hindutva is authentically conservative because it arises out of a nativism that is inherent in human nature – and consequently, rooted in our culture. (Culture can both mitigate and reinforce human nature, which is the whole struggle right there.)

Early Indian conservatives were more interested in social rather than political battles, which is why they didn’t play much of a role in the freedom movement. After Independence, the Nehruvian big state seemed to have subdued the Hindutva social project – but this was temporary. The journalist Rishi Majumder, who is writing a biography of the conservative leader Syama Prasad Mookerjee, describes in a forthcoming essay in Pragati how “the RSS, as well as other right-wing groups, organizations and movements, have thrived and grown through many years when the BJP was not in power.”

Much modern politics is the battle between these competing visions of the state. Should the state be a superstructure that imposes certain values, decided upon by elites, upon society? Or should it be a servant to society, protecting its traditions without judging them from the prism of other value systems?

Narendra Modi’s rise to power was fascinating because he embodied the hopes of people on both sides of that spectrum. Some classical liberals dismayed by Nehruvian socialism backed him because they saw the damage Nehru’s ideas had done to India, and wanted their values imposed from above. And the whole Hindutva movement, obviously, fell in behind Modi because his ascent was the culmination of their century-long struggle.

These two strands are incompatible. And now, with the rise of Yogi Adityanath, there is no more ambiguity.

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 March, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | News | Politics | The Rationalist


Embrace the Technology!

This is the 36th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

At the very moment you read this, there is a Test match going on and two batsmen consulting out in the middle about whether they should use the DRS.

“Was I really lbw? Should I refer? Do you think it was missing?”

“I don’t know. But whatever you do, don’t look at the pavilion. Control your neck. Control it. Hold it if you have to. Here, I’ll hold it for you. Control!”

Crack.

The big cricket story of last week, somehow, was not India’s excellent comeback in the Test series against Australia, but the DRS controversy. Batsmen are not supposed to look at the pavilion for advice when deciding whether or not to go for a decision review. Those are the rules, Steve Smith broke the rule, and it was fair enough that he was asked to leave the field of play. But the rules themselves are ridiculous.

I’ve been ranting about this for years, and still these people don’t learn. You would think no one reads me. Gah. Anyway, because I care about you, here, once again, are my thoughts on technology in cricket. And in life, which, by the way, is futile. (I don’t shy away from the big questions.)

First up, a question: why do umpires exist in cricket? After all, cricket is about batsmen batting, bowlers bowling and fielders fielding. No one goes to a ground to watch an umpire umpire. Well, umpires exist purely as a means to an end. They have to take decisions about whether a batsman is out or not, and lubricate the action in the game by communicating to scorers exactly what is going on. A secondary function is to step in if there is physical conflict, and to maintain decorum. Their job is not to be the action, but to keep the action flowing smoothly.

In other words, umpires are a technology.

Think of anything that is a means to an end as a technology. Umpires are a conventional technology for arriving at the right decisions on a cricket field. Now, the last couple of decades have seen rapid upgradations to pretty much every other technology there is. And so it is in the case of cricket. The decision-making mechanisms in cricket have been enhanced with new technologies meant to supplement (and not replace) the umpires.

The most significant of these is Hawk-Eye. Umpires, being human (as of now), are prone to all kinds of optical illusions, such as the parallax error, which impede their decision-making ability. Hawk-Eye, in every respect, makes better decisions than an umpire can. (And it makes them in real time – the time-consuming replays you see you on TV are only for the benefit of viewers.) But for the longest time, luddites fought the use of Hawkeye in decision-making, which led to the ridiculous situation that everyone watching a game had accurate information about whether a batsman was out or not – except the bloody umpire. It was ridiculous.

Cricket authorities have since become more open to the use of technology, but not enough. They almost seem to use it grudgingly. Consider DRS, for example. If the idea of the technology called umpires is to make correct decisions, and there is more technology that will lead to even better decisions, then why don’t we use it as much as possible? Why should DRS appeals be limited for a batting side? Why should every dismissal not be reviewed as a matter of course? Reviewing a dismissal would not take more time than a batsman walking back to the pavilion, so this should be a no-brainer.

Steve Smith wouldn’t be so embarrassed then, eh?

But really, the larger issue here is that the world is changing rapidly, and our minds are not adjusting fast enough. It’s not just cricket. As a species, we don’t have enough clarity about means and ends. For example, just as umpires are a technology for making correct decisions on a cricket field, consider that animals are a technology for growing food. And now that scientists have figured out a way to grow meat in labs without sentient animals being involved, they may soon be an outdated technology, at least for this use case. That might lead to goats going extinct. (Not puppies, though, because puppies can be hugged.)

Equally, hugs are a technology for oxytocin generation. Romance is a technology for the way it makes us feel and the chemicals it releases. If we could pop a pill and feel the same way, would we bother to fall in love, or hug or cuddle or caress, or even woo? Are we so arrogant enough to believe that the love we feel for anyone is truly transcendent, and not mere technology? And also, is humanity any loftier than just a carrier for the trillions of bacteria that inhabit us? What suckers we are, that we behave as if we’re the rulers of the universe?

Okay, excuse the digression, your life has meaning. Happy now? Get back to watching the cricket, but do think about how it makes you feel, and the purpose of it all.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 March, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Science and Technology | Sport


It Is Anti-National To Be Against Free Speech

This piece was published (under a different headline) in the Sunday Times of India today. It marks the start of a column for them called The Rationalist.

The other day, an internet troll sent me a love letter. “Why have you blocked me on Twitter?” he demanded to know. “You claim to believe in the freedom of expression. You are a hypocrite.” After that he said a few colourful things about my family. I think he wanted me to copulate with them.

I am an absolutist when it comes to free speech, and this friendly troll was wrong. Indeed, I find that there is no concept as deeply misunderstood today as the right to free speech. These misunderstandings exist on all sides of the political spectrum. Thus, I find myself duty-bound to write this brief primer on the philosophical origins of free speech, to illustrate what I understand it to be.

The earliest conception of individual rights came from the 17th century Enlightenment philosopher, John Locke. Locke held that the most fundamental right of all, the one from which all others emerged, was the right to self-ownership. After all, it is practically self-evident and beyond argument that, right from birth, all of us own ourselves.

All individual rights arise out of this right to self-ownership. The right to life. The right to our thoughts, and thus to our speech. The right to our actions, which also results in the right to property. And so on. Freedom, another misunderstood term, means a condition in which these rights are not infringed.

All of our rights are contingent to our respecting the corresponding rights (and thus, freedom) of others. My fist stops where your nose begins, as that old saying goes. Libertarians also call this the non-aggression principle, where aggression is defined as infringing someone’s rights. You may do anything as long as there is no coercion involved.

By this reckoning, all voluntary interactions between consenting adults are kosher, as long as they do not infringe on anyone else’s rights. This holds true, as I often point out, whether those interactions happen in the marketplace or in the bedroom. Both the left and the right are thus incoherent when they support one kind of voluntary exchange but not the other.

In accordance with the non-aggression principle, the core question I ask myself in any situation is: Where is the coercion? Looked at this way, many of the questions that keep getting raised about free speech answer themselves. Am I infringing on the rights of the troll I block? No, because there is no coercion involved. He is still free to say whatever he wants, but he is not entitled to my time and attention. Is a college within its rights to withdraw an invitation to a speaker? Yes, it’s their property, and the speaker can still express himself elsewhere.

If people have a right to free speech, though, it doesn’t mean that all free speech is right. Virender Sehwag had a right to mock Gurmehar Kaur for her courageous video earlier this week, just as I have a right to find his mockery tasteless, and my friendly troll has a right to call me names for it. We all have a right to be wrong, including the trolls who try to have a chilling effect on free speech with their constant abuse. The truth is, only the government can shut down free speech, and even trolls have a right to abuse. (Do note that Twitter would also be within its rights to ban trolls, who are using their property after agreeing to certain terms of use.)

When it comes to our actions, there is much that we can do that can harm others. But it is very hard to breach the non-aggression principle with words alone. As that old adage goes, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” Recognising this, the first amendment of the US constitution protects free speech in absolute terms. Obviously, words can be used to incite physical violence, and that is a reasonable limit of free speech. The US Supreme Court, in a famous case (Brandeburg vs Ohio, 1969) set the standard as “imminent lawless action.”

The Indian constitution, sadly, does not protect free speech. Article 19(2) lays out caveats such as “public order” and “decency and morality”, which are open to misinterpretation and, thus, misuse. This is a pity, but our democracy is a work in progress, and is made healthier by a free exchange of ideas.

For that reason, I was alarmed when I read Arun Jaitley’s quote last week about free speech being “subordinate to the needs of the sovereign state”. That is the wrong way around, and I would argue that a healthy nation needs an open exchange of ideas, for which free speech is indispensable. That is why, if I were asked to compare Arun Jaitley and Umar Khalid, I would say that it is Jaitley who is anti-national, and a threat to our great republic.

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 March, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | The Rationalist


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


Why Both Modi and Trump are Textbook Populists

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

As Donald Trump raised his tiny paw and took the presidential oath this Friday, I had just finished reading an outstanding book that, I thought, explained Trump as well as many other leaders on the world stage today. In ‘What is Populism?’ Jan-Werner Müller, a Princeton professor, lays out all the ingredients from which you can cook up a populist movement. I was struck by how closely our own prime minister, Narendra Modi, matched Müller’s definition. Consider the following characteristics that characterise populists, as defined by Müller.

One, they claim that not only do they represent the people, but that whoever does not support them is, by definition, not part of ‘the people’. Müller says this is “the core claim of populism: only some of the people are really the people.” As Trump put it in May last year, “the only important thing is the unification of the people— because the other people don’t mean anything.” Think of how the BJP treats Muslims and Dalits as second-class citizens.

Two, populists are not just anti-pluralism, but they’re also anti-elite. Müller writes, “Populists pit the pure, innocent, always hardworking people against a corrupt elite who do not really work (…) and, in right-wing populism, also against the very bottom of society.” Think of Modi’s railings against the “Lutyens elite” as an example.

Three, they portray themselves as victims even when they are in power. As Müller puts it, “majorities act like mistreated minorities.” Modi still rants against the elite even though he is now their leader, and paid BPJ trolls still call journalists ‘presstitutes’ even though they control much of the media. Trump, who has been a crony capitalist insider all his life, is a classic example of a pig calling the pigsty dirty.

Four, populist parties tend to become monolithic, “with the rank-and-file clearly subordinated to a single leader.” Trump decimated the Republican Party on the way up, just as Modi is now the Supreme Leader within the BJP, which once had multiple leaders of stature.

Five, populists pride themselves on their “proximity to the people.” Modi being a ‘chaiwalla’ is a key part of his narrative, and as that famous photoshopped picture of him sweeping a floor shows, the common-man element is important to him. As it is, indeed, to other populists. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez both hosted shows similar to Modi’s Mann Ki Baat.

Six, populism is simplistic, so populists can only think in simplistic terms, which leads to “an oversimplification of policy challenges.” Modi’s Demonetisation is an example of this, as is Trump’s attribution of America’s job losses to immigration and outsourcing.

Seven, they populists tend to believe in conspiracy theories, which “are rooted in and emerge from the very logic of populism itself.” Indeed, the RSS’s view of history is itself a sort of giant conspiracy theory.

How do populists behave once in power? Müller outlines three things that they tend to do.

One, they “colonize or occupy the state”. They fill up all the institutions with their own people, co-opt those that are independent, and reshape the system to their will. Think of Modi’s appointment of incompetent cronies to the Censor Board and FTII, the replacement of the Planning Commission with Niti Aayog, and the recent virtual demotion of the RBI to an arm of the finance ministry.

Two, they “engage in mass clientelism: the exchange of material and immaterial favors by elites for mass political support.” Think of the sops Modi offered before the Bihar elections, or the ones expected in the next couple of budgets leading up to important elections.

Three, they shut down dissent in civil society, starting with NGOs. Müller writes, “rulers like Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and PiS in Poland have gone out of their way to try to discredit NGOs as being controlled by outside powers (and declare them ‘foreign agents’).” Sounds familiar?

Modi fits Müller’s populist template so precisely that he seems like a bot generated by a populism machine, and not an actual person. It made me wonder: if a near-identical form of populism persists through vast stretches of time and geography, does it then reflect something innate in human nature?

I’ll leave you with a pleasant thought, though. Here’s why I think both Modi’s and Trump’s populism will ultimately fail. The narratives of populism, based on some of the people being all of the people, only work in broadly homogenous societies. The USA will be a minority-majority country by the middle of the century (ie, whites will be less than 50% of the population), and a Trump won’t be possible then. As for India, our diversity is our greatest defence against creeping fascism. Populism might work at the state level, but nationally, we are too diverse. That puts a ceiling on how much support Modi can get, which I believe already peaked in 2014, when he could be all things to all people. I think he already senses this. How will he respond?

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 January, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics


Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the most macho of them all?

This is the 34th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

This is the script of a musical play starring Arnab Goswami and a few eminent world leaders. At the start of the play, Arnab is at the front of stage, while Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi stand behind. There’s also a chorus of 30 cows, spread out among the audience.

Arnab: Hello and welcome! I’m Arnab the magician. It’s time now for an awesome competition. The strong men of the world are here, all set to go. Who’s the most macho of them all, the nation wants to know.

30 cows: The nation wants to know! The nation wants to know!

Arnab: There will be all-out attack, and no surrender. Please welcome, from the US, our first contender.

Donald Trump strides out on the stage.

Trump: My name is Donald Trump, I name buildings for a living. If you troll me on Twitter, I’m most unforgiving. I love India, mitron, and cricket most of all – especially Rahul Dravid, because he’s such a wall. I eat Mexicans for breakfast, and Moslem Men for lunch. When it comes to immigrants, oh boy, I pack a punch. My ego is so yuge, the biggest in my class. Oh, before I forget, I’m gonna kick China’s ass.

Vladimir Putin now walks on.

Putin: My friend Donald, poor guy, he never understands that no macho man can ever have such tiny hands. While Donald’s been busy laying luxury resort foundations, I’ve been killing millions, and conquering nations. You must have seen that picture of me bareback on a horse. After the shoot was over, I ate it with no remorse. When my wife wanted a new purse, I wrestled a crocodile. In front of me, with good reason, Donald is servile. He’s a little man, with little hands, and a little something in his pants. I’ve been saying it all along, you can’t be macho with a little dong!

30 cows: A little dong! A little dong!

Trump: My hands are small, you see, only to compensate. It’s because the size of my dong is very very great. I have even appeared in a movie made by Playboy. I’ve always been the biggest bully with the biggest toy!

Arnab: Stop this nonsense, change the subject, I’m feeling nauseated. I’m a middle-aged Bong with a tiny dong, and my ego is deflated. That’s why I’m always so aggro, it’s a kind of compensation. But the TRPs are great, and hey, I do it for the nation. Anyway, Mr Putin, you cannot win this way. Is there perhaps something else that you would like to say?

Putin: I’m more macho than this fool Trump, that’s all I have to say. After all, for many years, the man’s been in my pay. I now rule two countries, I am such a stud. If you mess with me, my friend, I will drink your blood.

30 Cows: Drink your blood! Drink your blood!

Arnab: Mr Putin, I am impressed, you meet all the criteria. Now tell me something, did Netaji really die in Siberia? Or maybe, oh my goodness, could he still be alive? Anyway, you win the trophy, c’mon, gimme five.

Modi strides forward.

Modi: Wait a minute, Arnab, what’s the freakin’ hurry? I’ll give you a tight tamacha, your vision will be blurry. This Russian fool, he think he’s cool, well, here’s the truth that pinches: See my chest, it is the best, all of 56 inches!

30 cows: 56 inches! 56 inches!

Modi: Killing people, invading countries, all that’s so old school. (And oh, my friend, Donald, your hands are miniscule!) Massacres are child’s play, when you’re off your rocker. But can you reach into every pocket, and empty every locker? I’ve just pulled off a surgical strike against the poor of my nation. No more cash for them, unless they give the BJP a donation. We’re going cashless, I am matchless, Arnab, you silly clown: Give these men ghagra cholis, and give me the crown!

Arnab: Mr Modi, most impressive, but you’re still a pretender. Hold your horses, because you see, there is one more contender. Men, you see,  beneath their bluster, can be quite weak. But here comes a fine lady who never turns the other cheek.

Mamata Banerjee enters the stage, wearing a sash that says, ‘Most Macho Person.’

Mamata: Hello boys, I’m pleased to meet you, ridiculous wimps. You behave like such gorillas, but you’re really tiny chimps. You boast about how strong you are, and about your brains. You’d be bawling on the floor if you ever went through period pains. Mama’s here now, and she’s gonna whack your asses with her magic broom. So get up, get out, and when you get home, tidy up your room. Trump, Mr Macho, eat a nacho. Putin, so potent, you look like a rodent. Modi, have you realized that you will be demonetised. Mama’s here!

30 cows: Mama! Mama! Mama! Where is my Pajama? Mama Mama Mama!

*

Earlier: The Rise and Fall of Emperor Modi

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 December, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics


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


There Is Nothing As Unpatriotic In A Free Country As Coercion

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

Last Tuesday, I went to watch ‘Dear Zindagi’ at a movie theatre near me. Before the film started, two old men came and sat in front of me. One was a short bald man with John Lennon glasses who looked like Ben Kingsley, and was wearing a hoodie over what appeared to be a dhoti. The other was a white-haired man with a flowing white beard and a flowing white robe. The bearded man nodded to me as he sat down, and then turned and said to his companion, “Mohan, I’m really looking forward to seeing Alia today. Such a good actress. Almost as if she was trained in Shantiniketan.”

“Yes, Robida,” said Mohan. “I can think of all kinds of non-violent acts she and I could do together.” Both men chuckled.

Just then, the national anthem started playing. I stood up, as did everyone else in the hall – except these two men.

It was the morning show and the hall was half empty, which I suppose was good, otherwise some macho self-righteous fool would have wanted to display his patriotism by asking these two men to stand up. But no one said anything. The anthem got over and the screen went blank. As I sat down, the bearded man turned around and caught my eye. I couldn’t help asking him, “Hey, I don’t mean to intrude, but why didn’t you guys stand for the anthem? Aren’t you proud of being Indian?”

Mohan turned around and gave me a kindly look through his Lennon glasses. “It was an act of civil disobedience,” he said. “And we were showing our love for this country, and our patriotism, by sitting.”

“I’m sorry?” I said. “The patriotic thing to do is to stand. We must honour our country.”

“And what does it mean to honour our country, young man? First of all, ask yourself, what is our country? Is India equal to the national anthem? Or the national flag? Or are there certain values that our country stands for that are more important than these symbols?”

I didn’t know what to say, so like any young person in these times, I said something random. “Freedom. We would never had the chance to stand for a national anthem before 1947. So I stand today to celebrate freedom.”

Mohan giggled, as if the gorgeous Alia had just landed up beside him in a slinky leotard and started tickling him. “Freedom! And how do you define freedom? We did not become a free country when the British left. Yes, we got political independence, but that isn’t freedom. Oh no, the freedom we fought for was the freedom of individuals to live their lives without oppression. Basically, to not be forced to do anything. The Supreme Court has made it compulsory to stand, which is why Robida and I kept sitting just now. There is nothing as unpatriotic in a free country as coercion.”

I gaped at him as he continued: “All we did in 1947 was replace a British empire with an Indian empire. We retained most of the laws in the archaic Indian Penal Code which the British had framed to subjugate us, including laws against free speech, homosexuality and even women’s rights. The state censors films, bans books, as if we are infants and not adults. I have a friend who started a university in British times without needing a license,” – he glanced at Robida – “and today, to start or run a business, we need to beg or bribe brown babus. Robida once told me that the British occupation of India was the ‘political symptom of our social disease’. That disease is now terminal.”

“What is that disease?” I asked.

Robida gave me a sad smile. “That disease is having the mentality of subjects. What does a democracy mean? It means that the people are the rulers, and the government is there to serve us. But our governments rule us instead of serving us, and we are happy to be ruled. If we are going to play ‘choose your ruler’, what is the point of being free?”

“Look around you,” said Mohan, “and think of all the different kinds of coercion in your life. These days, I am told, you even have to queue up to withdraw your own money. You are even being forced into a cashless society, which will be the end of freedom, for the government will control all your money and can shut you down anytime. That would have been such a wet dream for the British.”

“Ouch” said Robida, “here comes the part of the film I really hate.” The censor certificate flashed on the screen.

“Alia!” exclaimed Mohan, and turned around. The film began, and I lost myself in the anaesthetic comfort of everyday pleasures.

*

Also read these earlier pieces by me:

The Anthem and the Flag (April 26, 2007)
The Real Issue Regarding The National Anthem (November 30, 2015)
The Republic of Apathy (August 11, 2007)

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 December, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics


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


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


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 Girl From Haryana

A slightly shorter version of this feature on Sakshi Malik was published in the October 2016 issue of Elle India.

‘One billion voices.’

It is August 17, 2016, and two women in wrestling costumes eye each other warily. In a few moments, they will grab each other and start grappling. Both women have waited for this all their lives. This is the Olympic games. Six minutes later, one of them will have a medal, and will be a hero to millions. The other will be disconsolate, the dreams of a lifetime crushed.

Wrestling seems simple, involving strength and power, body against body, but actually involves enormous finesse and intricacy. “It is a sport that requires brain, not brawn,” the woman who wins this fight later tells me. Sakshi Malik, 23 years old, from Rohtak, Haryana, needs more than brute force alone to win. She and her opponent, Aisuluu Tynybekova from Kyrgyzstan, are almost playing chess with their bodies, trying to induce small errors from their opponent: errors of balance, movement, emphasis. It is a game of small margins: if Sakshi steps a millimetre in the wrong direction, or shifts her weight a micro-second too early or late, she will lose.

I ask her later, “What is in your head at a time like this?” Elite sportspeople tell me how they try to make their mind as blank as possible, banishing all unrelated thoughts to achieve maximum focus. Is it like that for Sakshi?

Sakshi laughs. “That is impossible,” she says. “At least for me it is. See, I can sit here and talk to you, and my mind can be blank and I can focus. But not there. Not in the Olympics, fighting for a medal. My mind was the opposite of blank that day.

“I thought about how my life would change if I won. I thought about how I would cope with losing, what people would say, how they would criticize me. I thought about my parents, my coach, my friends. I thought, the Olympics comes once in four years, I can’t let this chance go by. I thought of all of India watching me on TV. I had one billion voices inside my head.

“And of course, I also thought strategy. I knew what I was planning against my opponent. I know her strengths. I know her weaknesses. I had a plan. And then I fought.”

As she had in previous matches, Sakshi fell behind. ‘I never give up.’ She kept going, and turned the match around in the last five seconds. Uptil that moment, I calculated, her life had consisted of approximately 75,59,13,600 seconds. All of it was backstory now. All of it led to these five seconds.

The oldest sport

The backstory to Sakshi Malik’s triumph at Rio is much older than Sakshi Malik herself. No one can say for sure what the oldest human sport is, but wrestling is a reasonable guess. It involves nothing more than the bodies of the contestants, and simply requires one wrestler to pin the other down. Even toddlers grapple, and it may not be farfetched to say that the sport of wrestling is an elaboration and formalisation of some of our most basic instincts.

In his magisterial book, Enter the Dangal, Rudraneil Sengupta traces the history of wrestling from ancient times until now. One of the oldest depictions of wrestling, he writes, comes from wall paintings in a group of tombs in Beni Hasan in Egypt, dated to 2100 BCE. “There are nearly 400 illustrations of wrestling pairs engaged in compeition, wearing only loincloths, each pair rendered in different colours. The moves depicted are still in use in modern wrestling. […] From an analysis of the figures, it seems the objective is to get the opponent on his back with his shoulders pinned.”

There are stray depictions which are even older, and it is mythology more than cave markings that bear testimony to the importance of wrestling in ancient culture. Herakles from Greek mythology was a formidable wrestler, as was our very own Krishna. The epic battle between Krishna and Kamsa “revolves around a wrestling match,” writes Sengupta. Krishna’s diet, with lots of butter and milk, is a “pahalwan’s diet.” Krishna is one in a line of many, of course: Bhima and Hanuman were also mighty wrestlers.

Wrestling flourished through pretty much all of Indian history. The Mughal courts encouraged it, and Hindu kings gave wrestlers important positions in their courts. It was a dominant sport, for it took no resources to learn, and was, rather remarkably, the one sure vehicle for social mobility. “From at least as far back as 1480,” Sengupta writes, “the many kings and emperors of Hindustan hired mercenary troops from a vast pool of rural agrarian communities stretching from the Punjab in the West to Bihar in the East.” This ‘military labour’ market was meritocratic, for the lives and kingdoms of kings often depended on their armies, and they could not afford to discriminate. Becoming a mercenary warrior required being extremely fit, and learning how to fight. Wrestling, or kushti, was a necessary start to this process. And a military life was an escape from the civilian burdens of caste.

Some rulers, such as Shahu Maharaj, a descendent of Shivaji, explicitly framed it in these terms. Even when the British took over India, ending the competition for military recruits, they continued this thinking. In his book Naukar, Rajput and Sepoy, Dirk Kolff quotes a British recruiting officer as saying, “It was an almost daily occurrence for – say – Ram Chand to enter our office and leave it as Ram Singh.”

But, it must be asked here, what if Sita Devi were to enter that office?

‘Who wants to be a wrestler?’

Wrestling may have done a lot for caste mobility, but not, until recently, for gender mobility. We know this has now changed: women wrestlers have done very well for themselves in the last few years, culminating in Sakshi’s performance in Rio. And here’s the bizarre thing: while wrestling has a serious tradition across India, in states like Maharashtra, Bihar, Bengal and all of Central and North India, it is the state of Haryana that dominates Indian women’s wrestling today. Now, Haryana is famously misogynistic, with a sex ratio of 879 women for every 1000 men (as per the 2011 census). So how did women’s wrestling take off here, of all places?

Students of history often argue over the Great Man Theory. In the 19th century, the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle argued that history is shaped by remarkable individuals, and “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” His theory had many opponents, including the philosopher Herbert Spencer, who wrote of these supposed Great Men:  “Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.” (This was the 19th century, so forgive these gents for talking of men and not persons.) There is much to be said for both views, which contain nuances beyond the scope of this piece, but when it comes to women’s wrestling in India, it seems that Carlyle was on to something. There is one man, and one man alone, who made this happen, and without him we wouldn’t be here. His name is Chandgi Ram.

Chandgi Ram came from a village called Sisai in Haryana, and is one of the great modern Indian wrestlers. He excelled in dangals, the traditional Indian wrestling competitions fought on mud, winning coveted titles such as Rustom-e-Hind and Hind Kesri. He also represented India on the mat, winning an Asian Games Gold medal in 1970, and taking part in the 1972 Munich Olympics. He won the Arjuna Award and the Padma Shri, retired as a legend, flirted with Bollywood, and eventually started his own coaching center, the Chandgi Ram Vyayamshala, as many retired wrestlers tend to do. For 22 years, he taught only boys.

In 1997, everything changed. The International Olympic Committee announced that from 2004, women’s wrestling would be an Olympic sport. In Enter the Dangal, Sengupta quotes Sonika Kaliraman, Chandgi Ram’s daughter and then 14 years old: “I remember I was playing with a tap in the courtyard, spraying water on the plants. And papa came back home looking all excited and the first thing he said was ‘They’ve put women’s wrestling in the Olympics! Who wants to be a wrestler?’ And he was looking straight at me.”

The gender may have been wrong, but the genes were right. Chandgi began training his daughters, Sonika and Deepika, but it was rough going. It took all of his goodwill to get the girls bouts in dangals, and the misogynists fought back. At one dangal, the girls had stones thrown at them, and men with sticks, abusing loudly, charged the playing area. On another occasion in 2000, some coaches and students at his own Vyayamshala attacked him, breaking one of his coaches’ legs and beating up Chandgi as the girls hid in a locked room.  But Chandgi Ram the wrestler had never backed away from a fight, and Chandgi Ram the father and teacher would not do so either.

Sonika and Deepika had moderately successful careers, but Chandgi Ram’s legacy went beyond his family. Some of his wards started coaching girls as well: one of them, Mahavir Singh Phogat, trained his daughters and nieces, and made the Phogats the most accomplished family in Indian wrestling. Women’s wrestling gradually gained acceptance in Haryana, especially as medals came in. One of the centers where girls was allowed to train alongside boys was the Chhotu Ram Stadium Wrestling Academy in Rohtak, Haryana.

‘My sport, my passion, the love of my life.’

Maybe great individuals make history. Or maybe it’s just luck. One day a young boy came to the Chhotu Ram Stadium Wrestling Academy in Rohtak and asked for the coach, Ishwar Singh Dahiya. He wanted Dahiya to coach him. Dahiya said ok; the kid looked enthusiastic. When the boy returned in the evening, though, Dahiya realised that this boy was actually a girl with short hair. Her name was Sunita. There were no girls at the center. What was Dahiya to do now?

“As I had already given permission,” Dahiya told the Indian Express, “there was no question of backtracking. That’s how the girl’s center started.”

Sunita brought with her another girl named Kavita, who won a medal in an Asian junior competition. And one day Kavita sat down to chat with a 12-year-old visiting the academy and told her about planes.

Mujhe plane ka bahut craze tha,” Sakshi Malik tells me. “Kavita didi told me about flying on a plane on her way to wrestling competitions, and I thought, ‘Even I want to sit on a plane.’ I would see them going overhead and wonder, when will I get to fly?”

Sakshi enjoyed playing sports, and had played basketball, table tennis and badminton in school. (I can imagine her telling her fellow Rio medalist, PV Sindhu, “I can play badminton. But can you wrestle? Eh?”) But wrestling attracted her more. She was partly inspired by her paternal grandfather, who had been a wrestler. “I was also attracted to the costumes,” she says. “And within a couple of days of wrestling, I just knew, this is it. This is what I want to do. This is my sport, my passion, the love of my life.”

‘My perfect day.’

Sport at its most beautiful feels like art but has the mechanics of science. Before Roger Federer hit his first beautiful forehand, he hit thousands of ugly forehands, embedding the movement, the timing, the mechanics into his brain till it was second nature to him. All great batsmen will tell you that they are great not because of what they do on the field, but because of what they do in the nets. The buzzword in sport these days is ‘deliberate practice’, but you don’t need a sports scientist to tell you that it takes years of repetitive hard work to get to the point where you make the sport looks easy. The excellent is always carved out of the mundane. And so it was for Sakshi.

“I would wake up at 4.30 in the morning,” she says, “and work hard for three hours. Then I would rest in the middle part of the day. Then three more hours in the evening, training, training, training.

“There are so many different aspects we have to focus on to be a wrestler. Stamina, power, endurance, flexibility, speed. There is so much work required for each of those. Our coaches plan our sessions so we can be all-round wrestlers. But there is so much to do that there is no time for anything else.

“And we can’t eat before training either. So we are fighting our hunger as well. We can’t do normal things that the other girls do. My brother would say, ‘Hey Sakshi, eat this’ and I would say ‘I can’t, I have to go for training now.’ My friends would go on weekends for outings, maybe to watch a movie, and I would be training. If I had a day off, I would just need to rest, so that I could be fresh for the training session the next day. Training, rest, training, so jao. Rinse and repeat. Every day.”

Sakshi doesn’t say this in a tone of complaint, though. And then she elaborates: “People used to tell me, what kind of girl are you, you don’t pray to God. And I would tell them, but I do puja every single day. Wrestling is puja for me. Three hours in the morning, three hours in the evening, I am praying to God.

“In fact, if you ask me what is the best day of my life, I will say that any day where I do do time ki training aur din mein rest. That will be my perfect day.”

I believe I can Fly

Sakshi sometimes jokes that she became a wrestler because she wanted to fly in an aeroplane. What might once have been a goal was actually the first significant milestone in her career.

“In 2008, I went to the Children’s Cup. That was the first time I flew in a plane. The whole plane was full of us Indian kids going to the event. And we were so well looked after. We got a full kit, coat, pant, trolley, it felt so amazing to represent India. And then I won the gold! I was on the podium receiving the medal, and I could see the Indian flag, and the national anthem was playing. I can’t describe that feeling. There is nothing like it.”

2008 was also an important year because Sushil Kumar got a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics, and a whole generation of kids began to believe that they could do it too. Sakshi was inspired by ‘Sushil Pahalwan’, as she calls him, but she hungered for more than just achievement – she hungered for knowledge. Every local or international competition she went to, she would sit and watch, soak it up, learn.

“Especially the Japanese,” she says. “They were the best in the world, and I was very keen to watch them closely, to see what they did differently. I wanted to understand what made them special?”

“And did you?”

“See, when you see them sitting somewhere, they will be so calm and collected. We Indian girls, on the other hand, when we hang out together, we are boisterous, always laughing, HAHAHAHA! But the Japanese are always composed. Everything is systematic and in order: kit, khaana, diet, sab systematic.”

“And on the mat? Do they wrestle differently? Do they do something Indians can’t do?”

“No.”

Sakshi also had homegrown heroes. One of them was Geeta Phogat, of the famous Phogat sisters, who had won Gold in the Commonwealth Games of 2010. “Geeta didi was an early inspiration,” says Sakshi. “Whenever we were practising together, I would always go up to her and ask if she already had a partner. [Wrestlers train in pairs.] I always wanted to be her partner. I would learn all that I could from her. She was so aggressive. She never gave up in a fight. She always fought to the end.”

She was close to all the Phogat sisters, having travelled a lot with them for tournaments. Her fondness for Geeta is evident. “She teases me a lot, though I never tease her back, I respect her a lot. We are like sisters – but only outside the mat. On the mat, we are competitors, trying to beat each other.”

There is both irony and tragedy here. Geeta fought in the same 58kg weight category in which Sakshi found herself. Geeta had gone to the London Olympics, but only one of them could go to Rio.

‘Sabse Achha Insaan.’

By the time the trials for Rio came around, Sakshi had established herself as a serious contender. She had won the silver medal in the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and the bronze in the 2015 Asian games. And in the trial for her weight category for Rio, she beat Geeta Phogat 8-1. But qualifying for Rio was another matter entirely.

There were three qualifying tournaments, and Sakshi lost in the first one. “I had a bad day. It happens. You can’t win every time.”

Then the Wrestling Federation of India decided to send Geeta for the second qualification event, in Mongolia. She was a senior wrestler, they felt, and deserved one shot at qualifying. As it happens, she failed—but had she qualified, Sakshi would have had to wait another four years. Now she had another chance, at the third qualifying event in Turkey. Her roommate for the trip was her close friend of many years, Vinesh Phogat, Geeta’s cousin.

“No matter what happens,” we told ourselves, “we must qualify. Otherwise four more years will go by.”

But there was the little matter of meeting their weight first. Wrestlers often have to lose a lot of weight before the weigh-in for the bout, in order to qualify for their chosen weight division. Sakshi and Vinesh were both struggling to do so.

“Maybe it was because of the temperature in Istanbul, but we just weren’t losing weight. We didn’t eat for two days, we didn’t even take a sip of water, and all this time we’re still training and sweating. It was pathetic, and I told Vinesh, ‘Kaise bhookhe hum pade hai. Isse achha tho apna normal life hai. Do time ka khaana jise mil jaaye, who sabse achha insaan hota hai.’

“Then the next day both of us qualified, and all the pain went away. We went out to celebrate.”

And how they celebrated tells you a little bit about the sacrifices they made, and the things we take for granted. They went to the mall and walked around.

‘One of us.’

August 17 was a bittersweet day. Both Sakshi and Vinesh had their bouts on that day, in the 58kg and 48kg category respectively. It was appropriate that the fate of the two friends should be so closely tied together. For years, since they were young girls with limber limbs and a hunger to learn, they had been close friends. They had fought, mostly on the mat, they had laughed and played and teased each other and carried each other, and they were together here as well. “We kept telling each other,” Sakshi says, “one of us will win a medal for India. “

Sakshi lost in her quarterfinal bout. Vinesh reached her quarterfinal, and was in ominous form, having won her pre-quarterfinal bout 4-0. She was confident, buoyant, the hard work of her whole life bringing her to this one inevitable conclusion, with her close friend nearby, willing her on. And then, in one heartbreaking moment, it was over.

Spectators mostly see the glory of the Olympics. The sportspeople on the podium receiving their medals, their eyes moist as the anthem plays. But sport is a zero-sum game: for one person to win, everyone else must lose. For every gram of glory at the Olympics, there is a kilogram of tragedy. The Olympics are where dreams come to die.

“One of us will win a medal for India.” Vinesh was carried off in a stretcher. But Sakshi was still standing.

Wrestling has a unique procedure called the repechage that Indians especially must appreciate. Basically, once the two finalists are decided, all the wrestlers beaten by them re-enter the competition and fight it out for the bronze medals. This is how Sushil Kumar in 2008 and Yogeshwar Dutt in 2012, both beaten in earlier rounds, had gotten back into the contest.  And this is what kept Sakshi hopeful. Valeria Koblova, who beat her in the quarter-final, was “a very strong fighter”, she said. “I kept myself mentally prepared. I knew I would get another chance to go for a medal. And now, with Vinesh injured, it was up to me.”

After Vinesh was carried off in a stretcher, her coach had gone to Sakshi with tears in his eyes. “My eyes were also wet. Vinesh was such a big support for me. We’d discuss strategy before each bout, give each other confidence.” Now she was alone – with a billion voices inside her head.

‘Do you have any tips?’

Everything has changed. When Sakshi took up wrestling, the handful of other girls who also wrestled came from wrestling families. But now, starting with the success of Geeta Phogat in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the appeal of the game has widened. “There are so many girls at our academy,” says Sakshi, “that there’s not enough place on the mats for all of us. We have to train in shifts.”

And mind you, this is Haryana.

“People would taunt me earlier, say that wrestling was only for boys, who would marry us after this, what kind of girls were we? Family friends would come home and ignore me, treat me disdainfully. Now they come home to ask for selfies. They tell me, Beta, we are sending our daughter also for wrestling classes, do you have any tips?”

What is Sakshi like when she is not in training mode? “Ekdum shaant,” she says. “I am not a party girl at all. I like to stay home and chill, just relax.”

And what would she be if she wasn’t a wrestler?

“I would study hard, get a job, then get married, I suppose. I had no special ambitions at all.”

“What are your class friends doing now?”

“They are married. Most of them. Many of them have children also.”

A reminder: Sakshi is 23.

Medal

We are a story-telling species. We make sense of the world through narratives. We’re bound to fit Sakshi into some narrative or the other. She is a woman from Haryana beating a patriarchal system. She is an Indian sportsperson rising to the top despite the system. She is beti bachao. She is achhe din. She is falaana, she is dhimkaana. At some level, all these narratives are both lazy and condescending.

Sakshi Malik is a 23-year-old girl who found, early in life, something that she loved doing more than anything else in the world. It was like puja for her. The best day in her life was when she did nothing but that. It gave her entry into a world where she made close friends, experienced heartbreak, felt the ecstacy of standing on a podium with her anthem playing. It made her fly, literally. It gave her joy – and sport is so wonderful, so transcendent, that for a few moments it gave millions of us some joy as well. That is the medal.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 October, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Sport


Facts Don’t Matter. Stories do

This is the 31st installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

At one point in the presidential debate earlier this week, Hillary Clinton said, “Mental health is one of the biggest concerns.” She was not referring to her opponent, but those words would have been apt in that context. Mental health is indeed a huge concern when it comes to Donald Trump. No candidate in US history has been so unhinged. Not only is Trump incapable of deep thought, he appears incapable of rational thought. His rare coherent sentences seem accidental, like the broken clock that is right twice a day. Even his hairstyle seems to reflect that the neurons below are firing in unusual ways. Indeed, his speech patterns are what you would expect from a malfunctioning AI bot. I’m not sure Trump would pass the Turing test.

Why, then, are so many Americans supporting him?

One possible reason proposed by the columnist Glenn Reynolds, which I have touched upon in an earlier edition of Lighthouse, is that a large number of Americans are closet racists, bigots, misogynists and nativists, but kept their preferences hidden because they seemed unacceptable in polite society. (Preference Falsification.) Social media allowed them to discover others like themselves, find enormous amounts of data that would feed their confirmation biases, and build progressively larger echo chambers. At the appropriate tipping point, along came Trump, articulating these basic instincts and bringing them into the mainstream. And boom, you have the Trump wave, in what social scientists would call a Preference Cascade.

I think there is much truth to this. I would also like to propose another reason: we are a species that relies on stories for explanations of the world around us, and Trump tells simple stories.

The world is complex and mysterious, and we make sense of it through stories. All our myths and religions evolved out of the need to find stories that would a) explain the world; and b) comfort ourselves. We have modified these stories as new evidence has popped up (eg, science), but have also stuck to older stories (eg, religion) for all kinds of reasons, from custom to the force of inertia to their beguiling simplicity. This last point is important. The world is so complex that simple stories appeal to us precisely because they stop us from feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Where did that tree come from? God put it there. Why was there an earthquake? God was punishing us for our sins. And so on.

Trump sells simple stories. Imagine a middle-aged white man in small-town America who has seen jobs disappear and incomes stagnate for years. If Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush or Paul Ryan explain to him why he is in this state, their complex explanation of a complex phenomenon will typically contain a mix of jargon, empty phrases and tired bromides, and might even be incomprehensible. Trump, on the other hand, will keep it simple. “You are losing your jobs because our government ships them overseas” is his anti-trade spiel. “You are losing your jobs because immigrants are coming in here and taking them away” is his anti-immigration spiel. Both of these explanations are wrong, but whether they are true or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are simple.

Once people buy into these stories, they are so invested in them that they are not going to accept deeper explanations. And they don’t trust politicians anyway, regarding them, with some justification, as smooth-talking, power-hungry, sociopathic slaves to special interests. Trump made a fool of himself in this recent debate, but he did worse in many of his earlier debates during the Republican primaries, and that didn’t hurt him. His followers judge him on different parameters than pundits and conventional politicians do. Substance is irrelevent, and facts don’t matter. Stories matter.

I don’t believe Trump tells these simple stories because he is a master politician. I think he tells them because he is a simpleton. His ideas are mostly dangerous and wrong, and if there is any first principle he believes in, it is an infallible belief in his own excellence. He has already destroyed his party, and he will damage his country if he comes to power. Will he be president?

I have a pessimistic view and an optimistic view. My pessimistic view is that polls are underestimating his support, just as polls underestimated the Brexit vote, because of preference falsification. So he will do better than his polls indicate. My optimistic view is that demographics are against him, and he has antagonised many black, hispanic and female voters, whose numbers are too large for him to win. He won in the multiway Republican primaries because the floor of his support was high; he will lose in the November election because its ceiling is too low. That’s the story I’m telling myself, because much as I find Hillary Clinton deplorable, I’d prefer a bad president to a mad president.

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 September, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Politics


Why Modi Must Learn to Play the Game of Chicken With Pakistan

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

There are few things as satisfying as being macho on social media, and this is quite the season for it. After the terrorist attack in Uri, every Righteous Internet Patriot (RIP) wants our government to teach Pakistan a lesson by going to war. I have two things to say about this: One, it is the worst of all available solutions; Two, it is the best possible stance to take. Let us unravel that.

War is a solution that would be worse than the problem. Let’s look at this conflict using the metric of human lives. A rational aim of any solution would be to minimise the loss of Indian lives. What is the cost we currently bear through Pakistan-sponsored terrorism?

In a reply to an RTI petition this July, the government of India stated that 707 Indian lives have been lost to terrorism since 2005. Over 11 years, that comes to 64 deaths a year. If the status quo is maintained, with the usual empty diplomatic posturings, this figure should not rise too drastically. But what if, in an exasperated search for closure, we go to war?

A modern war with modern weaponry could cost us tens of thousands of lives, and maybe millions if it turns nuclear. (This does not take into account downstream effects on survivors, the economy, the environment and so on, all of which would blight the future.) Whatever the precise number, the cost of war would be orders of magnitude worse than even the long-term cost of the status quo. For any rational person, therefore, war is off the table.

This creates an obvious problem. If the rational course for India is to avoid war no matter what happens, then Pakistan can keep escalating with impunity. They could kill hundreds of Indians a year, or even thousands, confident in the belief that because we are rational, because we can do the math, we will be restrained. So what are we to do?

The field of game theory contains an insight to this dynamic. The game most relevant to two nuclear powers is called Chicken. Here’s an illustration: two cars are racing towards each other, and a crash is imminent. (Mutually Assured Destruction.) The driver who loses his nerve and swerves first loses the game. Now, every rational driver will swerve before he crashes into the other guy. So a surefire way to win the game is to convince the other guy that you are irrational, prepared to die, and will not concede. (One way of doing this is by breaking the steering wheel and throwing it away.) Your opponent, if he is rational, must swerve.

Pakistan has played this game brilliantly with a so-far rational India. Their venal generals and mad mullahs, the world believes, are capable of going nuclear at any provocation. India’s rationality and restraint is applauded in diplomatic circles—but we’re being pwned in the geopolitical sphere by Pakistan.

One way out is for India to portray itself as equally irrational, and show a willingness to go nuclear—even if we actually remain rational and intend to avoid war. Richard Nixon did this during the Cold War in 1969, when he ordered the US army to full war-readiness, and sent 18 B-52s loaded with thermonuclear weapons towards the Soviet border, where they flew around in pretty oval patterns for three days. The Soviets, who weren’t exactly ballerinas themselves, were spooked. Nixon called this ‘the Madman Theory’.

Recent Indian prime ministers would have had a tough time portraying themselves as mad men. (Imagine Manmohan Singh letting off an evil laugh.) But Narendra Modi seemed to be suited for the role – until he became PM. Ironically, the rhetorical belligerance that Modi articulated towards Pakistan while on the campaign trail has been replaced by a subdued, reasonable demeanour on the world stage.

Modi cares deeply about how the world views him, and wants to be seen as a mature statesman. Sadly, he has succeeded. This is reassuring to those of us who fear excessive military adventurism—I live in Mumbai and would be bummed if Pakistan nuked my beloved city—but is counter-productive when it comes to dealing with Pakistan. If Pakistan’s generals saw Modi and his minions as unhinged reactionaries driven by bigotry, Islamophobia and a virulent nationalism, they might back off. But regardless of how he is regarded in JNU, his image on the global stage is exemplary. On all his foreign visits, he comes across as an avuncular dove, a personable connoisseur of the photo-op.

Our conflict with Pakistan will not be ended by diplomacy. China supports Pakistan, America needs Pakistan for Afghanistan reasons, and all diplomatic manouvering on this subject is just theatre. To get Pakistan to stop poking us, we have to play the game. Modi has so far been a master of optics – and playing Chicken with Pakistan is his greatest challenge yet.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 September, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | News | 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.

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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


Two Essays

It’s been a long time since I wrote something substantive on sport, so here are two recent essays I’ve written that scratched my itch. The first, published in The Cricket Monthly, is a 4000-word longread titled ‘What Cricket Can Learn From Poker’. It basically talks about the importance of probabilistic thinking, not just in poker and cricket but also in life in general. In what is a cricket magazine, I get in thoughts on poker, probability, football, the free-will-vs-determinism debate and even the Bhagawad Gita. An excerpt:

One way to think about probability is to imagine parallel universes. You flip an evenly weighted coin, and instantly the world splits into 1000 parallel worlds, and the coin falls heads in 500 of them and tails in the other 500. You flip again and these universes are split into units of 250, each showing sequences of HH, HT, TH and TT. You keep flipping.

This is true for everything that happens. Every single thing that happens in this world (or may happen) has a probability attached to it. These probabilities change at every instant, affected by all other events to some degree or the other. So imagine, in every single moment, for every single event, the parallel universes multiplying. You can increase or decrease the number of hypothetical parallel universes depending on how granular you wish to make the thought experiment, but there are basically infinite parallel universes, each of them containing unique outcomes. And the world that you are in right now is just one of trillions of trillions of freakin’ gazillions. Imagine the level of randomness, then, of this world being what it is.

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My other essay, ‘The Tamilian Gentleman Who Took On The World’, was part of ESPN.in’s series of The Top 20 Moments in Indian Sport. Vishy Anand winning the undisputed chess world championship in 2007 was ranked No. 4 by ESPN, though I would place it at the top. Being a chess lover, I’m obviously biased, but I’d hope that after reading my piece, which is about the context of Anand’s remarkable achievement, you will agree with me!

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 August, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Sport


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