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My Friend Sancho

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


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


Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Essays and Op-Eds

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.’

*

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.

*

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.

*

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


Black Man Rising

This is the 28th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

How do we choose our sporting heroes? I believe they are born in three ways. One, at a primal level, we pick them on the basis of tribalism. We support someone because they are doing well for the club or country we support, and that is reason enough. Two, we like them for their specific skills in a game that we love. The elegance of a Federer, the technical finesse of a Dravid, and so on. Three, we like them for reasons that go beyond the sport. Maybe their story evokes something personal in us. Maybe we are drawn to them because we are a species that understands the world through stories, and there is something universal about their journey that goes beyond the sport.

Muhammad Ali, who died a few days ago, transcended boxing. His life was so deeply intertwined with American history in the 1960s and ‘70s that to immerse yourself in the story of the man would be to understand the history of the nation. His journey encapsulated the essential conflicts of his times to such a degree that his sporting achievements almost didn’t matter.

Ali was born Cassius Clay, named after a 19th century abolitionist who defied the dominant narratives of his times. So did Ali. He did this, first, with regard to the way he boxed. Heavyweight boxers were supposed to be men of heft and power, but Ali subverted expectations by being a big man who danced around the ring with balletic grace, who could turn a brawl into an artistic display. His model was the welterweight (and later middleweight) Sugar Ray Robinson, a much smaller man. Boxing pundits didn’t take the young Clay seriously. The iconic sports writer AJ Liebling described him after his Olympic Gold win in Rome 1960 as ‘attractive but not probative’, and later dissed him as ‘Mr Swellhead Bigmouth Poet’. He was such an underdog in his first World Championship match against Sonny Liston in 1964 that his team found out which hospital had the best emergency room and mapped out the quickest route there from the venue. They thought Liston might kill him.

But the narratives that really mattered had nothing to do with boxing style, and he subverted them too. Boxing was a gladiatorial sport in America in the 50s and 60s, run by the mob, and many top boxers, usually black, like Liston, were virtually owned by the mob. Audiences needed palatable, simple narratives as packaging for the sport: Liston vs Patterson, for example, was sold as a fight between ‘Bad Negro’ and ‘Good Negro’, with one man (Liston) an uncivilised brute, feeding into racist fears of the archetypal black savage, and the other (Patterson) a sophisticated ‘liberal’s liberal’, as the novelist James Baldwin called him. (Both portraits were unfair.) But Ali would not allow others to shape his story.

Soon after his shock win over Liston in 1964, Ali further shocked America by announcing that he had joined the Nation of Islam, and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Many resisted this, and as if to remind him of who he really was, kept calling him by his ‘slave name’ of Cassius Clay. But Ali fought back. In 1967, he got into the ring against Ernie Terrell, a black heavyweight who refused to address him by his chosen name, and kept taunting him as he jabbed him repeatedly, ‘What’s my name, Uncle Tom? What’s my name?’

His bravest act, with which he lifted himself above his sport, was refusing to be drafted. Conscription is a form of slavery, and Ali refused to be a slave again. He was stripped of his title, and lost almost four years and tens of millions of notional dollars for his act, but he would not waver or compromise. In the magisterial biography ‘King of the World’, David Remnick quotes Gerald Early, a literature professor, describing what Ali’s action meant to him as a teenager: ‘When he refused, I felt something greater than pride: I felt as though my honour as a black boy had been defended, my honour as a human being.’

Ali came back into the sport and won the heavyweight title again, and achieved much glory in boxing. Not all of his story is uplifting. He often went overboard with hate-filled rhetoric, especially in his early days with the Nation of Islam, and his disrespect of his opponents, and his trash talk, often crossed the line. This is particularly so with Joe Frazier, who had helped Ali get his boxing license back after his suspension was over, but then became roadkill on Ali’s journey. In the words of the writer William Nack, Ali ‘humiliated and enraged and ultimately isolated Frazier, casting him as a shuffling and mumbling Uncle Tom, an ugly and ignorant errand boy for white America.’ He called him ‘an ugly gorilla’ among other things, building a mythology around himself that was as false as the racist narratives he had earlier rebelled against. (He justified it as good marketing for the fight, but Frazier carried the scars forever. Nack memorably wrote later that Ali had been ‘living rent-free for Frazier’s head for more than 25 years.’)

As much as Ali transcended the sport, he was also a creature of the sport, and the sport is essentially barbaric: one man beating another man, ideally causing brain damage (for the knockout is the ideal end to all fights), a negative-sum game where in the end both men lose. The accumulated blows that Ali took were a likely cause of his Parkinson’s, and as his legend grew over the decades, the man himself faded.

But the ways in which boxing diminished him—and before that he diminished himself—should not affect his legacy. All human beings are frail and weak and flawed in countless public and private ways—but very few people rise above themselves, and their sport, and their times, to the extent that Ali did. He meant so much to so many. As Kareem Abdul Jabbar wrote in a recent tribute: ‘I may be 7’2”, but I never felt taller than when standing in his shadow.’

More than the shadow, though, it was the light.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 June, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Sport


What We Talk About When We Talk About Politics

This is the 27th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

One of the great things about social media is that we talk to each other much more. I am not being ironic: because of Facebook alone, I know much more about my friends than I would otherwise. I am also in touch with many more people than I would otherwise be, especially old friends. This is useful as one gets middle-aged. At some point around 40, the world starts to narrow and goes on narrowing. Social media keeps it broad, and even recluses stay up-to-date and tip-top, as they’d say back in my day. One could argue that this sense of connection is synthetic, even pathetic, and has no connection with the real world out there. One could also argue that there is only one world, and it is in our heads; and anything in our heads, it follows, is in the real world.

This column is not about the personal, though, but the political. There is far more political awareness among young people today than there was when I was growing up in the 1980s. When I was a teenager, I did not know the difference between left-wing and right-wing, and my informed opinion of Rajiv Gandhi was that he was handsome. Today, 12-year-olds have vociferous opinions and are signing online petitions when they are not on hunger strikes in between meals. Political discourse has increased exponentially in volume; but how much is noise and how much is signal?

There were hopes that social media would lead to a virtual global town square where informed citizens could debate with one another. Instead, it has led to a conglomeration of echo chambers, some of them truly bizarre. No matter what you believe in, you can now find hordes of like-minded people online, and be reassured by the validation they provide. This has lead to a phenomenon that social scientists call ‘group polarisation’. The economist Cass Sunstein defines it thus: “When like-minded people deliberate, they typically end up adopting a more extreme position in line with their pre-deliberation inclinations.”

Thus, we find that most political discussion online consists of people talking past each other. And when they do talk to each other, it isn’t pretty. Anonymity (or even physical distance) turns mice into tigers, and most political discussions online turn personal really fast. If you want to dominate a discussion, you ignore the issues involved and attack the person instead. There are three key ways in which this happens.

One, you accuse your opponent of hypocrisy. (This is also known as Whatboutery.) So if someone talks about the 2002 Gujarat riots, you go, ‘But what about the 1984 Delhi riots? I didn’t see you condemn that?’ If someone points to a Muslim lynched by a Hindu mob, you say, ‘What about that Hindu social worker killed by Bangladeshi migrants in Assam?’ If they defend the free speech of a member of phallana community, you say, what about dhimkana community, where were you when they were censored? Not just trolls, all politicians do exactly this.

When Arvind Kejriwal was questioned about the hundreds of crores of taxpayers’ money he spent on running ads for the Delhi government, he replied, ‘But the BJP also does this. Why don’t you question them?’ There is no end to such Whataboutery—and you will note that on every such instance, the original issue is soon forgotten, and the fight centers on the hypocrisy of the complainant.

Two, you question the intent of your opponent. She could be a CIA agent, a pinko stooge of the Chinese, a lackey for the corporates, a ‘paid audience’ or a ‘presstitute’, in that colourful coinage of a retired army general with that typical Indian penchant for tasteless puns. Ah yes, she could also be anti-national, trying to break up the country. Any issue they raise, they can be told, ‘Ah, but you have an agenda for kicking up a storm. We’re on to you!’

This can be combined most effectively with Whataboutery. For example, if the Congress raises the issue of a corruption scandal in the BJP government, the BJP can say that their intent in raising this matter is to divert attention from their own scam from a week ago. What about that? This can even get recursive. (To visualise this process, imagine fractals.)

Three, you categorise your opponents by applying a pejorative label on them, and then dismiss that entire category as being beneath contempt, thus removing the need to engage with it. This happens across the spectrum. Just go on Twitter, and you’ll find it packed with ‘bhakts’ and ‘aaptards’ and ‘adarsh liberals’ and ‘sickulars’ and so on. Once you apply such a label to someone, you do not need to engage with them in reasoned debate.

Attacking the person instead of the argument is an ancient tradition—some intrepid historian might even find that it is of Indian origin. I have just enumerated the three most common ways of doing this. There are many other ways of appearing to win an argument within even engaging with it to begin with. Check out ‘38 Ways to Win an Argument’, by Arthur Schopenhauer and you will see some examples. They include noble techniques such as shifting goalposts, attacking straw men and appeals to authority. The 38th of them is masterful, and one that many Twitteratti are adept at: ‘Become personal, insulting and rude as soon as you perceive that your opponent has the upper hand.’

Most delighfully, you can not only resort to this, but you can immediately turn the tables with some canny projection when your opponent reacts in anger. He’ll be like, ‘What the fuck did you just call me?’ And you go, ‘Don’t use bad language, did you just say “fuck”? You are clearly not capable of reasoned discourse.’

In a sense, this gets to the heart of the matter. The whole point of political discourse seems not to be political but personal. When we take a point of view, we make an assertion not about the state of the world but about ourselves. Our ideologies become a proxy for personal statements: ‘I am compassionate.’ ‘I am righteous.’ ‘I am clever enough to engineer society.’ Many of our actions in the political sphere are not meant to actually affect change, but to show our nobility. And because our positions are so tied to our identity, any attack on them is an attack on us. We react viscerally. It feels personal; so we get personal.


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Also read: My old column written just when the Twitter started getting crazy in India, Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims.

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 May, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Media | Politics


Tolstoy’s Chicken and the Expanding Circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Fatal Conceit of the Indian Politician

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Also read: ‘Lessons From 1975.’

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


Lessons From 1975

A shorter version of this was published as the 21st installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

In 1975, a Tamilian dressed as a sardar landed up in Ahmedabad Railway Station, in disguise to escape the might of the central government, for whom he was a wanted man. He was met there, and escorted to a safe house, by a 25-year-old who had once sold tea on the platform of that station. Freeze that moment in history – Narendra Modi escorting Subramanian Swamy to his safe house – and contrast it to today. What a long way we have come.

Or have we?

I got the above trivia from Coomi Kapoor’s excellent book, The Emergency: A Personal History. Kapoor was a journalist living in Delhi in those days, and though her book was timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Emergency, it is anyway a timely reminder of the damage that people drunk on power can do, and the threat that such untrammelled power can pose to a nation.

The Emergency began with the filling up of jails. “The number of those in Indira Gandhi’s prisons during the Emergency,” writes Kapoor, “far exceeded the total number jailed during the 1942 Quit India Movement.” This included not just opponents in the opposition parties but also potential ones within her own party plus whoever they damn well felt like. (“The entire Sanskrit department of Delhi University was sent to prison.”) Personal vendettas were quickly settled, and torture was common in the jails. Those close to power were more like despotic rulers than public servants. For example, Kapoor writes, “When an old and respected lawyer of Panipat denounced [Bansi] Lal’s corrupt rule, he was arrested and stripped naked, his face was tarred, and he was dragged all through the streets of the town.” Such behaviour was more rule than exception.

The exploits of Sanjay Gandhi and his coterie were particularly shameful. He wrongly believed that India’s population was a problem rather than a resource, and even more wrongly set about solving it through forced sterilisations. Millions of those took place, and the story of the village of Pipli is particularly illustrative of how they functioned. Hawa Singh, a widower, died there after a botched forced sterilisation, and the villagers refused to have anything more to do with family planning. On hearing that, the government sent “several hundred policemen” who “took up positions around the village.” Shots were fired, and “two women making cowdung cakes outside their huts were mowed down by the bullets.” The men surrendered, and hundreds of them were sterilized.

The press was silenced. Loren Jenkins of Newsweek wrote, “In 10 years of covering the world from Franco’s Spain to Mao’s China, I have never encountered such stringent and all encompassing censorship.” One of the leaders of the opposition, LK Advani, later said that the press “was asked to bend and it chose to crawl.” A permanent (and brutal) dictatorship seemed likely, and we owe much gratitude to the fact that power had made Indira delusional, for she actually called for elections only because she thought she would win. Had she not thought so, she would not have called for them. (Indeed, Sanjay was opposed to the decision.)

To be honest, a political leader does not need to suspend democracy to devastate a country. Even without the Emergency, the vile Indira Gandhi would count as one of the worst leaders in our history. Through a series of disastrous economic policies, many of which her deluded partymen still support, she kept tens of millions of people in poverty, and adversely affected all our lives. There are no counterfactuals, of course, and abstract economic arguments do not have the visceral impact of the kind of stories that Coomi Kapoor’s excellent book is filled with.

Let’s get back to the present. To many, the general elections of last year felt like a landmark event because Modi’s win seemed to mark a final, clean break from everything that post-Independence Congress stood for. However, Modi was not brought to power by a monolithic votebank, but by a collection of disparate groups, all of whom were desperate for change for different reasons. Modi was like a Rorschach test – he stood for whatever you wanted him to stand for, and what you saw in him revealed more about you than about him. Hindutva bhakts saw him as the former RSS pracharak who would finally make India a great Hindu nation; economic liberals saw him as the leader who would finally liberate India from the Leftist policies that had kept us backward all these years; and so on. Some of the expectations from him were contradictory; most were impractical, given the constraints of the way our political economy is structured. But Modi encouraged all of them by discouraging none of them. He didn’t say much on policy issues, stuck to safe bromides, and you never really knew to what extent he supported Hindutva or free markets or yada yada yada. He was strong and silent, and he remained strong partly because he remained silent. You could believe whatever you wanted about him – and because the existing government was so incompetent, you wanted to believe.

If campaigning was like courtship, governance is like marriage. You can’t be delusional about the object of your affection any more: you’re living with the fellow. And while it’s okay if he burps and farts in your presence, it is simply not okay if he beats you up just like the previous guy used to. So a year down the line, how is the Modi government doing?

If you’re an economic liberal like me, Modi has been a disappointment. It is with good reason that people are beginning to refer to this government as UPA 3. Modi has not instituted any far reaching reforms, and the rhetoric of ‘incremental reforms’ does not cut it for me. If a man has gangrene in his legs or cancer in his liver, you do not give him an aspirin and call it incremental reform. ‘Gangrene’ and ‘cancer’ do not need to be managed efficiently, but eliminated brutally. Anyway, this is a subject I’ll elaborate on a future column. For now, I will concede this: Modi’s government is no worse than UPA 2 was. And it’s fair enough to wait out the five years they have been given before passing judgement.

It is in the domain of personal freedoms, though, that Modi has let the country down. Much of this is due to petty vindinctiveness, straight out of the Indira Gandhi playbook. Consider how Teesta Setalvad has been harassed after Modi came to power, with the latest salvo being the cancellation of the license of her NGO. (Why should any organisation need a license from the government anyway? Wasn’t Modi the Messiah supposed to do away with this kind of nonsense?)  Consider the government’s harassment of NGOs like Greenpeace, and the offloading of Greenpeace campaigner Priya Pillai when she was on her way to England because officials felt she would give India a “negative image” there. Go online, search for videos of the recent Patel uprising in Ahmedabad, and see the brutality with which the police crack down on common citizens. (The Gujarat government also banned the mobile internet during this time, as well as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.) Consider all the nonsense the fringe elements on the Hindu right are getting up to, and the silence of the government on these issues – the same silence you would get from Indira very time she was confronted about the antics of her psychopathic son Sanjay.

Modi has not declared Emergency or jailed his opponents, but this approach to power does remind me of 1975, and make me wonder. Many of the prominent political actors of today played small roles in that particular production. Arun Jaitley spent the years of the Emergency in jail. In the hundreds of hours of solitary contemplation that he no doubt had, what did he think about? When the young party worker Narendra Modi guided Subramanian Swamy to his safe house, what did they talk about? Was it about how power always corrupts, the necessity to impose limits on it and the tragedy that politicians in India sought to rule rather than serve? Or did they simply say to each other, “Just wait. Just wait till we are on the other side, and we are the ones in charge.”

I suspect it was the latter. And what a loss that is.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 September, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics


The Great Redistribution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Price is Right

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Letter From a Cow

This is the 17th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Dear Amit

Thank you for the recent love song, She Mooooves Me, which you wrote and dedicated to ‘all the cows on Planet Earth’. Me and my friends here in England have it on loop on CowTube. There are few humans we like—you lot enslave us, molest us for milk every morning, and kill us and sell our meat after that. So we’re not very fond of your species. But you, Amit, we have always liked you, because you understand us, you’re a good listener, and you’re so so cute! But this is not mere fanmail. I am unwell right now, hugely under the weather, and I need to rant. And like I said, you’re a good listener. So here goes.

I won’t go into the details of my illness with you, except to say it’s not just a mere cold. Serious shit is going down, and I’m in a lot of pain everyday. And how am I being treated? With sugar pills. Sugar fuckin’ pills. Oh yes, you may pick your jaw up from the floor now, you don’t want a snail entering while you’re all astonished. (Happened to Lucy once.) This is for real, so let me quote from a report last month in the London Telegraph.

The report says: “British organic farmers are being forced to treat their livestock with homeopathic remedies under European Commission rules branded ‘scientifically illiterate’ by vets. Although homeopathy has been branded as ‘rubbish’ by the government’s Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies, organic farmers have been told they must try it first under an EU directive which came into force last year.”

Yes, that’s right. There are serious issues with my liver, I need antibiotics badly, the pain is excruciating, and my owners are being forced to treat me with bloody sugar pills! You’re a rationalist, Amit, I know you feel my pain right now. (Well, not literally, for that you’d need my liver, but you know what I mean.) That some humans believe in this nonsense is understandable, you’re a nonsense species, and by all means do whatever you want to yourselves. But why force it on us cows?

I first got to know homeopathy was bunkum thanks to your writings. First, there’s the science behind it. The idea of homeopathy is that the substance that is to be used to treat the patient is so diluted that it is unlikely that there is a single molecule of the substance in the pills the patient ends up consuming. As Martin Gardner once said, it is “equivalent to taking one grain of rice, crushing it to a powder, dissolving it in a sphere of water the size of the solar system, with the sun at the centre and the orbit of Pluto at the outside, and then repeating that process 2 million times.” My mind boggles at imagining the scale of this: not the solar system, but the idiocy.

Naturally, homeopathy doesn’t work. The standard scientific way of testing medicines is via double-blind placebo-controlled tests, and homeopathy has repeatedly failed those. I have read accounts of this in two great books you recommended, Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and Trick or Treatment by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst. I no longer have copies of those books – let’s just say that they’ve been chewed and digested – but I recommend them to all those who wish to argue with me on the subject.

My friend Lucy is not into books, though – that’s why her brain is full of grass. And she said to me the other day, “Well, I had indigestion from accidentally swallowing a snail, and I was given homeopathy, and now I’m fine. So surely it works.” I get this all the time, which proves that some cows can be as thick as some humans. So I explained to Lucy the fallacies in such thinking.

First, I told her about the placebo effect. Sometimes, even if you’ve been given a pill containing no medicine at all, if you think you’ve been given proper medicine, you start responding to it. In Bad Science Goldacre wrote about an American anaesthetist during World War 2, Henry Beecher, who had to perform an operation on a soldier with “horrific injuries”. Morphine wasn’t available so he used salt water. And it worked! The placebo effect is an incredibly powerful and well documented effect, which is why when new medicines are tested, they are tested against placebos. Only if they do better than placebos are they considered effective. Homeopathic medicines always fail these tests, because hey, they’re just sugar pills as well.

Another phenomenon I explained to Lucy is regression to the mean. Many ailments work in a natural cycle, where you get worse and then get better, quite on your own. This is true for colds, backaches, migraines, and also Lucy’s indigestion. But if you are inclined to believe that a particular treatment works, you will take the medicine, get better on your own, and ascribe it to the medicine. This is the Confirmation Bias at work, and also that other one, I forget the name, you write about it often, which mistakes correlation for causation.

Anyway, so I patiently explained all this to Lucy, and you know what she did? She said ‘Whatever.’ Then she swished her tail, turned around and stepped into a pile of her own dung. I’d do a facepalm if I could.

Anyway, enough ranting. I just want to thank you again for your song. If you’ve visiting England sometime, please come over to the farm and meet the girls, we’d be sooooo happy. We can’t offer much in terms of hospitality, but I’ll gladly share my sugar pills with you.

Yours forever

Dorothy (but you can call me Dotty, tee hee).

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And from XKCD:

*

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 May, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Old memes | Cows | Science and Technology


Why I Loved and Left Poker

This is the 42nd and last installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

This is the 42nd and final installment of Range Rover, and I end this column at an appropriate time: after around five years of being a professional poker player, I have stopped playing fulltime, and am getting back to writing books. I am the first winning player i know to walk away from this game – but more than the money, I cherish the life lessons that poker has given me. As I sign off, let me share two of them: the first accounts, to some extent, for my love of the game; the second is the reason I am leaving it.

Poker is a game centred around the long term. The public image of poker is based around hands we see in movies or YouTube videos, and the beginner fantasizes about specific events, spectacular hands in which he pulls off a big bluff or deceives someone into stacking off to him. But once you go deeper into the game, you learn that short-term outcomes are largely determined by luck, and your skill only manifests itself in the long run. You learn to not be results-oriented but process-oriented, to just make the optimal move at every opportunity and ignore immediate outcomes. You learn, viscerally, for much money and pride is involved, the same lesson that the Bhagavad Gita teaches: Don’t worry about the fruits of your action, just do the right thing.

Needless to say, this applies to life as well. Luck plays a far bigger part in our lives than we realise: the very fact that you are literate enough to read this, presumably on a device you own, means you have already won the lottery of life. Much of what happens to us and around us is outside our control, and we would be foolish to ascribe meaning to these, or to let them affect us. Too many players I know let short-term wins and losses affect them, and become either arrogant or angry. This is folly. Equanimity is the key to being profitable in poker – and happy in life.

Why am I leaving a game that has given me so much? There are many reasons: Poker is all-consuming, and impacts one’s health and lifestyle; my real calling is to write, and I am pregnant with books that demand labour; but one key reason is that poker is a zero-sum game.

In life, you benefit when others do too. When two people transact a business deal, they do so because both gain value from it. When lovers kiss, the net happiness of both goes up. Life is a positive-sum game. But poker is not. You can only win if someone else loses, and the main skill in poker is exploiting the mistakes of others.

Now, all sport is zero-sum and consenting adults play this game, so this should not be a problem—except for the fact that poker lies on the intersection of sport and gambling. Gambling addiction destroys lives and families just as drug or alcohol addiction do, and i have seen this happen to people around me. I can sit at a poker table and calculate equities and figure out game-theoretically optimal ways of playing—but where is the nobility in this when my opponent is not doing likewise, but is a mindless slave to the dopamine rushes in his head? In the live games I played, I sometimes felt that there was no difference between me and a drug dealer: we were both exploiting someone else’s addiction.

When I write books, i have a shot at enriching myself by enriching others. This can never happen in poker. And so, my friends, goodbye.

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Addendum: You can read all the archives of my column on the Range Rover homepage. Here, briefly, are some I enjoyed writing.

My first column, The Bookshop Romeo, talks about the importance of thinking in terms of ranges, and its applicability to life. The Numbers Game and The Answer is 42 are about the importance of mathematics in poker. Make no Mistake, Finding Your Edge, The Colors of Money, The Cigarette Case and The Importance of Profiling deal with some basics of exploitive poker, while The Balancing Act, Miller’s Pyramid and Imagine You’re a Computer  talk about game-theory optimal (GTO) poker. Om Namah Volume is about the importance of putting volume.

I had great fun writing this series of pieces of probability, randomness and the nature of luck in poker and in life: Unlikely is Inevitable; Black Cats at the Poker Table; Running Good. I fed into my interest in cognitive psychology and behavioural economics for those pieces, as I did for these: The Interpreter; Poker at Lake Wobegon; Keep Calm and Carry On; The Endowment Effect; Steve Jobs and his Black Turtleneck.

Beast vs Human and The Zen Master Speaks deal with temperamental aspects of poker. The Game Outside the Game is about the politics of access, and Raking Bad about the ill effects of excessive rake. Sweet Dopamine talks about poker as an addiction, and The Dark Game and The Second Game of Dice expand upon this subject using personal experience.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 May, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Personal | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


Steve Jobs and his Black Turtleneck

This is the 41st installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

The next time you are sitting at a poker table, faced with a big decision for a lot of money, take a few seconds off and think of Steve Jobs, naked after his morning shower, walking to his closet to pick out the clothes he will wear for the day. Does he tank over what to wear? No, he doesn’t. He just takes out a black turtleneck, a pair of jeans, and that’s his outfit for the day. Through the last years of his life, in fact, that was his outfit for every day.

Jobs wasn’t lazy or devoid of imagination. He had just cottoned on to a phenomenon called Decision Fatigue. Basically, neurologists have found that every decision you take tires you out a little bit, and robs you of energy. Through the day, Decision Fatigue accumulates, as you get more and more pooped. So if you want to use your energy optimally, the smart thing to do is to automate all trivial decisions, or get them over with quickly, so you can bring all your powers to bear on the big decisions that really matter. Basically, don’t sweat the small stuff.

Jobs did this by wearing the same outfit every day, as does Mark Zuckerberg, thus eliminating one early decision at the start of the day. You could do this by having the same breakfast every day (or letting someone else decide for you), parking in the first available spot instead of searching for the perfect one, and so on. One way to deal with Decision Fatigue is by Satisficing. When I shop, for example, I don’t look for the perfect item to buy, but pick the first adequate one. This is Satisficing: making quick and easy decisions instead of perfect ones. If I’m buying a TV or a T-shirt or a portable hard drive, I won’t agonise for hours over all the different models available, but just pick the first one that seems satisfactory. I’ll devote more scrutiny to big ticket items that really matter—like buying a house, for example.

Consider the implications of this for poker. Poker players typically play sessions that last for many hours, sometimes upwards of 15, which is tiring in itself. They have to stay focussed, observe the action even when they’re not in the hand, and in live games, where such things matter, interact with others for the sake of conviviality. Add to this Decision Fatigue. In any session, you will face dozens of decisions, some of them big ones, increasing the likelihood of your getting exhausted as the session goes on, and thus more prone to errors. So what is one to do?

The obvious answer is to automate. At a beginner level, if you have a starting hand chart for every position, at least those preflop decisions won’t consume energy. As you grow into the game, you can have default decisions for more and more situations. But there is one huge problem with playing like this: you run the risk of becoming predictable, and therefore, exploitable. As you rise up the stakes in poker, you need to start balancing your ranges. This involves a huge amount of work off the table, so that decisions are easy while actually playing. I think of it as akin to a batsman spending thousands of hours in the nets till it becomes reflexive for him, in a match, to lean into an elegant cover-drive against a half volley outside off. Test cricketers don’t actually make a decision on every ball when they are batting; they just follow their reflexes. They have to hone their second nature.

This is why online grinders, whether they are playing cash games or tourneys, multi-table with such ease. Most decisions are automated. Of course, since most of us are playing exploitive poker instead of GTO, we also have to be observant for mistakes to exploit—but even this becomes second nature with practice and hard work off the tables. So here’s my takeaway from this: to reduce decision fatigue at the tables, and to become a better player overall, you need to put in lots of work off the tables. If you do that, there’ll be many black turtlenecks and jeans ahead of you, and Steve Jobs won’t be naked no more.

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 May, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Lamborghini

This is the 16th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

I saw the strangest thing the other day. Out on the road, there was a sleek Lamborghini with a man in a dhoti-kurta at the driver’s seat. His hands weren’t on the wheel. Instead, he held a whip in his right hand, which extended out of his window, and he was whipping a couple of bullocks tied to the front of the car. The engine was off; the bullocks were pulling the car.

Now, okay, this is perhaps a bit too weird even for India, and I confess that I didn’t see exactly this. But I did witness something very close. I was watching the IPL.

Twenty20 cricket is a relatively new form of the game which makes new demands on the teams that play it. Like a bullock cart driver who has just been given a Lamborghini, the men who run the teams and play for them haven’t quite come to terms with this. So they continue to whip the bullocks. When one-day cricket was born, teams played it much like they would a Test match—consider Sunil Gavaskar’s 36 not out in 1975 through 60 overs, and while that is an extreme example, consider the low par scores of those times. Eventually, players adapted. Even Gavaskar made a thrilling World Cup century before retiring, and par scores crept up until, as I wrote in my last installment of Lighthouse, they crossed 300 in the subcontinent, which was once an outlier score and not the norm.

Similarly, in T20 cricket, teams have basically adapted their ODI approach to this shorter format. So maybe they tonk in the powerplay at the start, then they consolidate and set a platform, then they tonk again towards the end. They often have freeflowing openers, but leave their hard-hitting maniacs, like Kieron Pollard of Mumbai Indians, to bat at the end. This is a flawed approach, because T20 is not just a modified version of ODIs, it’s a whole new format with its own imperatives.

First of all, consider that T20 cricket is played with the same number of players in each side as ODI cricket is: Eleven. This is not a banal point, but crucial to understanding how to approach the game. If T20 games were played 8-a-side, you would be justified in structuring your innings as you structure an ODI innings. But with 11 players, you have extra resources for the time given to you. Your task is to make sure these resources are not wasted, and are optimally used. If the hardest-hitting strokeplayer in the team routinely gets only four or five overs to bat, you are screwing up somewhere. So what should you do?

I’d written a piece after last year’s IPL for Cricinfo where I’d laid out what I felt was the biggest tactical advance of last year’s IPL: Frontloading. Basically, King’s XI Punjab decided to snort at the concept of building a platform, and just sent their hardest hitters upfront and treated every over as sides would usually treat overs 16-20. They attacked from the outset, with Glenn Maxwell, David Miller and George Bailey coming in at Nos. 3, 4 and 5, and sometimes if an early wicket fell, Wriddhiman Saha coming at 3, but also to tonk. Their frontloading ensured that batting resources were not wasted, and this approach got them off to an excellent start in the tournament. In contrast, Mumbai Indians consistently sent out their best hitter, Kieron Pollard, with just a handful of overs to go, and he had nowhere near the impact he could have had. Kolkata Knight Riders started poorly, but then adapted, dropped Jacques Kallis the accumulator, frontloaded the hitting, and things worked out. They also had a better bowling attack than Kings XI, and deservedly won the IPL.

This year has been bizarre. King’s XI, far from continuing to frontload, has reverted to traditional structures of building an innings, sending in Maxwell later than they did last year and even, at the time of writing this piece, dropping him from the side. Mumbai Indians haven’t learnt from their past mistakes, and continue to save Pollard for a dash at the end. They would be better served if Pollard and Corey Anderson batted 3 and 4, in whatever order, with Rohit Sharma opening. But no, they don’t use their elite V12 engine. The other day Mumbai Indians, with Pollard and Anderson mostly at the crease, added 81 runs between overs 16 to 20, but lost because the team scored too slowly in the first 15. What a waste. Imagine if they had scored those 81 runs between overs 6 to 10 instead. How nicely that would have set up the innings. Their chances of doing so between overs 6 to 10 were the same as between 16-20, but the upside of going for it early was far more and the downside the same. Keep the bullocks for later, if the engine fails.

The idea is not just to frontload resources but also to frontload intent. Every side doesn’t have a Maxwell or a Pollard. But whoever goes out there should attack, attack, attack. Sure, if a Starc or Malinga is on fire, play that one guy out. But otherwise go for it. Not only does it ensure you don’t waste batting resources, it also ensures that soft overs in between by lesser bowlers are not wasted. Batting strategies are so predictable that fielding captains can plan how to use their resources well, keeping their best restrictive bowlers, like Malinga, for the end of the innings. But what can they do if you’re going at them all the time?

The one team that has gotten frontloading right in this IPL so far is the Chennai Super Kings. Brendan McCullum and Dwayne Smith play every over like it’s the 18th of the innings, and Suresh Raina and MS Dhoni, two outstanding strokeplayers, follow at Nos. 3 and 4. This is exactly right, and good captaincy. Of course, Chennai also have an excellent bowling attack, which is why they’re among the favourites in the IPL year after year. All things being equal between teams, though, frontloading makes the difference. So when you have a Lamborghini, drive the damn thing.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 May, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Sport


The Zen Master Speaks

This is the 40th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Once upon a time, a poker player went to a Zen master in the hills, Quiet River, and prostrated himself at his feet. ‘Sensei Quiet River,’ he said, ‘I have something I need to ask you. I am a poker player. But I am not as good as I can be, despite studying both the mathematical intricacies of the game and the psychological tendencies of others. Something is missing. I need you tell me what it is?’

Sensei Quiet River just looked into his eyes.

‘Here,’ said the poker player, whipping out his smartphone. ‘I have all my hand histories here. Let me play them for you. Please tell me my leaks.’ He switched on the hand replayer on his phone and held it up in front of the Sensei. But the Sensei ignored it and kept staring into the player’s eyes. Many seconds passed. Finally, the player understood.

‘I get it now,’ he says. ‘The problem is not in the math or the psychology. The problem is me.’

Sensei Quiet River smiled.

In the last installment of Range Rover I wrote, ‘We lose money in poker not because we think too little but because we feel too much.’ I promised to elaborate on it this week, so here goes.

Poker is a challenging game not because of mathematical complexity but because of human frailty. You can master it in a technical sense: you can understand equities, put people on ranges accurately, balance your own ranges, and so on. You will never be perfect at this, but you can easily be adequate for the games you play. But technique is half the story; temperament is the other half.

Even if you know all the right moves to make, you still need to have the discipline to detach yourself from the short-term outcomes of hands or sessions and play correctly. It’s hard to do this: we are all emotional creatures, casting a veneer of rationality on our reptile brains. We get tired, upset, elated, impatient; we give in to greed, sloth, arrogance, and, most of all, anger. Every poker player is familiar with a phenomenon called ‘Tilt’? What is tilt? The sports psychologist Jared Tendler, writer of a brilliant book called The Mental Game of Poker, describes it as “anger+bad play.” We get angry, so we play bad. And why do we get angry?

In his book, Tendler identifies different kinds of tilt. There’s Injustice Tilt, where you feel you are getting unluckier than others, and it’s just not fair. There’s Revenge Tilt, where you take things personally against certain other players at the table (maybe they gave you a bad beat, or they 3b you frequently). There’s Entitlement Tilt, where you feel you deserve to win more than you are, because you’re better dammit. And so on.

Our emotional condition at any point in time can cause us to play sub-optimally, even when we know what the optimal play is. This is most likely to happen at times of stress, and poker is an incredibly stressful activity, because there is always lots of money involved – not to mention ego. We often equate our sense of self and our well-being with the money we have – though we shouldn’t – and having it taken from us can destroy our emotional equalibrium. It isn’t easy, as that saying goes, to keep calm and carry on.

Let me now end this column with a tip. The next time you are at a poker table, facing a difficult decision, buffeted by emotions, here’s what I want you to do: Imagine that Sensei Quiet River is standing by your side. What would he do in your place? Do exactly that, and see him smile.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 April, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


Imagine You Are A Computer

This is the 39th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Being human sucks in many ways, but one of its great advantages is that little thing called the imagination. We can imagine away our frailties and pretend to rise above our cognitive limitations. We are all Walter Mitty and Mungerilal, so this following thought experiment should appeal to you. Imagine that you are not a human being, but a computer designed to play poker perfectly and take the money of puny humans. Now tell me: what would change in the way you play the game? (Pause and think about this before you go to the next para, please.)

If you were God, you would know what cards your opponents held and the rundowns of all future boards. But as a computer, you wouldn’t need that information. You would play game-theory optimal (GTO) poker, with a strategy guaranteed not to lose in the long run regardless of the hands others might have or what they might do with them. Most of us humans, on the other hand, play exploitive poker, for which the hands and tendencies of others do matter. Let me illustrate the difference.

You are heads up in a hand, and on the river make a pot-size bet. Your opponent is getting 2 to 1 to call, and needs to be right one in three times to break even. Now, the aim of GTO poker is to make your opponent indifferent to calling or folding. You will do this by having what is known as a ‘balanced’ range jn this spot. Because you are offering him 2 to 1, a balanced range here would have 1/3 bluffs and 2/3 value hands. (Note that the composition of a balanced range depends on bet sizing, or the odds you give the opponent. If you bet half-pot, giving him 3 to 1, a balanced range would have 75% value hands.) Being balanced in any spot means that your opponent has to play perfectly to break even—and if he calls too much or folds too much, you make money. Basically, you cannot lose, and are thus likely to win.

Unless you’re playing high stakes online cash games, you’re unlikely to ever actually need to play GTO. The cash-game poker I play is exploitive poker. I try to identify mistakes my opponents tend to make and exploit them. In the above example, if my opponent tends to give up too often on the river, I will increase the number of bluffs in my range. If he is a calling machine and never folds, I will have 100% value bets in my range. While this is exploitive, this is also exploitable. By deviating from GTO to exploit his mistakes, I offer him (or someone else) a chance to exploit me. If i start bluffing more because he folds too much, he, or another player, could increase their calling frequency against me.

A computer would aim to play GTO poker, and it would do this by building balanced ranges for every spot, starting from preflop, across streets and board textures. This is incredibly complicated, and humans can just come to an approximation of this. This is useful, for understanding balanced ranges help us understand our own mistakes, and those of others, even if we don’t actually intend to play GTO poker. But my question at the start of this piece was not supposed to turn into a lecture on game theory. Indeed, my own answer to that question has nothing to do with game theory or exploiting others.

In any game I play, I tend to assume, correctly so far, that I can acquire the technical knowledge to beat the game. My big leaks are temperamental ones. If i was a computer, I would not feel any emotion, and would thus avoid all the pitfalls of being human at a poker table. We lose money in poker not because we think too little but because we feel too much. I shall elaborate on this in my next column.

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Also read:

The Balancing Act
Miller’s Pyramid

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 April, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport


The New Face of Cricket

This is the 15th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

One trend that never goes out of fashion is lamenting the present, claiming that things were better in the past. Logically, one would not expect this to be the case in sport. After all, most sports seem close to their zenith at any given point in time. Usain Bolt is way faster than Carl Lewis, Federer and Nadal would whoop McEnroe or Becker’s ass, Magnus Carlsen would probably beat Bobby Fischer. Better technology (including in training) and more accumulated knowledge about the past make this inevitable. The one sport that seems to defy this sort of analysis, though, is cricket.

We cricket romantics still speak of Don Bradman as the greatest batsman ever, of the West Indies pace quartet of the 70s and 80s as the best fast bowling attack, and we still sigh when we remember India’s famous spin quartet. Recently, a poll named Viv Richards, from the neolithic age of one-day cricket, as the greatest ODI player ever. And while batting records have been taken apart recently, including in this World Cup, cricket tragics ascribe this to a shift in the contest between bat and ball, the heavier bats which enable top edges to go for six, batsman-skewed field restrictions, and so on. This is a valid point, but it’s not the whole truth. My contention is that the game has evolved significantly in the last few years, and—please don’t burn me at the stake for saying this—Twenty20 cricket has been a hugely positive influence on the way cricket is played.

T20 cricket gets a lot of flak, and while much of the criticism about its commercial structure is justified, I don’t agree with any of the criticism about its cricketing value. Test cricket snobs complain that T20s are just a slogfest, but this is far from true. Bowlers have been hugely influential in the IPL, and every side that has won has done so because its bowlers stepped up and influences the game. Think Narine, Malinga, Ashwin, Warne. Just because bowlers go at 7 an over instead of 5, as in ODIs, doesn’t mean the fundamental nature of the game has changed. The goalposts have shifted, the parameters have changed, but the game is still a contest between bat and ball. If it wasn’t, the sides would just go out and have a slog-off against bowling machines, and teams would pick 11 specialist batsmen.

What has changed, though, is that batting has evolved to adapt to the challenges and constraints of a 20-over-a-side game. (And bowling has changed as a response to this.) When one-day cricket began in the 1970s, for example, games were 60-overs-a-side and batsmen approached their innings must as they approached Test matches. The traditional virtues of the game were still applicable, and a run-rate of 4 through an innings was acceptable. If a side scored 250, you’d say their batsmen did well, and not that the opposition’s side’s bowlers did a great job, as would be the case today.

One-day cricket underwent a change through the 90s, as sides began to exploit the field restrictions at the start of the innings. Opening batsmen before Sanath Jayasuriya had gone berserk, like Mark Greatbatch in the 1992 World Cup, but the Sri Lankans of 1996 were the first to treat it as a philosophy, not a tactic. The change in approach saw generally higher scores in ODIs, and a knock-off effect in Tests.

The T20 revolution, and specifically the IPL, turbo-charged the game.  Twenty20 did not deserve any of the disdain it was greeted with: if we don’t diss football games for lasting 90 minutes or tennis matches for getting over in an afternoon, then why mock a three-hour game of cricket? Cricket is a beautiful sport, and the T20 format offers all the drama and nuance that any other sport in the world possesses. And because of the constraints of time, the format demands more out of both batsmen and bowlers than cricket did earlier. In T20 cricket, you have to optimise. To understand the creature that emerges from this, consider the insanely talented Glenn Maxwell.

The most remarkable graphic I saw during this World Cup was one the broadcasters showed after a cameo by Maxwell in this World Cup. It showed where bowlers bowled to him and where he hit them. Most of the balls pitched on off or outside disappeared on the leg side; most of the balls pitched straight or on leg were whacked on the off side. This is not because he got randomly funky. There was a method to his madness.

In the past, batsmen would carry a mental map of where the field was, and adjust to the ball according to that. Now they adjust to the field before the ball is bowled, and dance around the crease and set themselves up accordingly. If point and third man are up and a spinner is bowling, Maxwell is very likely to set up a reverse sweep, which in his hands is an orthodox stroke, like a cover drive or pull, with a similar risk-reward ratio. It doesn’t matter if the ball pitches two inches outside leg; he’s already decided where it’s going to go. And he plays like this from ball one. In that graphic in question, the bowlers actually bowled to their field; and he batted to that field too.

Players like Maxwell and AB deVilliers, who is known as a ‘360°-batsman’ because he can hit the ball to any part of the ground and plays as if the stumps aren’t there, have transformed the game with their inventiveness (and enormous talent), playing strokes that Richards, or even the recent Tendulkar for that matter, couldn’t have conceived. And they are not alone. Every team is optimising, and we have seen the knock-on effect this has had on ODIs in this World Cup, where, I submit, batsmen not only scored more runs than before, but also batted better. You will see Test matches transformed by this as well. I predict more successful fourth-innings chases of 300-plus in the next ten years than in the last 30. Hold me to this.

Having said this, I would not argue with measures by administrators to tilt the balance more towards bowlers. One could mess around with field restrictions, and I certainly think the 10-over limit on how much a bowler can bowl should go: there aren’t corresponding limits on batsmen. But please, do not say that there is no longer a contest between bat and ball. The two main contenders for the man-of-the-series award in this World Cup were bowlers (Starc and Boult), and a bowling performance got MOTM in the finals (Faulkner). When Mitchell Starc spears in that yorker at 150kmph to Brendan McCullum, after setting him up with two fierce dot balls, you know the game is doing just fine.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 April, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Sport


Free Speech Does Not Mean Disruptive Heckling

This comment of mine was published a couple of days ago on Scroll.

Imagine Jerry Seinfeld is performing in India. A packed house is in attendance, getting rapturous as Seinfeld gets into his flow. And then, a bunch of hecklers from the Bajrang Dal disrupt the show. Seinfeld takes the interruption gracefully, but the hecklers won’t let him finish, and he eventually makes one last joke and then leaves the stage. What would your reaction be to this incident?

I would be aghast, and very clear on who was in the wrong: the hecklers. If the Bajrang Dal chaps protested that Seinfeld’s content was offensive to them, I’d say, “Ok, leave the premises then. And protest elsewhere by all means.” If they argued that they were expressing their right to free speech, and that protesting at their heckling was akin to censorship, it would be mildly ridiculous. To me, there would only be one guilty party here, the Bajrang Dal, and three wronged parties: the organisers, whose property rights were infringed upon by the hecklers; Seinfeld, who was not allowed to finish; and the audience, which did not get their money’s worth.

If you agree with my argument above, you would also agree, I suppose, that the principles involved hold regardless of the parties involved. So if I was at a Baba Ramdev show, and he expressed views repugnant to me, such as an attack on homosexuality, I would be disgusted, and the appropriate response to that would be to walk out and express my disgust elsewhere. But I would not have the right to disrupt his speech, and the organisers of that show would not have an obligation to offer me their platform for my views. In terms of principles, my heckling Ramdev off the stage would be exactly as wrong as the Bajrang Dal forcing Seinfeld to stop performing.

I write this, as you’d have guessed, in the context of the comedian Abish Mathew being booed off stage while performing at a Delhi college, and the subsequent defence of the hecklers in some quarters. Mathew is not Seinfeld or Ramdev, but the same principles that applied to their hypothetical hecklers apply to his. The hecklers in question were not expressing their right to free speech by disrupting the show. Free speech applies to one’s own space and to public spaces: I cannot enter someone’s house, abuse him, and protest when I am being thrown out that he is infringing upon my right to free speech. He is not; on the contrary, I am infringing upon his property. (In fact, as I argue here, the right to free speech is a property right.)

The hecklers should have protested outside the venue, or after the performance. To disturb the performance was graceless. To use another example, if I am at a Kishori Amonkar concert and am getting bored, I will quietly walk out. It would be incredibly boorish if I heckled her and made her stop. To argue that Mathew is not Kishori Amonkar, or that Seinfeld is classy and Ramdev is a bigot, is missing the point. The same principles apply.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 March, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | News


The Answer is 42

This is the 38th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

The answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything, according to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is 42. The computer that came up with this took 7.5 million years to calculate it, though the question for this answer wasn’t known. Well, I have a guess as to what it was.

My guess is that Douglas Adams was a keen connoisseur of Pot Limit Omaha, and he got into the following hand with his friend Richard Dawkins. Adams had T985ds, spades and diamonds, and the flop came K67, one spade and two diamonds, giving him a humongous wrap, a flush draw and a backdoor flush draw. Dawkins potted, Adams repotted, Dawkins jammed, Adams called. Dawkins had AAKKds, clubs and hearts, for top set. ‘Ha,’ he exclaimed, ‘I have the nuts. Take a hitchhike, my friend!’

‘Now, now, calm down,’ said Adams. ‘It is in your genes to be excitable, I know, but I must inform you that your top set is not the best hand here. Indeed, I am actually the favourite to win here.’

‘You’re kidding me,’ said Dawkins, as he looked at Adams’s cards in growing horror. ‘So what percent of the time do I win this hand?’

And that’s the question, dear reader, to which the answer is 42.

As it happens, the turn gave Adams a straight flush, at which point Dawkins became a militant atheist, as indeed am I, but that is not a matter on which I shall dwell today. Instead, I wish to bring up the role of numbers in poker. I have written before on how poker is a numbers game, and to master the game, you must master the math. In my last column, I wrote about the hard work involved in teaching yourself the game, much of which involved number-crunching. In response, my friend Rajat, a keen player with a recent live tournament win under his belt, tweeted: ‘I’m an old-school player, terrified of numbers. What advice for me?’ This is a reaction many people would have, so here’s what I have to say.

The mathematical laws that govern poker, and indeed, the universe, are not ‘new-school’ inventions. Just as an old-school physicist before the time of Newton was subject to the laws of gravity, so is poker subject to mathematical laws, rewarding those who master them. Indeed, ‘old-school’ players knew their math, as you will note from the vintage of David Sklansky’s The Theory of Poker (1983), and the musings of Doyle Brunson, a man who knew his fold equity, in Super System (1979). Since the internet boom in poker, the math behind the game has been far better understood, to the extent that a talented player who ignores the numbers is like a prodigious swimmer trying to cross an ocean but just refusing to get on a bloody boat.

All decisions in poker come down to the math of estimating pot equity and fold equity and making the best decision possible. You may use your ‘reads’ and psychological insights to get a better sense of your opponent’s range, and how likely he might be to act in a particular way, but all these merely help you come up with the right inputs. The answer, in the end, lies in the math. And here’s the thing: if you ignore the math, that doesn’t mean the math goes away. No, it’s working away in the background, like the laws of nature, ensuring the survival of the fittest – or those who adapt the best, as Dawkins would say.

If you have been winning at poker without caring too much about the math, it is either because you’re playing really soft games, or you’ve been lucky. The way the game is growing in India, both of these are bound to change. So here’s a thought for you: It is a truism in poker we must not be results-oriented, and should just focus on making the right decisions so that we show a profit in the long run. But how do we know what the right decisions are? The answer lies in asking the right questions – as Dawkins did to Adams.

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


Marching For Salt

March 12 is a special day in India’s history. On this day 85 years ago Mohandas Gandhi set off on a walk from Sabarmati Ashram near Ahmedabad. His destination was 390km away: Dandi,  a coastal village near Navsari in Gujarat, where he intended to produce salt from the sea, in defiance of the salt tax levied by the British empire in India. Both the man and the cause were extraordinary.

I am writing a book that examines, in part, India’s intellectual history from 1857 to today. And Gandhi causes severe cognitive dissonance. The prominent 19th century figures in India’s freedom movement were all influenced by British liberalism, their ideas were shaped by Mill, Bentham, Morley, even Adam Smith. One can draw a straight line from Dadabhai Naoroji through Mahadev Govind Ranade and Gopal Ganesh Agarkar to the great Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who called himself “an intellectual grandson of Dadabhai Naoroji.”  These were the famed Moderates of the Congress party, aiming at incrementalism when it came to policy, seeking not to fight the empire but to be equal subjects within it. The Moderates dominated the Congress until the mid-1910s, despite skirmishes with the Extremists within the party, men like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal, whose preferred methods may have been different but whose aims weren’t all that different from that of the moderates. The Scottish statesman James Keir Hardie once described the Moderates as ‘extreme in moderation’ and the Extremists as ‘moderate in extremism’, and indeed, they weren’t really all that far apart.

Uptil this point, the narrative is coherent. Then comes Gandhi. It seems to me that Gandhi was a black swan event in the Indian independence movement: nothing that came before could explain his arrival; nothing that then existed seemed to demand his ascendance. Gandhi called Gokhale his political mentor, but ideologically the two men were poles apart.

Gandhi was not influenced by the British liberals who shaped Gokhale’s thinking, nor did his thinking have Indian antecedents. He arrived at non-violent non-cooperation through Tolstoy’s writings, later finding backup in Thoreau and the sermon on the mount. His luddite distrust of machinery and the idealisation of village life came from John Ruskin. He claimed the Bhagavad Gita as an influence, but some of this comes from finding post-facto validation of his prior beliefs in Indian texts. VS Naipaul once called him ‘the least Indian of Indian leaders’ – but his ideas weren’t part of the Western mainstream either. When a critic complained, in his South African years, that he was poorly read in modern philosophy, Gandhi responded, in the historian Ramachandra Guha’s words, that he “saw no reason to read more glosses of modern civilisation when he saw the thing itself unfold before his eyes.”

Shortly after Gandhi came back to India, his political patron Gokhale died, to be followed a few months later by another Moderate stalwart Pherozeshah Mehta. There was a tussle in the Congress between the Extremists, led by Tilak and Annie Besant, and the remaining moderates, men such as Motilal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Gandhi was a peripheral figure, considered somewhat eccentric by other Congress leaders, still on the margins and not yet a Mahatma. Indeed, in 1918 he spent some time trying to recruit soldiers to fight for the British in WW1, writing to the viceroy, Lord Chemsford, “I love the English nation, and I wish to evoke in every Indian the loyalty of the Englishman.” In this sentiment, he echoed the Moderates, and hardly presaged the uncompromising freedom fighter he would go on to become. A year later, as that decade came to an end, he shifted from the margins of the freedom struggle to its centre.

Gandhi’s first tactical masterstroke in domestic Indian politics was making common cause with the Khilafat movement. Muslim thinkers in India were often torn between loyalty to the qaum, the larger Muslim nation, and Indian nationalism. The Khilafat movement was an expression of the former, and was aimed at maintaining the supremacy of the caliph in Turkey in the aftermath of WW1, where Turkey was on the losing side and the British were the victors. Your enemy’s enemy must be your friend, and for Gandhi, this was as an opportunity in two ways: to reconcile the sometimes conflicting loyalties of the Muslims; and to widen the base of the somewhat elitist Congress.

Gandhi threw himself into the thick of things, turning the nominally transnational Khilafat movement into a nationalistic enterprise. “It is the duty of every non-Moslem Indian in every legitimate manner to assist his Mussulman brother, in his attempt to remove the religious calamity that has overtaken him,” he wrote in a resolution adapted by the Congress in a special session in Calcutta in 1920. His program of noncooperation was adopted by the Congress session later that year in Nagpur, from which Jinnah stormed out, never to return to the party he had expected to lead. “I part company with the Congress and Gandhi,” he said in an interview that year. “I do not believe in working up mass hysteria. Politics is a gentleman’s game.”

The coupling of Khilafat and Swaraj made no ideological sense – severe dissonance, again – but it was tactical genius. At a personal level, this support from a new constituency made Gandhi the undisputed leader of the Congress, and thus the Independence movement. At a national level, it helped make the Independence struggle a true mass movement. With the Congress under his sway, Gandhi launched a movement of noncooperation that animated the entire country. Satyagraha – the force of truth – was underway. The British had never seen anything like this in India – though Gandhi called it off in 1922 when protesters turned violent in the town of Chauri Chaura and killed 23 policemen, reportedly while shouting “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!” He even went on a fast, as penance for the crimes committed in his name. 30,000 people had already been imprisoned in the course of the movement, and the Khilafat leaders as well as his Congress colleagues did not take kindly to Gandhi’s unilateral decision to call off the Satyagraha. Soon, Gandhi was also arrested and sentenced to six years of prison – though he served only two, and the Khilafat movement wound up because, well, the Caliphate did. Swaraj was on hold.

Gandhi was on a hiatus for the middle years of that decade. “I am biding my time,” he wrote in a letter in 1928, “and you will find me leading the country in the field of politics when the country is ready. […] I have a plan for the country’s freedom.” When the Congress was next convened, it gave a deadline of a year to the British to grant India dominion status – failing which it would declare Independence. The year ended, the British ignored the demands of the natives, and on January 26, 1930, the Congress declared India’s Independence. But this alone was not enough. Another noncooperation movement, another satyagraha was required. What would be the focal point of this one?

*

In Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky relates a French folktale in which a princess tells her father “I love you like salt,” and is promptly banished by her father for insufficient adoration. But later, when he is denied salt, he realises “the depth of his daughter’s love” and repents. Salt is essential to humanity. Our bodies contain about 250gms of salt, but too many essential bodily functions rely on salt. “From the beginning of civilisation until about 100 years ago,” Kurlansky writes, “salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.”

The first war over salt was fought by Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor of China, around 2600 BC. Salt had geopolitical significance, and even gave impetus to empire building. The first of the great roads built by the Romans, the Via Salaria, was constructed for the express purpose of transporting salt. Mediaval trade routes were shaped by salt. Salt was even currency; Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt, and the worlds ‘salary’ and ‘soldier’ both evolved from sal, the Latin word for salt. Indeed, consider the origin of the phrase you must have heard in countless Hindi films, “Maine aapka namak khaaya hai.”

The first mention of a tax on salt dates back to the 20th century BC, in China. “During the Tang Dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 907,” Kurlansky tells us, “half the revenue of the Chinese state was derived from salt.” Salt taxes were a certain way for any state to raise revenue, for even the poorest could not do without it. Salt was taxed in India from as far back as the reign of Chandragupta Maurya (340-298 BC), and the Mughals even charged differential salt taxes depending on religion. (Muslims paid 2.5%, Hindus paid 5%.) The British, starting with Robert Clive, the governor-general in 1765, raised it to unprecedented levels. To further compound matters, they killed off the domestic industry, and built a monopoly to the benefit of British salt manufacturers in Cheshire. By the early 1800s, only the British government could legally manufacture salt in India. A rebellion around salt in 1817 was quickly crushed, and by 1858, 10% of the British government’s revenues came from salt.

Gandhi wasn’t the first nationalist leader to protest about the tax on salt. SA Swaminath Iyer protested against it in the inaugural session of the Congress in 1885, as did Gopal Krishna Gokhale in 1890, and Dadabhai Naoroji called it “the most cruel Revenue imposed in any civilised country” in the House of Commons in 1894. The issue festered; the British ignored Indian fulminations; the salt tax was, in fact, doubled in 1923.

And so, Mohandas Gandhi’s Satyagraha hammer found a suitable nail in the salt tax.

*

Before the Satyagraha, Gandhi wrote in a letter to the Indian viceroy, Lord Irwin: “I regard this tax [on salt] to be the most iniquitous of all from the poor man’s standpoint. As the Independence movement is essentially for the poorest in the land, the beginning will be made with this evil. The wonder is that we have submitted to the cruel monopoly for so long.”

What happened in the Salt Satyagraha is common knowledge. Gandhi marched for 24 days and reached the coast of Dandi on April 6. C Rajagopalachari went on a similar march in Tamil Nadu. Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru had been arrested by the British, as was Gandhi shortly after the satyagraha. The British government made some minor concessions, but the salt tax remained in place until 1946. Gandhi had said that he would not return to Sabarmati Ashram until the tax was repealed. After March 12, when he set off on his walk, he never saw the Ashram again.

But here’s a thought, 85 years after that famous march to Dandi. There is a point of view that in 1947, all we did was replace a set of colonial rulers with a set of local rulers. We continued to be ruled; and we continued to be exploited. We gained political independence and the right to vote, but other freedoms, both in the economic and personal spheres, continue to be denied to us, just as the British denied them. Many of the laws that the British framed to suppress us, in the form of the Indian Penal Code, remain in place. If our freedom fighters, men like Naoroji and Gokhale and Rajaji and Patel were alive today, would they feel fulfilled at the India they saw around them? Would Gandhi?

When he reached Dandi, Gandhi picked up a fistful of salt in his hand as Sarojini Naidu, carried away by the moment, shouted “Hail deliverer!” She was right – and she was wrong: India still awaits deliverance.

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 March, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India


We Are All Sharks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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