Category Archives: Essays and Op-Eds
This is the 24th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
Back in the last decade, I was a cricket journalist for a few years. Then, around 12 years ago, I quit. I was jaded as hell. Every game seemed like déjà vu, nothing new, just another round on the treadmill. Although I would remember her fondly, I thought me and cricket were done.
And then I fell in love again. Cricket has changed in the last few years in glorious ways. There have been new ways of thinking about the game. There have been new ways of playing the game. Every season, new kinds of drama form, new nuances spring up into sight. This is true even of what had once seemed the dullest form of the game, one-day cricket. We are entering into a brave new world, and the team leading us there is England. No matter what happens in the World Cup final today – a single game involves a huge amount of luck – this England side are extraordinary. They are the bridge between eras, leading us into a Golden Age of Cricket.
I know that sounds hyperbolic, so let me stun you further by saying that I give the IPL credit for this. And now, having woken up you up with such a jolt on this lovely Sunday morning, let me explain.
Twenty20 cricket changed the game in two fundamental ways. Both ended up changing one-day cricket. The first was strategy.
When the first T20 games took place, teams applied an ODI template to innings-building: pinch-hit, build, slog. But this was not an optimal approach. In ODIs, teams have 11 players over 50 overs. In T20s, they have 11 players over 20 overs. The equation between resources and constraints is different. This means that the cost of a wicket goes down, and the cost of a dot ball goes up. Critically, it means that the value of aggression rises. A team need not follow the ODI template. In some instances, attacking for all 20 overs – or as I call it, ‘frontloading’ – may be optimal.
West Indies won the T20 World Cup in 2016 by doing just this, and England played similarly. And some sides began to realise was that they had been underestimating the value of aggression in one-day cricket as well.
The second fundamental way in which T20 cricket changed cricket was in terms of skills. The IPL and other leagues brought big money into the game. This changed incentives for budding cricketers. Relatively few people break into Test or ODI cricket, and play for their countries. A much wider pool can aspire to play T20 cricket – which also provides much more money. So it makes sense to spend the hundreds of hours you are in the nets honing T20 skills rather than Test match skills. Go to any nets practice, and you will find many more kids practising innovative aggressive strokes than playing the forward defensive.
As a result, batsmen today have a wider array of attacking strokes than earlier generations. Because every run counts more in T20 cricket, the standard of fielding has also shot up. And bowlers have also reacted to this by expanding their arsenal of tricks. Everyone has had to lift their game.
In one-day cricket, thus, two things have happened. One, there is better strategic understanding about the value of aggression. Two, batsmen are better equipped to act on the aggressive imperative. The game has continued to evolve.
Bowlers have reacted to this with greater aggression on their part, and this ongoing dialogue has been fascinating. The cricket writer Gideon Haigh once told me on my podcast that the 2015 World Cup featured a battle between T20 batting and Test match bowling.
This England team is the high watermark so far. Their aggression does not come from slogging. They bat with a combination of intent and skills that allows them to coast at 6-an-over, without needing to take too many risks. In normal conditions, thus, they can coast to 300 – any hitting they do beyond that is the bonus that takes them to 350 or 400. It’s a whole new level, illustrated by the fact that at one point a few days ago, they had seven consecutive scores of 300 to their name. Look at their scores over the last few years, in fact, and it is clear that this is the greatest batting side in the history of one-day cricket – by a margin.
There have been stumbles in this World Cup, but in the bigger picture, those are outliers. If England have a bad day in the final and New Zealand play their A-game, England might even lose today. But if Captain Morgan’s men play their A-game, they will coast to victory. New Zealand does not have those gears. No other team in the world does – for now.
But one day, they will all have to learn to play like this.
Posted by Amit Varma on 14 July, 2019 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 23rd installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
I had a strange dream last night. I dreamt that the government had passed a law that made using laptops illegal. I would have to write this column by hand. I would also have to leave my home in Mumbai to deliver it in person to my editor in Delhi. I woke up trembling and angry – and realised how Indian farmers feel every single day of their lives.
My column today is a tale of two satyagrahas. Both involve farmers, technology and the freedom of choice. One of them began this month – but first, let us go back to the turn of the millennium.
As the 1990s came to an end, cotton farmers across India were in distress. Pests known as bollworms were ravaging crops across the country. Farmers had to use increasing amounts of pesticide to keep them at bay. The costs of the pesticide and the amount of labour involved made it unviable – and often, the crops would fail anyway.
Then, technology came to the rescue. The farmers heard of Bt Cotton, a genetically modified type of cotton that kept these pests away, and was being used around the world. But they were illegal in India, even though no bad effects had ever been recorded. Well, who cares about ‘illegal’ when it is a matter of life and death?
Farmers in Gujarat got hold of Bt Cotton seeds from the black market and planted them. You’ll never guess what happened next. As 2002 began, all cotton crops in Gujarat failed – except the 10,000 hectares that had Bt Cotton. The government did not care about the failed crops. They cared about the ‘illegal’ ones. They ordered all the Bt Cotton crops to be destroyed.
It was time for a satyagraha – and not just in Gujarat. The late Sharad Joshi, leader of the Shetkari Sanghatana in Maharashtra, took around 10,000 farmers to Gujarat to stand with their fellows there. They sat in the fields of Bt Cotton and basically said, ‘Over our dead bodies.’ ¬Joshi’s point was simple: all other citizens of India have access to the latest technology from all over. They are all empowered with choice. Why should farmers be held back?
The satyagraha was successful. The ban on Bt Cotton was lifted.
There are three things I would like to point out here. One, the lifting of the ban transformed cotton farming in India. Over 90% of Indian farmers now use Bt Cotton. India has become the world’s largest producer of cotton, moving ahead of China. According to agriculture expert Ashok Gulati, India has gained US$ 67 billion in the years since from higher exports and import savings because of Bt Cotton. Most importantly, cotton farmers’ incomes have doubled.
Two, GMO crops have become standard across the world. Around 190 million hectares of GMO crops have been planted worldwide, and GMO foods are accepted in 67 countries. The humanitarian benefits have been massive: Golden Rice, a variety of rice packed with minerals and vitamins, has prevented blindness in countless new-born kids since it was introduced in the Philippines.
Three, despite the fear-mongering of some NGOs, whose existence depends on alarmism, the science behind GMO is settled. No harmful side effects have been noted in all these years, and millions of lives impacted positively. A couple of years ago, over 100 Nobel Laureates signed a petition asserting that GMO foods were safe, and blasting anti-science NGOs that stood in the way of progress. There is scientific consensus on this.
The science may be settled, but the politics is not. The government still bans some types of GMO seeds, such as Bt Brinjal, which was developed by an Indian company called Mahyco, and used successfully in Bangladesh. More crucially, a variety called HT Bt Cotton, which fights weeds, is also banned. Weeding takes up to 15% of a farmer’s time, and often makes farming unviable. Farmers across the world use this variant – 60% of global cotton crops are HT Bt. Indian farmers are so desperate for it that they choose to break the law and buy expensive seeds from the black market – but the government is cracking down. A farmer in Haryana had his crop destroyed by the government in May.
On June 10 this year, a farmer named Lalit Bahale in the Akola District of Maharashtra kicked off a satyagraha by planting banned seeds of HT Bt Cotton and Bt Brinjal. He was soon joined by thousands of farmers. Far from our urban eyes, a heroic fight has begun. Our farmers, already victimised and oppressed by a predatory government in countless ways, are fighting for their right to take charge of their lives.
As this brave struggle unfolds, I am left with a troubling question: All those satyagrahas of the past by our great freedom fighters, what were they for, if all they got us was independence and not freedom?
Posted by Amit Varma on 30 June, 2019 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 22nd installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
Trade wars are on the rise, and it’s enough to get any nationalist all het up and excited. Earlier this week, Narendra Modi’s government announced that it would start imposing tariffs on 28 US products starting today. This is a response to similar treatment towards us from the US.
There is one thing I would invite you to consider: Trump and Modi are not engaged in a war with each other. Instead, they are waging war on their own people.
Let’s unpack that a bit. Part of the reason Trump came to power is that he provided simple and wrong answers for people’s problems. He responded to the growing jobs crisis in middle America with two explanations: one, foreigners are coming and taking your jobs; two, your jobs are being shipped overseas.
Both explanations are wrong but intuitive, and they worked for Trump. (He is stupid enough that he probably did not create these narratives for votes but actually believes them.) The first of those leads to the demonising of immigrants. The second leads to a demonising of trade. Trump has acted on his rhetoric after becoming president, and a modern US version of our old ‘Indira is India’ slogan might well be, “Trump is Tariff. Tariff is Trump.”
Contrary to the fulminations of the economically illiterate, all tariffs are bad, without exception. Let me illustrate this with an example. Say there is a fictional product called Brump. A local Brump costs Rs 100. Foreign manufacturers appear and offer better Brumps at a cheaper price, say Rs 90. Consumers shift to foreign Brumps.
Manufacturers of local Brumps get angry, and form an interest group. They lobby the government – or bribe it with campaign contributions – to impose a tariff on import of Brumps. The government puts a 20-rupee tariff. The foreign Brumps now cost Rs 110, and people start buying local Brumps again. This is a good thing, right? Local businesses have been helped, and local jobs have been saved.
But this is only the seen effect. The unseen effect of this tariff is that millions of Brump buyers would have saved Rs 10-per-Brump if there were no tariffs. This money would have gone out into the economy, been part of new demand, generated more jobs. Everyone would have been better off, and the overall standard of living would have been higher.
That brings to me to an essential truth about tariffs. Every tariff is a tax on your own people. And every intervention in markets amounts to a distribution of wealth from the people at large to specific interest groups. (In other words, from the poor to the rich.) The costs of this are dispersed and invisible – what is Rs 10 to any of us? – and the benefits are large and worth fighting for: Local manufacturers of Brumps can make crores extra. Much modern politics amounts to manufacturers of Brumps buying politicians to redistribute money from us to them.
There are second-order effects of protectionism as well. When the US imposes tariffs on other countries, those countries may respond by imposing tariffs back. Raw materials for many goods made locally are imported, and as these become expensive, so do those goods. That quintessential American product, the iPhone, uses parts from 43 countries. As local products rise in price because of expensive foreign parts, prices rise, demand goes down, jobs are lost, and everyone is worse off.
Trump keeps talking about how he wants to ‘win’ at trade, but trade is not a zero-sum game. The most misunderstood term in our times is probably ‘trade-deficit’. A country has a trade deficit when it imports more than what it exports, and Trump thinks of that as a bad thing. It is not. I run a trade deficit with my domestic help and my local grocery store. I buy more from them than they do from me. That is fine, because we all benefit. It is a win-win game.
Similarly, trade between countries is really trade between the people of both countries – and people trade with each other because they are both better off. To interfere in that process is to reduce the value created in their lives. It is immoral. To modify a slogan often identified with libertarians like me, ‘Tariffs are Theft.’
These trade wars, thus, carry a touch of the absurd. Any leader who imposes tariffs is imposing a tax on his own people. Just see the chain of events: Trump taxes the American people. In retaliation, Modi taxes the Indian people. Trump raises taxes. Modi raises taxes. Nationalists in both countries cheer. Interests groups in both countries laugh their way to the bank.
What kind of idiocy is this? How long will this lose-lose game continue?
Posted by Amit Varma on 23 June, 2019 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 21st installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
When all political parties agree on something, you know you might have a problem. Giriraj Singh, a minister in Narendra Modi’s new cabinet, tweeted this week that our population control law should become a “movement.” This is something that would find bipartisan support – we are taught from school onwards that India’s population is a big problem, and we need to control it.
This is wrong. Contrary to popular belief, our population is not a problem. It is our greatest strength.
The notion that we should worry about a growing population is an intuitive one. The world has limited resources. People keep increasing. Something’s gotta give.
Robert Malthus made just this point in his 1798 book, An Essay on the Principle of Population. He was worried that our population would grow exponentially while resources would grow arithmetically. As more people entered the workforce, wages would fall and goods would become scarce. Calamity was inevitable.
Malthus’s rationale was so influential that this mode of thinking was soon called ‘Malthusian.’ (It is a pejorative today.) A 20th-century follower of his, Harrison Brown, came up with one of my favourite images on this subject, arguing that a growing population would lead to the earth being “covered completely and to a considerable depth with a writhing mass of human beings, much as a dead cow is covered with a pulsating mass of maggots.”
Another Malthusian, Paul Ehrlich, published a book called The Population Bomb in 1968, which began with the stirring lines, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Ehrlich was, as you’d guess, a big supporter of India’s coercive family planning programs. ““I don’t see,” he wrote, “how India could possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.”
None of these fears have come true. A 2007 study by Nicholas Eberstadt called ‘Too Many People?’ found no correlation between population density and poverty. The greater the density of people, the more you’d expect them to fight for resources – and yet, Monaco, which has 40 times the population density of Bangladesh, is doing well for itself. So is Bahrain, which has three times the population density of India.
Not only does population not cause poverty, it makes us more prosperous. The economist Julian Simon pointed out in a 1981 book that through history, whenever there has been a spurt in population, it has coincided with a spurt in productivity. Such as, for example, between Malthus’s time and now. There were around a billion people on earth in 1798, and there are around 7.7 billion today. As you read these words, consider that you are better off than the richest person on the planet then.
Why is this? The answer lies in the title of Simon’s book: The Ultimate Resource. When we speak of resources, we forget that human beings are the finest resource of all. There is no limit to our ingenuity. And we interact with each other in positive-sum ways – every voluntary interactions leaves both people better off, and the amount of value in the world goes up. This is why we want to be part of economic networks that are as large, and as dense, as possible. This is why most people migrate to cities rather than away from them – and why cities are so much richer than towns or villages.
If Malthusians were right, essential commodities like wheat, maize and rice would become relatively scarcer over time, and thus more expensive – but they have actually become much cheaper in real terms. This is thanks to the productivity and creativity of humans, who, in Eberstadt’s words, are “in practice always renewable and in theory entirely inexhaustible.”
The error made by Malthus, Brown and Ehrlich is the same error that our politicians make today, and not just in the context of population: zero-sum thinking. If our population grows and resources stays the same, of course there will be scarcity. But this is never the case. All we need to do to learn this lesson is look at our cities!
This mistaken thinking has had savage humanitarian consequences in India. Think of the unborn millions over the decades because of our brutal family planning policies. How many Tendulkars, Rahmans and Satyajit Rays have we lost? Think of the immoral coercion still carried out on poor people across the country. And finally, think of the condescension of our politicians, asserting that people are India’s problem – but always other people, never themselves.
This arrogance is India’s greatest problem, not our people.
Posted by Amit Varma on 09 June, 2019 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 20th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
Amit Shah’s induction into the union cabinet is such an interesting moment. Even partisans who oppose the BJP, as I do, would admit that Shah is a political genius. Under his leadership, the BJP has become an electoral behemoth in the most complicated political landscape in the world. The big question that now arises is this: can Shah do for India what he did for the BJP?
This raises a perplexing question: in the last five years, as the BJP has flourished, India has languished. And yet, the leadership of both the party and the nation are more or less the same. Then why hasn’t the ability to manage the party translated to governing the country?
I would argue that there are two reasons for this. One, the skills required in those two tasks are different. Two, so are the incentives in play.
Let’s look at the skills first. Managing a party like the BJP is, in some ways, like managing a large multinational company. Shah is a master at top-down planning and micro-management. How he went about winning the 2014 elections, described in detail in Prashant Jha’s book How the BJP Wins, should be a Harvard Business School case study. The book describes how he fixed the BJP’s ground game in Uttar Pradesh, picking teams for 147,000 booths in Uttar Pradesh, monitoring them, and keeping them accountable.
Shah looked at the market segmentation in UP, and hit upon his now famous “60% formula”. He realised he could not deliver the votes of Muslims, Yadavs and Jatavs, who were 40% of the population. So he focussed on wooing the other 60%, including non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits. He carried out versions of these caste reconfigurations across states, and according to Jha, covered “over 5 lakh kilometres” between 2014 and 2017, consolidating market share in every state in this country. He nurtured “a pool of a thousand new OBC and Dalit leaders”, going well beyond the posturing of other parties.
That so many Dalits and OBCs voted for the BJP in 2019 is astonishing. Shah went past Mandal politics, managing to subsume previously antagonistic castes and sub-castes into a broad Hindutva identity. And as the BJP increased its depth, it expanded its breadth as well. What it has done in West Bengal, wiping out the Left and weakening Mamata Banerjee, is jaw-dropping. With hindsight, it may one day seem inevitable, but only a madman could have conceived it, and only a genius could have executed it.
Good man to be Home Minister then, eh? Not quite. A country is not like a large company or even a political party. It is much too complex to be managed from the top down, and a control freak is bound to flounder. The approach needed is very different.
Some tasks of governance, it is true, are tailor-made for efficient managers. Building infrastructure, taking care of roads and power, building toilets (even without an underlying drainage system) and PR campaigns can all be executed by good managers. But the deeper tasks of making an economy flourish require a different approach. They need a light touch, not a heavy hand.
The 20th century is full of cautionary tales that show that economies cannot be centrally planned from the top down. Examples of that ‘fatal conceit’, to use my hero Friedrich Hayek’s term, include the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and even the lady Modi most reminds me of, Indira Gandhi.
The task of the state, when it comes to the economy, is to administer a strong rule of law, and to make sure it is applied equally. No special favours to cronies or special interest groups. Just unleash the natural creativity of the people, and don’t try to micro-manage.
Sadly, the BJP’s impulse, like that of most governments of the past, is a statist one. India should have a small state that does a few things well. Instead, we have a large state that does many things badly, and acts as a parasite on its people.
As it happens, the few things that we should do well are all right up Shah’s managerial alley. For example, the rule of law is effectively absent in India today, especially for the poor. As Home Minister, Shah could fix this if he applied the same zeal to governing India as he did to growing the BJP. But will he?
And here we come to the question of incentives. What drives Amit Shah: maximising power, or serving the nation? What is good for the country will often coincide with what is good for the party – but not always. When they diverge, which path will Shah choose? So much rests on that.
Posted by Amit Varma on 02 June, 2019 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 19th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
A friend of mine was very impressed by the interview Narendra Modi granted last week to Akshay Kumar. ‘Such a charming man, such great work ethic,’ he gushed. ‘He is the kind of uncle I would want my kids to have.’ And then, in the same breath, he asked, ‘How can such a good man be such a bad prime minister?”
I don’t want to be uncharitable and suggest that Modi’s image is entirely manufactured, so let’s take the interview at face value. Let’s also grant Modi his claims about the purity of his neeyat (intentions), and reframe the question this way: when it comes to public policy, why do good intentions often lead to bad outcomes? To attempt an answer, I’ll refer to a story a friend of mine, who knows Modi well, once told me about him.
Modi was chilling with his friends at home more than a decade ago, and told them an incident from his childhood. His mother was ill once, and the young Narendra was tending to her. The heat was enervating, so the boy went to the switchboard to switch on the fan. But there was no electricity. My friend said that as he told this story, Modi’s eyes filled with tears. Even after all these years, he was moved by the memory.
My friend used this story to make the point that Modi’s vision of the world is experiential. If he experiences something, he understands it. When he became chief minister of Gujarat, he made it his stated mission to get reliable electricity to every part of Gujarat. No doubt this was shaped by the time he flicked a switch as a young boy and the fan did not budge. Similarly, he has given importance to things like roads and cleanliness, since he would have experienced the impact of those as a young man.
My term for him, inspired by Rajat Kapoor’s 2014 film, is ‘the ankhon dekhi prime minister’. At one level, this is a good thing. He sees a problem and works for the rest of his life to solve it. But what of things he cannot experience?
The economy is a complex beast, as is society itself, and beyond a certain level, you need to grasp abstract concepts to understand how the world works. You cannot experience them. For example, spontaneous order, or the idea that society and markets, like language, cannot be centrally directed or planned. Or the positive-sum nature of things, which is the engine of our prosperity: the idea that every transaction is a win-win game, and that for one person to win, another does not have to lose. Or, indeed, respect for individual rights and free speech.
One understands abstract concepts by reading about them, understanding them, applying them to the real world. Modi is not known to be a reader, and this is not his fault. Given his background, it is a near-miracle that he has made it this far. He wasn’t born into a home with a reading culture, and did not have either the resources or the time when he was young to devote to reading. The only way he could learn about the world, thus, was by experiencing it.
There are two lessons here, one for Modi himself and others in his position, and another for everyone.
The lesson in this for Modi is a lesson for anyone who rises to such an important position, even if he is the smartest person in the world. That lesson is to have humility about the bounds of your knowledge, and to surround yourself with experts who can advise you well. Be driven by values and not confidence in your own knowledge. Gather intellectual giants around you, and stand on their shoulders.
Modi did not do this in the case of demonetisation, which he carried out against the advice of every expert he consulted. We all know the damage it caused to the economy.
The other learning from this is for all of us. How do we make sense of the world? By connecting dots. An ankhon-dekhi approach will get us very few dots, and our view of the world will be blurred and incomplete. The best way to gather more dots is reading. The more we read, the better we understand the world, and the better the decisions we take. When we can experience a thousand lives through books, why restrict ourselves to one?
A good man with noble intentions can make bad decisions with horrible consequences. The only way to hedge against this is by staying humble and reading more. So when you finish reading this piece, think of an unread book that you’d like to read today – and read it!
Posted by Amit Varma on 05 May, 2019 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 18th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
The man who gave us our national anthem, Rabindranath Tagore, once wrote that nationalism was “a great menace.” He went on to say, “It is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India’s troubles.”
Not just India’s, but the world’s: In his book The Open Society and its Enemies, published in 1945 as Adolf Hitler was defeated, Karl Popper ripped into nationalism, with all its “appeals to our tribal instincts, to passion and to prejudice, and to our nostalgic desire to be relieved from the strain of individual responsibility which it attempts to replace by a collective or group responsibility.”
Nationalism is resurgent today, stomping across the globe hand-in-hand with populism. In India, too, it is tearing us apart. But must nationalism always be a bad thing? A provocative new book by the Israeli thinker Yael Tamir argues otherwise.
In her book Why Nationalism, Tamir makes the following arguments. One, nation-states are here to stay. Two, the state needs the nation to be viable. Three, people need nationalism for the sense of community and belonging it gives them. Four, therefore, we need to build a better nationalism, which brings people together instead of driving them apart.
The first point needs no elaboration. We are a globalised world, but we are also trapped by geography and circumstance. “Only 3.3 percent of the world’s population,” Tamir points out, “lives outside their country of birth.” Nutopia, the borderless state dreamed up by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, is not happening anytime soon.
If the only thing that citizens of a state have in common is geographical circumstance, it is not enough. If the state is a necessary construct, a nation is its necessary justification. “Political institutions crave to form long-term political bonding,” writes Tamir, “and for that matter they must create a community that is neither momentary nor meaningless.” Nationalism, she says, “endows the state with intimate feelings linking the past, the present, and the future.”
More pertinently, Tamir argues, people need nationalism. I am a humanist with a belief in individual rights, but Tamir says that this is not enough. “The term ‘human’ is a far too thin mode of delineation,” she writes. “Individuals need to rely on ‘thick identities’ to make their lives meaningful.” This involves a shared past, a common culture and distinctive values.
Tamir also points out that there is a “strong correlation between social class and political preferences.” The privileged elites can afford to be globalists, but those less well off are inevitably drawn to other narratives that enrich their lives. “Rather than seeing nationalism as the last refuge of the scoundrel,” writes Tamir, “we should start thinking of nationalism as the last hope of the needy.”
Tamir’s book bases its arguments on the West, but the argument holds in India as well. In a country with so much poverty, is it any wonder that nationalism is on the rise? The cosmopolitan, globe-trotting elites don’t have daily realities to escape, but how are those less fortunate to find meaning in their lives?
I have one question, though. Why is our nationalism so exclusionary when our nation is so inclusive?
In the nationalism that our ruling party promotes, there are some communities who belong here, and others who don’t. (And even among those who ‘belong’, they exploit divisions.) In their us-vs-them vision of the world, some religions are foreign, some values are foreign, even some culinary traditions are foreign – and therefore frowned upon. But the India I know and love is just the opposite of that.
We embrace influences from all over. Our language, our food, our clothes, our music, our cinema have absorbed so many diverse influences that to pretend they come from a single legit source is absurd. (Even the elegant churidar-kurtas our prime minister wears have an Islamic origin.) As an example, take the recent film Gully Boy: its style of music, the clothes its protagonists wear, even the attitudes in the film would have seemed alien to us a few decades ago. And yet, could there be a truer portrait of young India?
This inclusiveness, this joyous khichdi that we are, is what makes our nation a model for the rest of the world. No nation embraces all other nations as ours does. My India celebrates differences, and I do as well. I wear my kurta with jeans, I listen to ghazals, I eat dhansak and kababs, and I dream in the Indian language called English. This is my nationalism.
Those who try to divide us, therefore, are the true anti-nationals. We must reclaim nationalism from them.
Posted by Amit Varma on 14 April, 2019 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 17th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
One of my favourite English words comes from chess. If it is your turn to move, but any move you make makes your position worse, you are in ‘Zugzwang’. Narendra Modi was in zugzwang after the Pulwama attacks a few days ago—as any Indian prime minister in his place would have been.
An Indian PM, after an attack for which Pakistan is held responsible, has only unsavoury choices in front of him. He is pulled in two opposite directions. One, strategy dictates that he must not escalate. Two, politics dictates that he must.
Let’s unpack that. First, consider the strategic imperatives. Ever since both India and Pakistan became nuclear powers, a conventional war has become next to impossible because of the threat of a nuclear war. If India escalates beyond a point, Pakistan might bring their nuclear weapons into play. Even a limited nuclear war could cause millions of casualties and devastate our economy. Thus, no matter what the provocation, India needs to calibrate its response so that the Pakistan doesn’t take it all the way.
It’s impossible to predict what actions Pakistan might view as sufficient provocation, so India has tended to play it safe. Don’t capture territory, don’t attack military assets, don’t kill civilians. In other words, surgical strikes on alleged terrorist camps is the most we can do.
Given that Pakistan knows that it is irrational for India to react, and our leaders tend to be rational, they can ‘bleed us with a thousand cuts’, as their doctrine states, with impunity. Both in 2001, when our parliament was attacked and the BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee was PM, and in 2008, when Mumbai was attacked and the Congress’s Manmohan Singh was PM, our leaders considered all the options on the table—but were forced to do nothing.
But is doing nothing an option in an election year?
Leave strategy aside and turn to politics. India has been attacked. Forty soldiers have been killed, and the nation is traumatised and baying for blood. It is now politically impossible to not retaliate—especially for a PM who has criticized his predecessor for being weak, and portrayed himself as a 56-inch-chested man of action.
I have no doubt that Modi is a rational man, and knows the possible consequences of escalation. But he also knows the possible consequences of not escalating—he could dilute his brand and lose the elections. Thus, he is forced to act. And after he acts, his Pakistan counterpart will face the same domestic pressure to retaliate, and will have to attack back. And so on till my home in Versova is swallowed up by a nuclear crater, right?
Well, not exactly. There is a way to resolve this paradox. India and Pakistan can both escalate, not via military actions, but via optics.
Modi and Imran Khan, who you’d expect to feel like the loneliest men on earth right now, can find sweet company in each other. Their incentives are aligned. Neither man wants this to turn into a full-fledged war. Both men want to appear macho in front of their domestic constituencies. Both men are masters at building narratives, and have a pliant media that will help them.
Thus, India can carry out a surgical strike and claim it destroyed a camp, killed terrorists, and forced Pakistan to return a braveheart prisoner of war. Pakistan can say India merely destroyed two trees plus a rock, and claim the high moral ground by returning the prisoner after giving him good masala tea. A benign military equilibrium is maintained, and both men come out looking like strong leaders: a win-win game for the PMs that avoids a lose-lose game for their nations. They can give themselves a high-five in private when they meet next, and Imran can whisper to Modi, “You’re a good spinner, bro.”
There is one problem here, though: what if the optics don’t work?
If Modi feels that his public is too sceptical and he needs to do more, he might feel forced to resort to actual military escalation. The fog of politics might obscure the possible consequences. If the resultant Indian military action causes serious damage, Pakistan will have to respond in kind. In the chain of events that then begins, with body bags piling up, neither man may be able to back down. They could end up as prisoners of circumstance—and so could we.
Also check out:
Why Modi Must Learn to Play the Game of Chicken With Pakistan—Amit Varma
The Two Pakistans—Episode 79 of The Seen and the Unseen
India in the Nuclear Age—Episode 80 of The Seen and the Unseen
Posted by Amit Varma on 03 March, 2019 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 16th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
Steven Pinker, in his book Enlightenment Now, relates an old Russian joke about two peasants named Boris and Igor. They are both poor. Boris has a goat. Igor does not. One day, Igor is granted a wish by a visiting fairy. What will he wish for?
“I wish,” he says, “that Boris’s goat should die.”
The joke ends there, revealing as much about human nature as about economics. Consider the three things that happen if the fairy grants the wish. One, Boris becomes poorer. Two, Igor stays poor. Three, inequality reduces. Is any of them a good outcome?
I feel exasperated when I hear intellectuals and columnists talking about economic inequality. It is my contention that India’s problem is poverty – and that poverty and inequality are two very different things that often do not coincide.
To illustrate this, I sometimes ask this question: In which of the following countries would you rather be poor: USA or Bangladesh? The obvious answer is USA, where the poor are much better off than the poor of Bangladesh. And yet, while Bangladesh has greater poverty, the USA has higher inequality.
Indeed, take a look at the countries of the world measured by the Gini Index, which is that standard metric used to measure inequality, and you will find that USA, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United Kingdom all have greater inequality than Bangladesh, Liberia, Pakistan and Sierra Leone, which are much poorer. And yet, while the poor of Bangladesh would love to migrate to unequal USA, I don’t hear of too many people wishing to go in the opposite direction.
Indeed, people vote with their feet when it comes to choosing between poverty and inequality. All of human history is a story of migration from rural areas to cities – which have greater inequality.
If poverty and inequality are so different, why do people conflate the two? A key reason is that we tend to think of the world in zero-sum ways. For someone to win, someone else must lose. If the rich get richer, the poor must be getting poorer, and the presence of poverty must be proof of inequality.
But that’s not how the world works. The pie is not fixed. Economic growth is a positive-sum game and leads to an expansion of the pie, and everybody benefits. In absolute terms, the rich get richer, and so do the poor, often enough to come out of poverty. And so, in any growing economy, as poverty reduces, inequality tends to increase. (This is counter-intuitive, I know, so used are we to zero-sum thinking.) This is exactly what has happened in India since we liberalised parts of our economy in 1991.
Most people who complain about inequality in India are using the wrong word, and are really worried about poverty. Put a millionaire in a room with a billionaire, and no one will complain about the inequality in that room. But put a starving beggar in there, and the situation is morally objectionable. It is the poverty that makes it a problem, not the inequality.
You might think that this is just semantics, but words matter. Poverty and inequality are different phenomena with opposite solutions. You can solve for inequality by making everyone equally poor. Or you could solve for it by redistributing from the rich to the poor, as if the pie was fixed. The problem with this, as any economist will tell you, is that there is a trade-off between redistribution and growth. All redistribution comes at the cost of growing the pie – and only growth can solve the problem of poverty in a country like ours.
It has been estimated that in India, for every one percent rise in GDP, two million people come out of poverty. That is a stunning statistic. When millions of Indians don’t have enough money to eat properly or sleep with a roof over their heads, it is our moral imperative to help them rise out of poverty. The policies that will make this possible – allowing free markets, incentivising investment and job creation, removing state oppression – are likely to lead to greater inequality. So what? It is more urgent to make sure that every Indian has enough to fulfil his basic needs – what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in his fine book On Inequality, called the Doctrine of Sufficiency.
The elite in their airconditioned drawing rooms, and those who live in rich countries, can follow the fashions of the West and talk compassionately about inequality. India does not have that luxury.
Posted by Amit Varma on 17 February, 2019 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 15th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
It’s election season, and promises are raining down on voters like rose petals on naïve newlyweds. Earlier this week, the Congress party announced a minimum income guarantee for the poor. This Friday, the Modi government released a budget full of sops. As the days go by, the promises will get bolder, and you might feel important that so much attention is being given to you. Well, the joke is on you.
Every election, HL Mencken once said, is “an advance auction sale of stolen goods.” A bunch of competing mafias fight to rule over you for the next five years. You decide who wins, on the basis of who can bribe you better with your own money. This is an absurd situation, which I tried to express in a limerick I wrote for this page a couple of years ago:
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’re the dupes here, and we pay far more to keep this circus going than this circus costs. It would be okay if the parties, once they came to power, provided good governance. But voters have given up on that, and now only want patronage and handouts. That leads to one of the biggest problems in Indian politics: We are stuck in an equilibrium where all good politics is bad economics, and vice versa.
For example, the minimum guarantee for the poor is good politics, because the optics are great. It’s basically Garibi Hatao: that slogan made Indira Gandhi a political juggernaut in the 1970s, at the same time that she unleashed a series of economic policies that kept millions of people in garibi for decades longer than they should have been.
This time, the Congress has released no details, and keeping it vague makes sense because I find it hard to see how it can make economic sense. Depending on how they define ‘poor’, how much income they offer and what the cost is, the plan will either be ineffective or unworkable.
The Modi government’s interim budget announced a handout for poor farmers that seemed rather pointless. Given our agricultural distress, offering a poor farmer 500 bucks a month seems almost like mockery.
Such condescending handouts solve nothing. The poor want jobs and opportunities. Those come with growth, which requires structural reforms. Structural reforms don’t sound sexy as election promises. Handouts do.
A classic example is farm loan waivers. We have reached a stage in our politics where every party has to promise them to assuage farmers, who are a strong vote bank everywhere. You can’t blame farmers for wanting them – they are a necessary anaesthetic. But no government has yet made a serious attempt at tackling the root causes of our agricultural crisis.
Why is it that Good Politics in India is always Bad Economics? Let me put forth some possible reasons. One, voters tend to think in zero-sum ways, as if the pie is fixed, and the only way to bring people out of poverty is to redistribute. The truth is that trade is a positive-sum game, and nations can only be lifted out of poverty when the whole pie grows. But this is unintuitive.
Two, Indian politics revolves around identity and patronage. The spoils of power are limited – that is indeed a zero-sum game – so you’re likely to vote for whoever can look after the interests of your in-group rather than care about the economy as a whole.
Three, voters tend to stay uninformed for good reasons, because of what Public Choice economists call Rational Ignorance. A single vote is unlikely to make a difference in an election, so why put in the effort to understand the nuances of economics and governance? Just ask, what is in it for me, and go with whatever seems to be the best answer.
Four, Politicians have a short-term horizon, geared towards winning the next election. A good policy that may take years to play out is unattractive. A policy that will win them votes in the short term is preferable.
Sadly, no Indian party has shown a willingness to aim for the long term. The Congress has produced new Gandhis, but not new ideas. And while the BJP did make some solid promises in 2014, they did not walk that talk, and have proved to be, as Arun Shourie once called them, UPA + Cow. Even the Congress is adopting the cow, in fact, so maybe the BJP will add Temple to that mix?
Benjamin Franklin once said, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” This election season, my friends, the people of India are on the menu. You have been deveined and deboned, marinated with rhetoric, seasoned with narrative – now enter the oven and vote.
Posted by Amit Varma on 03 February, 2019 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
A slightly shorter version of this was published as the 14th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
Whenever the pressures of the world get too much for me, I lighten the burden by going over to Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. Trump, the only president who would fail the Turing Test, keeps lashing out at opponents and saying outrageous things, often in ALL-CAPS, the internet version of screaming. It’s wonderfully entertaining, and got even more so when he lashed out at Narendra Modi last week.
Trump said: “I could give you an example where I get along very well with India and Prime Minister Modi. But he is constantly telling me, he built a library in Afghanistan. Library! That’s like five hours of what we spend. And he tells me. He is very smart. We are supposed to say, oh thank you for the library. Don’t know who’s using it in Afghanistan.”
Modi fanbois also tend to be Trump fanbois because they like macho men, and this must have been confusing to them at multiple levels. One, why was Trump lashing out at Modi? Two, if Trump is telling the truth, why does Modi keep boasting about building a library? Three, what library?
After much googling in the PMO, our officials figured that despite having spent over US$ 3 billion in Afghanistan since 2001, we hadn’t built a library. Maybe Trump confused the parliament building with a library – but it was unlikely that Modi would boast to Trump even about that, especially ‘constantly.’ So Trump was lying, right?
No, Trump wasn’t lying, I say. He was bullshitting.
I’m not just dropping slang here. ‘Bullshit’ may appear to be a pejorative, but it has become a technical term after the philosopher Harry Frankfurt published his seminal book, On Bullshit, in 2005. And if we are to understand the likes of Trump, it is important to understand the distinction between ‘bullshit’ and ‘lies’.
A liar, as per Frankfurt, acknowledges the truth, and aims to deceive. For a bullshitter, the truth is irrelevant. Bullshitters aim not to deceive, but are just winging it, saying whatever comes into their head at a given point in time, which may or may not be true. For Trump, everything comes down to how macho he is, and how others are messing around at America’s expense and only he can stop them. His boast about Modi ‘constantly’ talking to him about a library was in this vein. He could also have said that Modi wears ladies underwear, or Modi begged him to open a casino in Lutyen’s Delhi, or Modi wore a suit with his name on it – any relationship that bullshit has with the truth is usually coincidental.
Trump bullshits a lot – and then doubles down on his bullshit once he has released it. For example, the wall that Mexico will pay for. I am sure he was winging it when he first came up with it.
Ironically, his latest target is a master bullshitter himself. When Modi spoke of the first plastic surgery in India being done on Lord Ganesha, or climate change being a consequence of people getting older, he wasn’t lying but bullshitting. He is not educated or knowledgeable enough to know the truth in any of those cases, so it does not matter to him. And it seems not to matter to any of us either.
Politicians can get away with bullshit (and lying) because people don’t care about facts. We tend to form echo chambers with like-minded people, form whatever worldview appeals to us, and shut ourselves off from conflicting views.
Behavioural scientists point to hard-wiring in the brain that strengthens this process. The Confirmation Bias ensures that we only consider facts that agree with our worldview and ignore the rest. The Backfire Effect, worryingly for fact-checkers, ensures that our worldviews actually grow stronger when we are presented with conflicting evidence.
These echo chambers, once formed, tend to grow more and more strident. Experiments by social scientists have found that when people with similar opinions are thrown together in a group, they tend to take decisions more extreme than any one individual would take. (This is known as ‘group polarisation’.) You see this in social media, where discourse is polarised and opposing sides are talking past each other, not to each other, with every individual performing to impress his own side.
When all discourse takes place along tribal lines, rhetoric matters, facts don’t.
Is bullshit a feature or a bug? An entire nation will vote upon it this year, as India goes to the polls. Narendra Modi has focussed entirely on optics and not on performance, betting that once people have formed a narrative inside their heads, facts are irrelevant. Is an A+ in campaigning more important than a F in governance? We will soon find out what the people of India think.
Posted by Amit Varma on 06 January, 2019 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 13th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
The late farmer leader Sharad Joshi used to enjoy reciting a poem that described the Indian farmer’s plight perfectly. It addresses the non-farmer from the farmer’s point of view, and it goes:
Marte hum bhi hain. Marte tum bhi ho.
Marte hum bhi hain, marte tum bhi ho.
Hum sasta bech ke marte hain,
Tum mahanga khareedke marte ho.
I would translate it thus:
I die, my friend, and so do you.
I die, my friend, and so do you.
I sell my produce cheap, and die.
You pay so much that you die too.
This beautiful shair expresses an old truth that many investigative journalists wrote about anew this week, as protesting farmers congregated on Delhi: the gap between what farmers get for their produce, and what the consumer pays. One report revealed that a farmer sold tomatoes at Rs 2 per kg, and consumers bought them for Rs 20. Too little; and too much. Both the farmers and consumers were getting killed by this, just like in the poem.
Joshi’s insight in the late 1970s was that this was caused not by the greed of middlemen, but the interference of the Indian state. The state had set forth rules that the farmer could not sell his produce in an open market, responding to supply and demand, but only to a government-appointed body called the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC). Because the farmers are not allowed to sell to anyone else, they are forced to take the price offered to them. And because all produce comes through the APMC, buyers also have no bargaining power.
Now imagine what would happen if the free market was allowed to operate. Middlemen would compete to buy goods from farmers, and that competition would ensure that farmers would get a better price. They would also compete for customers, this ensuring that customers would pay less. Instead of farmers selling for Rs 2 and the consumer buying for Rs 20, you could have the farmer selling for Rs 10 and the consumer buying for Rs 12. Both farmer and consumer would benefit by Rs 8 per KG. But the government does not allow this, and both farmers and consumers get hurt.
Joshi referred to this notional cost paid by the farmer as a ‘negative subsidy’. He viewed it, correctly, as theft. The issue here is not that farmers are hard up and the government is not helping them. The issue is that the government is responsible for the poverty of the farmer, and is stealing from him. And this is not the only way that the government is crippling our farmers.
Farmers are not allowed access to markets in anything they do. The state doesn’t allow free markets in inputs, because of which many of the inputs a farmer needs, from seeds to fertilisers to energy to even credit, are either hard to come by or of a low quality. And when they do manage to produce crops, they are not allowed to get the best price for it, as an open market would enable. By denying them freedom, the state effectively imprisons our farmers in what a friend of mine calls PPP: Perpetually Planned Poverty.
This extends not just to their produce, but to their property. Farmers are not allowed to sell their land for non-agricultural purposes. This restricts their market to other farmers, and ensures that the price they can get for their land is so low that it becomes pointless to sell. It has been estimated that some farmland would be forty times as valuable if this law did not exist.
Indeed, a common scam is for a crony of the state to acquire land from farmers, through the state, at low prices, and then get the land-use certificate changed so that they can sell at many multiples of that price. All perfectly legal – and deeply unethical. This is how Robert Vadra was alleged to have made his money, in fact.
Every political party in our history has let our farmers down, but there is a reason things are coming to a head now. India is already facing a jobs crisis, made worse by the deepening of the agricultural crisis. With every generation, land holdings get smaller – one farmer’s land is split among multiple children – and more and more unsustainable. It is no coincidence that many recent popular uprisings have been around demand for jobs from land-owning castes like like Jats, Patidars and Marathas.
Indian agriculture has been in crisis for decades. More than 50% of our country is in the agricultural sector, producing 14% of our GDP. In developing countries, less than 10% of the population works in agriculture. Here, we have trapped our farmers in poverty, and also not allowed the industrial revolution that would have provided an escape route. We pay lip service to farmers, but instead of making the necessary structural reforms, we give handouts like farm loan waivers that provide only temporary relief.
It is like handing aspirin to a burning man. “Here,” we say, “take this for the pain.” And everybody claps.
* * *
Also check out:
The State of Our Farmers—Epsiode 86 of The Seen and the Unseen, featuring farmer leader Gunvant Patil.
We Must Save Our Farmers — Amit Varma
Free the Farmers — Barun Mitra
The Crisis in Indian Agriculture — Brainstorm discussion on Pragati
Entry and Exit in Agriculture — Episode 1 of The Seen and the Unseen
The Farmer Rolls the Dice — Episode 12 of The Seen and the Unseen
The Unseen Effects of Farm Loan Waivers — Episode 25 of The Seen and the Unseen
Down to Earth — The collected writings of Sharad Joshi
Posted by Amit Varma on 09 December, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 12th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
This has been a year of glorious gifts from unelected middle-aged men. The Supreme Court of India is churning out enlightened judgements as if oppression is going out of fashion: Privacy, 377, and now Adultery.
On Thursday, the court struck down Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code. This section read: “Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offence of rape, is guilty of the offense of adultery, and shall be punished.”
As the part about the consent of the husband indicates, the law treated women as the property of their husbands, and adultery like a form of theft. Justice DY Chandrachud wrote in his judgement: “The history of Section 497 reveals that the law on adultery was for the benefit of the husband, for him to secure ownership over the sexuality of his wife. It was aimed at preventing the woman from exercising her sexual agency.”
As Chandrachud elaborates in his judgement, this has been a ubiquitous attitude towards adultery throughout history. Babylon’s ancient Hammurabi Code prescribed that a married woman caught in adultery “be bound to her lover and thrown into the water so that they drown together.” (No such punishment for an unfaithful man, mind you.) Ancient Greco-Roman societies considered adultery to be “a violation of a husband’s exclusive sexual access to his wife,” and Judaic and Christian laws followed a similar logic.
This went beyond ancient times. In 1650, England introduced the death penalty for adultery with the Act for Suppressing the Detestable Sins of Incest, Adultery and Fornication. Section 497, which they later thrust upon this particular colony, was an adulterated version of this.
In the 21st century, no law should deny the autonomy and agency of a woman. But what if society itself is regressive, and denies women basic human dignity, as is the case in India? Chandrachud remarks, “Law and Society are intrinsically connected and oppressive social values often find expression in legal structures.” But he adds, “The Constitution, both in text and interpretation, has played a significant role in the evolution of law from being an instrument of oppression to becoming one of liberation.”
One bad law has gone, but we remain a nation in which women are second-class citizens. Firstly, similar laws remain in the books, such as Section 498, which deals with “enticing or taking away or detaining with criminal intent a married woman,” and also treats women as the property of men. Secondly, hell, look at Indian society around you.
Some of us Engish-speaking elite types imagine that things must be getting better because we see so many strong, articulate women around us. But that’s the Selection Bias at play. Outside these circles, women in India are having a tough time. Women still fill government forms that insist on Father’s/Husbands name, as if to establish ownership. One telling metric: female participation in the workforce has actually gone down in the last two decades.
Much of what we call ‘empowerment’ is on the terms of men. So many men signal how modern they are by boasting about how they ‘let’ their wife work, or how they ‘help out’ with domestic chores. They behave as if they deserve a pat of their backs for not beating their wives, and chaining them to the kitchen. We have set the bar so low that not being a monster is now a matter of congratulations.
Men tend to be oblivious of how women carry their gender as a burden. Something I realised recently – and shame on me for being so late to realise it, in my forties – is that my gender is not a factor in my everyday life. I can ignore and take for granted my maleness. But in every single thing a woman does, her gender comes into play. An empty compartment at a train station, the tone of voice in a job interview, the supercilious, sniggering men who always interrupt, whose eyes travel like you know their hands would if they had the license.
Every day, women have to confront and make peace with their own thingness. Every day they find new reasons to question themselves. The ever-present human anxiety about what others think of us is amplified for women, and restraint becomes a reflex.
I have a secondary rant here. Just as the adultery law saw women as the property of men, many of our laws, and parts of our constitution, treat citizens as the property of the state. We are subjects of a mai-baap master, which can regulate our speech and our behaviour. We take this for granted, just as many women take the oppression they face for granted.
We cannot be a free society until we address this. The Supreme Court cannot deliver us from ourselves. No matter how ugly the sight, we must look within.
Also check out:
‘Misogyny is the Oldest Indian Tradition’—Amit Varma
‘Misogyny and Our Legal System’—Episode 58 of The Seen and the Unseen
‘Consent Won a Battle This Week. The War Remains’—Amit Varma
‘I am a Feminist. You should be too’—Amit Varma
‘Claiming Your Space’—Episode 76 of The Seen and the Unseen
Posted by Amit Varma on 30 September, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the third installment of my cricket column for Cricket Next., and was published on September 15, 2018.
Every time India loses a Test series abroad, the doomed relationship between the Indian Cricket Fan and the Indian Cricket Player comes into focus. The Player usually disappoints the Fan; and when the Fan is delighted, it is often for the wrong reason. This is because the Player and the Fan look at the game in completely different ways. So different, in fact, that we might be talking about different sports here.
The crux of this difference: the Indian Cricket Fan is results-oriented.
There have been many loud judgements made by Fans in the course of this series against England, all expressed with great passion and conviction. Hardik Pandya should not have played the first two Tests. Virat Kohli was right to pick Hardik for the third Test; redemption! Kohli was wrong to pick Hardik for the fourth, and he must be dropped. (I have heard these three come from the same person, though they are absurd together.) KL Rahul should be not be in the side. After the fifth Test, wait, oops.
What these judgements, and so many others through the series, have in common is that they are based on results. Consider the different types of judgements Fans tend to pass.
Judgements around selection. So-and-so should not be picked instead of you-and-yo. Example: picking Rohit Sharma instead of Ajinkya Rahane at the start of the Test series in South Africa.
Judgements around events. What a horrible shot Rishabh Pant played to get out in the fifth Test. Bad boy!
Judgements around a side’s approach. Why were Rahul and Pant so aggressive after tea on the fifth day in the fifth Test? Maybe we could have gotten a draw if they had tried to play the day out.
Judgements around, well, results. We lost 4-1. We are a horrible side!
I’m not taking a position on these specific judgements, but on the basis on which they are made. At this point, you would be justified in asking me, WTF columnist bro, if we don’t make judgements based on results, what do we base them on? Don’t players look at the game the same way? Shouldn’t they?
Well, no. All elite sportspeople think about the game probabilistically, and aren’t results-oriented. They value process more than results. That is the only route to success in anything – and I learnt it, viscerally, when I shifted from being a Fan to a Player.
Not a cricket player, don’t worry. After about a decade in cricket journalism, I chucked it around eight years ago, and spent five years as a professional poker player. Poker is a game of skill, but has a higher quantum of luck than other sports – in fact, it has been said that the key skill in poker is the management of luck. This might well be true to any other sport, and of life itself.
One of the early lessons I learnt in poker was that one cannot be results-oriented. I won’t bore you with poker talk, so let me give my favourite illustration of this. (I promise this is relevant to cricket and Kohli and 4-1, so bear with me!)
Let’s say you have an evenly weighted coin, that will fall heads or tails 50% of the time each – over the long run. A friend offers you a deal. You will flip that coin an unspecified number of times. Every time it hands on heads, he will give you Rs 51. Every time it lands on tails, you give him Rs 49.
It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out why this is profitable. You calculate the Expected Value (EV) of a single flip to be Rs 1. (If you flip it 100 times, you get 51x50 and lose 49x50 to gain 100 rupees. Divide by 100.) The more you flip, the more money you make. It is clearly right to accept the bet and start spinning that coin.
But here’s the thing: thinking probabilistically tells you that the decision to flip the coin is always profitable (to the tune of one rupee), but the actual result is always a harsh binary. You either win 51 bucks or lose 49. Let’s say you flip the coin once, it lands on tails, and your friend takes the money and walks off. Does that make it a bad decision?
Maybe he sees your downcast face and spins it again. Tails again. Now? Hell, he could even get ten tails in a row – unlikely as that seems, ten tails in a row is actually inevitable at some point if you spin the coin enough, and you just got unlucky here. (To get a sense of this, do read my old piece, ‘Unlikely is Inevitable’.) So you end up as a big loser – but does this mean your decision-making was flawed?
The key to winning in poker is to keep making the best decision you can, and not worry about the short-term variance of results. This is also the key to winning in life – but I won’t bore you any more on this. (For a deeper explanation involving football and parallel universes, do read my old essay, ‘What Cricket Can Learn From Poker’.) My point is that all actions in all sports carry probabilities with them, and have an inherent EV.
For example, when Lionel Messi find the ball at his feet three feet outside the box with two defenders converging to get in his way, he knows the probabilities of a) trying to weave his way through them to score directly, b) drawing them away from the goal and passing into the space his run would have created for his colleague Luis Suarez, c) Suarez scoring from there, d) Messi just going for a direct shot on goal now, e) Messi sprinting into the box and falling, hoping for a penalty. These numbers would be internalised by Messi’s coaches, and the optimal behaviour in such a spot would be second nature to Messi.
The thing is, he could make the optimal move, with a 15% chance of success, and miss. He could do something sub-optimal, with a 5% chance, and succeed, as he will one-twentieth of the time in that situation. The first decision would not be wrong just because he did not score. The second would not be right just because he did. We have no way of knowing – though Messi is in the best position to judge – and we can only tell how good a player’s decision-making is over an extremely long term, when we have good enough sample sizes to draw reliable conclusions.
In cricket, that long term is not possible. Now, consider the many kinds of EV a captain like Virat Kohli has to calculate when he takes the field.
One is of the strategic value of aggression. Should batsmen be aggressive and show ‘intent’ in Test matches? The merit in this: you don’t let bowlers get into a rhythm; you could take the game away in one good session; if it works, the confidence can create a decisive virtuous cycle. The danger: you could lose too many wickets too quickly when it doesn’t work, and lose the game in a session; the players who fail thus could lose confidence; this could create a vicious cycle.
This is a tough decision. Every Test match has uniquely different conditions, and it is impossible to get a large enough sample size to come to any conclusion. I’d need data from tens of thousands of games with and without this approach to have confidence in a judgement. In the absence of such a sample, a captain like Kohli has to go with his gut to form a philosophy around this.
He has chosen aggression, and prefers free-scoring batsmen like KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan and Hardik Pandya to plodders like Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. (He is no doubt biased by the good results of his own aggression, ignoring the fact that the risk-reward ratio is different for him because he is a superior player to all the guys named above.)
From the EV of a strategy, let’s move to the EV of a specific decision: picking Hardik Pandya in a Test XI in England. I am a fan of Pandya, and I think Kohli’s rationale for playing him would be the same as mine. He is an under-rated batsman, whose aggression can swing a game in a session. Even if he averages five-runs-an-innings lower than a specialist No. 6 batsman, the ten useful overs he can provide in a day, giving rest to the specialist bowlers, is worth those five runs. Playing him instead of a specialist No 6, in my opinion, carries a positive EV.
Now, he was our matchwinner in the third Test, and Kohli’s faith in him seemed vindicated. He flopped in the fourth, and had to be dropped following the public outcry from Fans. But this is indisputable: his EV in the third and fourth Test was identical. The results, though, were very different.
What is that EV? Should he play Tests for us? We can make our own judgements on that. But those two results, which drew such acclaim and derision respectively, are, for all practical purposes, random noise.
At the moment, the results indicate that Kohli is a bad captain, and made mistakes in this series. But are five Tests in England enough to judge, in a season where this batch of the Duke’s ball swung more than normal, tosses were decisive, and England won all the tosses? Could the probabilities have been on his side, but not luck? Are Fans being harsh by judging Kohli on the results of the series? What are the possible counterfactuals?
I don’t want to defend Kohli or take a specific stance here. Nor am I arguing that we should suspend all judgement entirely. But we should be aware that what happens on a cricket field is an inadequate way to evaluate a game, because it is a tiny fraction of what the sport is about. The real drama of cricket, the ebb and flow that matters, lies in the possibilities and probabilities of what can happen, not in the boring binaries of what does. Watching the game would be a richer experience for us if we focussed, as the players do, on the journey and not the destination.
Posted by Amit Varma on 30 September, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the second installment of my cricket column for Cricket Next., and was published on September 5, 2018.
George Bernard Shaw once wrote a play called Man and Superman. You could steal that title and use it for a film on Virat Kohli’s life right now. As a batsman, he is in superhero territory: he plays every match on a different, easier pitch than his colleagues do, and has established himself as an all-time great. English conditions were once held to be his Kryptonyte, but he’s put that to rest with his sublime batting in this series. Leaving aside costume requirements—he still wears his underwear inside his pants—he is every bit a batting superhero.
Kohli is also the captain of his side, though, and in that avatar is just a frail human. India was walloped in South Africa earlier this year, and just lost the fourth Test in England to go 3-1 down. Both these opponents were themselves far from at their best, and the decisions Kohli made as captain have gotten much of the flak for these defeats. Especially selectorial decisions: Why Rohit over Rahane at the start of the SA series? Why drop Cheteshwar Pujara in the first Test in England? Why persist with Hardik Pandya when he doesn’t seem to bring enough value with either bat or ball?;
I agree with some of those criticisms, but not others, and I feel the critics may be making a mistake by being too results-oriented—I’ll elaborate on that in my next column. It is certainly true, though, that while Kohli has transcended his human limitations when it comes to the skill of batting, he hasn’t done so when it comes to decision-making as a captain. Like all of us, he has a flawed machine inside his skull, with modules that evolved as features in prehistoric times, but which are bugs now. There are cognitive biases and flawed heuristic that can lead us astray in our decision-making, and I’ll try to address some of them in this piece.
Note that while I will cite examples of specific decisions, I am not taking a position on any of them here. Maybe they were good decisions unfairly criticized; maybe they were bad ones; maybe we will never know. I am just going to lay out some of the traps that anyone who selects a cricket team can fall into—and these apply to all of us, in everything we do. Do they apply to Kohli? That is something for you—and him—to think about.
First up, there is the Availability Heuristic, which is defined as “a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision.” There are various ways this can play out. Number one, when a captain speaks up in selection meetings, he is likely to favour players he has actually seen up close, as opposed to those who have performed as well but he hasn’t seen so much of them.
This could lead Kohli, for example, to be more likely to bat for players who qualities he knows personally from teams he has played for, like RCB. Or it could lead to the Status Quo Bias, where he opts to stick with players he is familiar with, rather than take a risk on the relatively unknown. This can also come from the Ambiguity Effect, “a cognitive bias where decision making is affected by a lack of information.”
Kohli is not the sole selector, of course, and you could argue that they often pick fresh talent from the IPL more than from domestic cricket because the IPL is much more in the spotlight. Domestic first-class cricket is supposed to be the feeder system for Test cricket, and by that logic, you’d imagine Mayank Agarwal, with his prolific performances in the Ranji Trophy, would be in the Indian squad. Could his absence be because he had a mediocre IPL, and the Availability Heuristic kicked in?
All humans give in to the Narrative Bias, “our tendency to make sense of the world through stories.” This is actually a necessity, for how else can we navigate a complex world, but we must beware of getting wedded to a false narrative. For example, let’s say that Kohli decides that Rohit Sharma has too much talent to be left out of the Test side, plays with the correct intent, and must be persisted with. (I’m not expressing a view on the merit of this particular narrative, just using it as an example, since it’s a common criticism of Kohli.)
Once Kohli has picked this narrative, he is wired to ignore all evidence against it, and consider only all evidence that supports it. This is called the Confirmation Bias, defined as “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.” You see this all the time among political and ideological tribes on Twitter. In the context of our example narrative, it could mean that every time Rohit (derisively and unfairly called ‘NoHit’ by his detractors) does well, Kohli says, Ah, I knew it all along, and every time he fails, Kohli shrugs it off as an aberration. It becomes easy to do Post-Purchase Rationalisation, and explain Rohit’s failures by citing small sample sizes – which is a reasonable argument in its own right.
A related tendency is the Backfire Effect, which is “the finding that, given evidence against their beliefs, people can reject the evidence and believe even more strongly.” So if Rohit makes a quick cameo and gets out, that could actually strengthen Kohli’s belief rather than weaken it. The Endowment Effect may have something to do with it. This is “the hypothesis that people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them.” In this case, Kohli would own the decision to persist with Rohit, and it would seem better to him than it actually is.
Here are some other biases that could apply to this narrative. The Ben Franklin Effect: “a proposed psychological phenomenon [that] a person who has already performed a favor for another is more likely to do another favor for the other than if they had received a favor from that person.” The Semmelweis Reflex: “a metaphor for the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms.” Do consider also the Optimism Bias and the Ostrich Effect, which I hardly need to define.
Another factor that comes into play when sticking with a bad decision is the Sunk Cost Fallacy, which can also be described as Escalation of Commitment. This is “a human behavior pattern in which an individual or group facing increasingly negative outcomes from some decision, action, or investment nevertheless continues the same behavior rather than alter course.” An everyday example of this: we buy a ticket to watch a movie, hate the first half, but don’t walk out at the interval because hey, the money we spent on the ticket will be wasted. The correct approach is to view the ticket money as a sunk cost, and optimise our enjoyment in the time to come. But no, there is this fallacy.
This might also lead to The Gambler’s Fallacy: “The mistaken belief that, if something happens more frequently than normal during a given period, it will happen less frequently in the future.” An example: you flip an evenly weighted coin three times, and each time, it lands on ‘tails.’ So you feel that ‘heads’ is ‘due’, and the next one will surely be ‘heads’. (The probability remains 50% for any individual spin of the coin because coins don’t have a memory.) Similarly, a batsman’s chances of succeeding in the next innings are what they are: past failures does not mean that a success is ‘due’.
Kohli might also suffer from the Curse of Knowledge: “A cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, communicating with other individuals, unknowingly assumes that the others have the background to understand.” Is it possible, for example, that he unfairly expects less talented players like Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane to bat at a similar strike rate to him because he himself knows how to bat at a healthy momentum, and has the skill to do so?
Even if he does, his teammates are unlikely to dissent too much, which might lead to the False Consensus Effect: “The tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others agree with them.” This would ensure that he gets no negative feedback from within the team. What about from outside? Well, Indian captains have a tradition of ignoring the media, which a smart thing to do these days given the quality of it. But could Kohli also be giving in to the Hostile Attribution Effect: “The tendency to interpret others’ behaviors as having hostile intent, even when the behavior is ambiguous or benign.”
I could go on forever, but you get the drift. The purpose of this piece is not to criticize Kohli, or even the individuals mentioned in the example, such as poor Rohit/NoHit, who was finally removed from the Test side when it all got too much. We are all hardwired with these cognitive biases. We would all improve our decision-making if we were aware of them. Our quest as humans, always, is to transcend ourselves. Kohli has done this as a batsman, and I hope he manages to do it as a captain.
Posted by Amit Varma on 30 September, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 11th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
Remember, remember, the sixth of September. In many ways, this date in 2018 is as momentous as August 15, 1947 was. On that day, India gained freedom from a foreign ruler, but Indians remained unfree, subjects of an oppressive Indian state instead of an oppressive colonial one. We were denied so many types of freedom, and took that condition for granted. This week, though, an important sliver of liberty was finally handed to us. This is also Independence Day.
The repeal of Section 377 is an emotional victory, but the tears are bittersweet. The fact remains that it took five unelected men to set this right. In this great democracy of ours, where the voice of the people is supposed to find expression in its politics, not one political party in the last 71 years tried to repeal 377. Parties don’t have principles, only incentives, and all of them behaved this way because they feared that voters would not approve. That tells you what every gay person in this country already knows from lived experience: our society is homophobic. Not just that, our society and the state do not give a damn about Consent.
The central principle of this 377 judgement was Consent: no one has the right to come between two consenting adults. Consent is the foundation of all human rights, and should be the foundation of our Republic. And yet, despite this one historic judgement on one domain of Consent, we remain a land that does not care for this principle.
Consider the arts. We are a country where films made for adults by adults are routinely censored. Books are banned. ‘Objectionable’ art exhibitions are shut down or vandalised. Artists and patrons, consenting adults all, are prevented from enriching each other.
Consider free speech. As in any other marketplace, all of us benefit when there is competition in the marketplace of ideas. And yet, we have laws in the Indian Penal Code, like 295(a) and 153(a), which allow anyone to claim offence and shut free speech down. Like 377, these laws are colonial artefacts. But they are actually validated by the most illiberal part of our Constitution, Article 19(2), which allows caveats to free speech on grounds like ‘public order’ and ‘decency and morality.’ Those are open to interpretation, and anything goes.
Consider food. The government regulates what you may or may not eat. Consider health. You cannot take cannabis for medical use, or any other medicine not approved by a government body. Consider education. You could get arrested for home-schooling your children if you find government schools inadequate, and there are so many restrictions placed on private schools that come between consenting parents and consenting teachers.
Indeed, markets are as big a battleground for Consent as bedrooms or kitchens. If we don’t interfere between consenting adults in a bedroom or kitchen, what moral justification is there for doing so in the marketplace? Every time a voluntary exchange happens between two people, it does so because both people benefit. Life and markets are a positive-sum game. And yet, governments ‘regulate’ and stop voluntary exchanges between consenting adults all the time. Often acting on behalf of entrenched interests, they restrict competition, harming consumers aka citizens, and benefiting cronies.
The most poignant victims of this are our farmers. Our entire agricultural crisis is a result of our farmers having their autonomy snatched away from them. They are the least free of Indians, and are trapped in a cycle of dependency. But this is a subject for another column, perhaps.
71 years after the British left is, we have the mentality of the colonised. We behave as if we are subjects of a mai-baap state, and not its masters. The state should exist to serve us, not the other way around. We give the state a monopoly on violence so that it can protect our rights, not so that it takes them away with the threat of violence. It is not a safeguard for our liberty, but the biggest threat to it.
We got lucky this time with the Supreme Court ruling, but we cannot rely on the court every time. There are too many freedoms to fight for, and unless the parties that run this country see political capital in it, they will not grant us those freedoms. But I have hope.
The outpouring of joy at the repeal of 377 may indicate that things are changing. Have we started caring about each other, and about freedom, a little bit more? Are we beginning to recognise that a nation cannot truly be free until all its citizens are free? Are we going to bring about more trysts with destiny?
Posted by Amit Varma on 09 September, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the first installment of Politics Without Romance, my monthly column with Bloomberg Quint. As the name indicates, this column will look at Indian politics through the lens of Public Choice Theory.
One more Independence Day comes up, and it’s time to ask that annual question again: Where have all the leaders gone?
It’s a common lament that the politicians of today are the opposite of the freedom fighters who got us this Independence. We had giants then. We have pygmies now. Our leaders then were driven by principle. Our leaders now are driven by the lust for power. Why?
If you look at politics through the lens of economics, which I will do in this column over the new few months, the answer lies in incentives. Why do people get into politics? What do they want from it? What can they realistically expect? What do they need to do to get to the top? What trade-offs do they need to make? What do they need to do to stay on top?
Right from the 19th century, our freedom fighters had little personal upside to their battles. We were ruled by the British Empire, and these men had no chance of coming to power and enjoying its rewards. The downside was significant, though. If you were in a position of influence, you could lose it. If you were not, and fought too vigorously, you could land up in jail or worse.
The generations of men and women who rose up to fight against the British empire did so because they were animated by a higher cause. There was no personal upside to it. There was a principle at stake. For example: Freedom is my birthright, and I shall have it. And they cared about that principle so much that some of them were willing to die for it.
Once Independence was achieved, the incentives changed. Firstly, getting the British to leave was so miraculous, coming after a decades-long struggle, that our leaders did not notice what we did not achieve. Yes, we got political independence, but we still weren’t guaranteed the personal and economic freedoms that we had fought for.
One of the seminal moments of our Independence struggle was Mahatma Gandhi’s protest against the tyranny of the salt tax. Well, consider that the tax on salt is far higher today, not to mention other taxes or other tyrannies.
Here’s what we did on August 15, 1947. We replaced one set of rulers with another. Only the colour of their skin changed. And those who had fought against those in power were now in power themselves. Their incentives changed. Would they change?
In the early years of our independence, our politics was ruled by those who had come into the freedom struggle for the sake of principles, not power. I’m willing to give them the benefit of doubt. Their mistakes were honest mistakes – such as the embrace of the Fabian socialism that kept India poor for decades longer than it should have. That flawed thinking was the fashion of the times, and was not driven by bad incentives. The drive towards Big Government did, however, change incentives further.
Henceforth, it was natural that those who would be drawn to politics would be driven by the lust for power. Now that it was possible for Indians to join the ruling class, people were bound to want to do so. Now that we had achieved Independence, there no longer seemed a burning need to fight for higher principles. Principles would become a rationalisation, a way to position a political brand to differentiate it from others.
Those who did enter politics for reasons of principle would soon find themselves having to compromise on those principles for pragmatic reasons. So much so that by the time they actually achieved power, there could be no trace of those original principles. There is an old truism that power corrupts. It is equally true that the quest for power corrodes character. There may be politicians who start off idealistic—but they cannot remain that way, no matter what their public positioning.
Why is this? Incentives. Achieving power requires two things: Money and Votes. (As you can only get Votes by spending Money, this is arguably one thing, but I’ll speak of them as two to illustrate the different directions that politicians are pulled in.)
First, money. Over the decades, it has gotten more and more prohibitive to fight an election. One needs crores to contest even a local election. Where does this money come from? Who can afford such large sums?
The money always comes from interest groups who expect a Return on Investment. There’s always a quid pro quo involved. I give you money, but when you come to power, you do XYZ for me. First, money leads to power. Then, power must lead to money. This is the chakravyuh of politics.
For example, if a big industrialist gives a political party money, what could he want out of it? One, he may want regulation that protects his industry or company from competition. Place tariffs on foreign goods, deny a license to a competitor, and so on. (All these can be done citing seemingly noble principles.)
Two, he may want special privileges that the government, using its monopoly on violence, can get him. For example, if he wants land for a factory, the government can use eminent domain to get it cheaply from villagers and hand it to him. Three, he may want soft loans from a Public Sector Bank, which he otherwise may not get from a private sector bank that has different incentives and does due diligence.
Contemporary examples of this abound. Consider the interest groups that benefit from any government policy, and you can follow the trail. You may oppose FDI in retail, for example, because small traders form a large chunk of your donor base, as is the case with AAP (and the BJP, until recently). You may allocate natural resources to favoured cronies, as the UPA was alleged to have done with coal and spectrum.
All of these, you will note, amount to a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, from us citizens to moneybag interest groups. This is how Power provides RoI to Money.
Needless to say, you don’t make money only for those who fund you, but also for yourself. (This might even be the prime personal incentive for wannabe politicians.) Our system of big government is especially lucrative. Wherever there is power, there is discretion, and there will be corruption. And our government is designed to give enormous amounts of power to those in charge, which makes immense corruption inevitable. This is not a function of the party in power, but of the incentives in play.
And now, to votes. In our democracy, elections are the process by which we decide which of the competing mafias will get to rule us for five years. There is just one way for these mafias to win our votes: by bribing us. The party in power may hand out immediate sops. The parties in opposition will promise them.
In the political marketplace, just as in any other marketplace, every brand does not try to woo every customer. (Unlike in a regular marketplace, of course, there is usually only one winner.) Parties will have vote banks that they will nurture over time, and reward when they are in power. The immense power of the state makes patronage politics lucrative.
For example, you can promise reservations in government jobs to a group of your choice. Or, even without explicit promises, you can make sure the state favours the groups you are wooing, either by giving them jobs or contracts or looking after them in other ways. (This is analogous to how a mafia rewards and protects those who give them hafta, except here it is legal.)
Or you can just bribe them directly, with free biryani or pressure cookers. This can become a vicious circle. For example, everyone wants farmers’ votes, and once one party promises farm loan waivers, every other party has to follow suit. Loan waivers are a temporary anaesthetic that perpetuate the problem, but politicians do not have the incentives to make the deep structural changes that are required in agriculture. Those will take years to play out, much beyond an election cycle – and parties need votes now.
The great tragedy of Indian politics is that all our politics is identity politics that centres around state patronage. All parties are guilty of this. Smaller regional parties nurture their own caste vote banks. The Congress pandered to minorities for decades. The BJP caters to the worst bigots among us – and there are enough of them now to make the party a force. They also manipulated the caste politics of UP masterfully in 2014 and 2017. As for AAP, they have pandered to Khalistanis and Kanwariyas alike, and a prominent supporter of theirs was made to apologize to a Jain Muni for the reason that Jains were a powerful vote bank for AAP.
All this is inevitable. What can a party do without votes? What can a party do without money? The imperatives of our democracy make politics morally corrosive. To get to power, you must privilege the means over the ends. And even if your ends were noble to begin with, by the time you are done, your only goal is power. You become the monster you might have tried to fight.
What could change this? Well, if the state had less power, it would offer less RoI to investors. There would be less money and less patronage for parties to bribe voters with. Imagine a limited government that existed just to protect our rights and nothing else. The incentives would change. It would have so little power that those who lust for power would be forced to look elsewhere for career options. (Maybe they’d join the mafia.) Interest groups would stop funding politicians because politicians would not have power to do something in return for them. Voters could not be induced with short-term sops or goodies.
Can that change in the design of our government ever take place? Who will have the incentives to make that change? Not the moneybags and the interest groups, that’s for sure. But what about the voters? If enough citizens demanded reform, the government would have to listen. Supply has to obey Demand.
Andrew Brietbart once said, ‘Politics is downstream of culture.’ This is exactly right. Before we change our politics, we must change our culture. This is as noble a battle to fight as the one our great freedom fighters fought against the British empire decades ago. Will new leaders emerge to fight it?
Posted by Amit Varma on 25 August, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
Politics Without Romance
This is the first installment on a cricket column I have started for Cricket Next, in which I will write about cricket from the lens of other disciplines, such as economics, psychology, game theory etc.
During his second innings in the Lord’s Test, Virat Kohli could be seen grimacing, and a nation grimaced with him. Kohli has a chronic back problem. The rest of the country has a chronic cricket problem. Why can’t our batsmen play the swinging ball in Test matches in England? Why did this particular lot look so incapable? Why are they worse at this than previous generations? Can an asteroid please give us deliverance by hitting Earth, wiping humanity out and ending this pain?
I am both a Cricket Tragic and an India Tragic, and I will make three tragic arguments in this piece. One, Indian batsmen of the future will be even worse against the swinging ball in England. Two, it doesn’t matter because Test cricket is dying, and there won’t be any Test matches in England 20 years from now. Three, that also doesn’t matter, because cricket will flourish nevertheless, and other forms of the game have as much drama and nuance as Test cricket does, if in different ways.
This may sound dismal to you, so its apt that I make my argument through the lens of the allegedly ‘dismal science’ of economics. In particular, I want to look at Incentives: what are the incentives of those who view the game, play the game, and run the game? How is their behaviour moulded by these incentives? What are the implications of this?
First up, consider the concept of Opportunity Cost, which, put simply, refers to what alternative uses you could have made of the time or money you spent on something. The opportunity cost of watching a Test match, for example, is what else you could have done with the five days you spent watching it. This boils down to the options available for your time.
For most of cricket’s existence, there haven’t been that many alternatives. There is a cliché about cricket and Bollywood being the two great 20th century passions of India, but think about it, what else did you have for entertainment? Not much television, and no internet, Facebook, Whatsapp, Youtube, Netflix or easily available porn. That has changed today.
We’re inundated with options of what to do with our time. That means that the opportunity cost of watching a Test match has shot up, and our incentive for doing so has declined. Most cricket purists I know don’t actually spend much time watching Test cricket. (Look up another concept from economics, ‘Revealed Preferences’.) The TV ratings of Test cricket have been plummeting, and if not for the subsidy from other forms of the game, there would already be no commercial reason for the game to exist.
What is remarkable about Test cricket is that it exists at all. Most other popular sports can be viewed in easy-to-digest nuggets. Football lasts 90 minutes, not nine hours. Tennis matches, hockey games, badminton encounters can all be done with within an evening. And because there is no longer form of the game to compare these sports to, no one complains about how they lack drama or depth.
I believe that we complain about Twenty20 cricket because Test matches came first, so we put that on a pedestal, and consider that the basis of comparison. (Another economic concept to look up: the ‘Anchoring Effect’.) Had T20s come first, we might have viewed Test cricket through a different prism of values – and found it wanting.
Use the tools of economics on a T20 game. Each team is given as many resources (11 players) as in a Test or a one-day match, but far less overs (only 20) to play an innings in. This relative scarcity of overs changes the value of all the resources. A dot ball becomes more expensive for the batting side, as every ball carries more value. A wicket has less value than in an ODI, as your batting resources need to be spread out over only 20 overs rather than 50. The risk-reward ratio changes, and the value of aggression goes up.
This changes the incentives for batting sides. Aggression is rewarded, the value of ‘building an innings’ goes down, and to finish an innings with batsmen still waiting in the pavilion counts as a waste of resources. (Opportunity cost, again.) Batsmen, thus, have to innovate far more, and find new ways of playing the game.
Consider the much-touted 360-degree game of AB de Villiers. There, invention came out of necessity, the new format making demands on batsmen to expand their repertoire. ABD is just the most spectacular player around. Many other batsmen started practising new strokes, playing them reflexively, expanding not just their repertoire but also the orthodoxy. Who is to say that the reverse-sweep and the ramp shot don’t now belong in batting textbooks?
Contrary to a popular canard, bowlers did not turn into bowling machines. Their response to more aggressive batsmen was more deception, and not just by bowling more slower balls and wide yorkers. Spinners actually began flighting the ball more, inviting batsmen to hit them, like back in the romanticized days of yore. Think back on the bowling of the spinners like Rashid Khan, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal in the last IPL: the flight, the loop, the aggressive intent. Bowlers figured out that one way to counter the momentum of a batting side was to take wickets. Attack became the best defence.
This might seem contradictory. On one hand, the value of a wicket goes down for a batsmen because runs are more important. On the other hand, the value of a wicket goes up for a bowler because it can slow a batting side’s momentum. So how much do wickets matter?
Questions like this make it a fascinating time to be a cricket lover. There is an ongoing conversation between batsmen and bowlers, with both innovating new skills as they test this hypothesis or that. This is why watching the IPL is so eye-opening and mind-boggling. A game is evolving in front of our eyes: its grammar and structure, its mores and norms, through a conversation between batsmen and bowlers and captains that we get to see in real time.
If you love cricket, how can you not be enthralled?
Now consider how the incentives change for everyone concerned. Viewers prefer T20s to Tests because the opportunity cost of watching a T20 game is far less. (Besides, it is an incredibly rich experience, having that added dramatic element of urgency that Tests do not have.) Because of this, there is more money to be made excelling in this shorter form of the game. So players are incentivised to optimise for it. Every minute that a batsman spends expanding his repertoire of aggressive strokes, though, carries the opportunity cost of not practising for Test match skills, such as how to leave a swinging ball.
The inevitable outcome of this is that batsmen will always train to play T20s, and will be unequipped for those specialised skills that Test matches demand. (Especially Test matches in England.) India tours England once every few years. Why should KL Rahul, who I consider a batting genius, spend much time preparing for conditions he will encounter so infrequently?
Another indication of how these incentives play out: only Cheteshwar Pujara bothered to go to England early and prepare for this tour. He did so only because he has been discarded in the other forms of the game. Incentives. Contrast this with the fact that the Indian batsmen of the generation immediately preceding the IPL era, the Dravid-Tendulkar-Ganguly generation, all played county cricket. But why should KL Rahul or Rishabh Pant bother with that?
It is not fair to make a value judgement about this. All these players have made rational choices, responding to incentives. Who is to say that one specific ‘balance between bat and ball’ is better than some other balance? Who is to say that Test cricket is superior to one-day cricket? Even many who do state that as a personal preference don’t actually put their eyeballs where their mouths are.
People who love Test cricket, as I do, can take succour in the fact that the cricket boards will keep the form alive even when it is no longer commercially viable, by subsidising it from income that comes from shorter formats. But for how long will this posturing be necessary? When the 15-year-old of today is 35 years old, who will care for Test cricket? Especially if that kid is an Indian viewer who watched this Lord’s Test and thought to himself, “Ya whatever. Why even bother?”
Posted by Amit Varma on 15 August, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 9th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
There was outrage on Twitter this week when it was revealed that the union government had spent Rs 4880 crores since 2014 on government advertising. The outrage is justified—but it is not enough. It is not just this amount or this use of government money that we should question, but the whole concept of government spending. And indeed, government action.
We in India seem to think of Government as the solution to all our problems. (I often argue that India’s biggest religion is not Hinduism but the Religion of Government.) We behave as if the State is a benevolent entity with unlimited resources of its own with which it should fulfil all our wishes: ban what we don’t like, build what we want built, spend on what we think are good causes. Statues, loan waivers, awards for sportspeople, ministries for cow protection, and so on.
In all this, we ignore one essential truth: Every act of government is an act of violence.
Think about what the state needs in order to exist: our taxes. Money taken from us by force. No one pays taxes willingly. Without the threat of imprisonment—basically, abduction by the one entity that has a monopoly on violence—there would be no taxpayers. There are two words that mean the act of taking someone’s property without their consent: no wonder people say that Taxation is Theft.
Indeed, it is more than that. Assume that you pay 25% of your income in taxes. That amounts to one-fourth of your time and labour. It means that, for all practical purposes, from January to March every year, you are a slave to the state. Taxation is not just theft, it is part-time slavery.
Contrary to a common canard, everybody pays taxes. Taxes are not just income tax. Your domestic help is parted from her money when she buys a bar of soap. The beggar at the traffic signal near you loses money to the government every time he buys salt. Even inflation—usually caused by the government printing money—is basically a tax on the poor.
I am not arguing that we should pay no taxes and live in anarchy. The state is a necessary evil. We need it to protect our rights, and there is no way around the paradox that by allowing it to exist, we give away some of our rights. The state has to tax us to protect us, and the violence it thus commits is necessary to protect us from greater violence.
Regardless of what your ideology may be, none of what I have said above is contestable. It is plain fact that no one pays taxes willingly, and that the threat of coercion is involved. It is plain fact, thus, that every government action involves violence and coercion. Most people would also accept that some amount of this violence is necessary, for we need the state to protect our rights. The larger question then is, what actions of the state are justified, given the violence involved at every step?
This is where ideology begins. Person One (a libertarian like me) could argue for a minimal state that only protects our rights and nothing else. (If you feel the state should do other things, give me the moral justification for your preferences being funded by money coercively taken from others.) Person Two may advocate a state looking after its less fortunate members, proving free healthcare and education. Person Three may care about national glory, and want to build grand statues. Person Four could argue that building infrastructure is necessary, and has positive externalities.
(It is beside the point, of course, that political parties are driven by imperatives beyond ideology. They need money and votes to exist and win, and when in power, use the state as a tool to reward those who gave them money and votes—always at the expense of us citizens.)
The purpose of this column is not to argue for or against any of those ideologies. I just ask that every time you advocate government action of any kind, remember that the action comes at a cost. That cost is not just a financial cost, but a moral one. That cost involves violence committed on all of us—not just rich industrialists, but also the poorest of the poor.
Can you justify that violence?
Posted by Amit Varma on 05 August, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 8th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
Would Aditi Mittal have become a stand-up comedian had she not studied in a girls’ college? Appearing as a guest in the latest episode of my weekly podcast, The Seen and the Unseen, she told me that studying at Sophia College enabled her to perform in front of others with confidence. Had there been boys in her class, she said, she would not have been able to claim the space of the class jester.
This came as a revelation to me, though it should not have. No male comedian would have experienced this; but every woman knows what it is like. Aditi’s point was that even though she was so privileged—born to English-speaking, liberal parents—she began her career facing obstacles her male peers never considered. At least she made it through: there are 235 million people who did not.
One reason for India being such a poor country is that we treat half of our greatest resource—our people—as inferior to the other half. This has a huge cost, which people have recently begun to quantify. Here are some numbers: only 26% of Indian women are in the workforce, next only to Saudi Arabia among G20 countries. A story in the latest issue of the Economist reveals that if female labour participation was as much as of that of men, there would be an additional 235 million women in the workforce. (Even many of those who do work now would be more skilled and productive if treated equally with their brothers in childhood.) According to a 2015 McKinsey study, our GDP could go up by 60% by 2025 if female participation in the workforce matched that of men. (For more, read Namita Bhandare’s outstanding series in IndiaSpend.)
India’s misogyny carries much more than just an economic cost. It is a humanitarian tragedy. No other term suffices when more than half a billion people are treated as subhuman and prevented from reaching their full potential. A recent study named India as the most dangerous country in the world for women, which is no surprise given that women are essentially treated as the property of men. (These cultural attitudes are reinforced by actual laws that take this approach.) Even though we live in the 21st century, our attitudes towards women belong in the 19th. We must fix this.
Let me declare it upfront: I am a feminist. And because that particular F-word has so many shades of meaning, let me define what I mean by it: Feminism is the belief that women deserve the same respect as individuals that men do. The same moral consideration. The same legal rights. My feminism arises out of my belief in the primacy of individual rights, with ‘Consent’ as an absolute value. Indeed, I tell my fellow libertarians that to be libertarian is, by default, to be feminist. A (male) friend of mine even says, “If you are not feminist, you are not a good human being.”
Why does feminism get a bad rap then? This is because just as there are all kinds of human beings, there are all kinds of feminists. Not all stop at the principle of equal rights, and offshoots of feminism can often contradict each other. (Google “gender feminism vs equity feminism.”) Many feminists feed into an identity politics in vogue today, which can be as toxic as the ills it purports to be fighting. Also, the tactics that some feminists employ can make some uncomfortable, such as the recent ‘list’ of alleged sexual offenders in academia, who were to be deemed guilty until proven innocent.
But even that list had an important function, which is the same one that the #MeToo movement highlights: women are angry, and won’t put up with this shit any more. Men seem to be oblivious to the extent and ubiquity of this anger, as well as to the fact that it is justified. Indeed, one central cultural disconnect of our times can be summed up like this: Women are angry. Men are clueless.
This is made worse by the fact that many men who declare themselves to be feminists are just being performative. (Basically, virtue signalling to get laid, as men are hardwired to do.) I find this irritating, but I won’t turn away from declaring my feminism either because of this or because of my discomfort with the tactics of some feminists. The reason for this is twofold: One, women being treated as second-class citizens hurts us all, and diminishes us as human beings. Two, it is a sad truth that because of the power dynamics around us, men can actually make more of a difference than women can, especially when outspoken women are being constantly minimised and mocked.
Therefore, it is imperative for us men to also fight this good fight. Not because of what our ancestors did or how our fellow men behave, but because it is the right thing to do.
* * *
Also check out:
‘Claiming Your Space’—Episode 76 of The Seen and the Unseen
‘These Funny Times’—Episode 75 of The Seen and the Unseen
Posted by Amit Varma on 08 July, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the seventh installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
All around me, the air is filled with the anguished groans of cricket purists. England scored 481 against Australia a few days ago in a one-day match at Trent Bridge, despite a slowdown in which no boundaries were hit in the last four overs. In their previous ODI at the venue, against Pakistan, they had made 444. And it isn’t just this venue: everywhere, it would seem, mishits are going for six, record scores are being posted, and bowlers are settling down in bathtubs to slash their wrists.
The purist lament is simple: for a variety of reasons, the balance between bat and ball has been upset. Heavier bats, shorter boundaries, bad regulations, the malign influence of Twenty20 cricket. “In the good old days,” my friends declaim in sophisticated accents, “cricket was not a spectacle but a contest.” Also, though they do not say this, petrol was two rupees a litre.
As these notional nostalgics collapse at my feet, I want not to console them but to whack them on their unhelmeted heads. “Yes, cricket has changed,” I want to tell them. “But it has changed for the better. Get over yourself. Go watch a game.”
First up, let’s consider why the balance of the game has shifted towards run-scoring. Heavier bats are just part of the reason. The main cause is that batsmen have been forced to develop new skills because of the changed imperatives of T20 cricket. Having ten wickets in hand but only 120 balls in an innings means that the value of a run goes up, the value of a wicket goes down, and the cost of a dot-ball is immense. This mandates greater aggression.
Batsmen have thus developed a wider array of skills than previous generations needed to. (Consider AB deVillier’s 360-degree game.) Fielders are now better than ever in the past, because each run saved is that much more important. And bowlers have also adapted.
That old cliché of T20 cricket being a slugfest where you can replace bowlers with bowling machines is nonsense. Bowlers, who once focussed on restricting runs, have realised that the best way to keep the score down is to take wickets. Attack is the best defence. Modern spinners like Rashid, Chahal, Kuldeep are not scared to flight the ball in search of wickets, in contrast to the flat ODI spin bowling of the past. The top teams in this latest IPL were the ones who bowled to take wickets, not to restrict: consider how MS Dhoni used his CSK fast bowlers.
These skills have migrated to the other forms of the game—and have enriched them. The writer Gideon Haigh, in an episode of my podcast The Seen and the Unseen, once mentioned why he found the 2015 ODI World Cup fascinating. “You got Test match quality bowling—because the only way to slow down batsmen these days is to get them out—and T20 batting skills.” That illustrates how the game has evolved into a deeper, more complex beast—which is a good thing.
And yes, in all this, the ‘balance between bat and ball’ has shifted. But why was the older balance—say from the ‘70s, when 240 was a good score in a 60-over ODI—better in any way? Is it because that’s the one we are used to, and which forms our comfort zone and anchors our expectations?
Here’s a thought experiment: if T20 cricket had been invented before Test cricket, and Tests came later, how would people have responded? Would we wonder what the point of five-day cricket was, without the challenging constraint of having a limited number of balls to score your runs in?
Another thought experiment: if someone introduced a five-day baseball game, or a nine-hour football game, how would people react to them? Would they immediately diss the shorter form?
Beyond the skills argument, there is also a pragmatic reason to celebrate T20 cricket. Few people, even performative purists, have five days to watch a game of cricket these days. Or even one whole day. There are just too many other claimants for your time. Cricket was heading for commercial death when this new form came to the rescue: long enough to pack in immense drama; short enough to finish in an evening. In future, T20s will end up subsidising Test cricket and keeping it alive.
Indeed, I celebrate T20 cricket not because I like it more than Test cricket. They are different sports requiring different skills, and I find it graceless when fans of one sport disparage another. I celebrate it because T20s have enhanced Tests by bringing new skills and strategic learnings into the game. And they will keep Tests alive in commercial terms. That is why every purist should celebrate Twenty20 cricket.
Posted by Amit Varma on 24 June, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 50th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
Don’t make your happiness dependent on other people, and all will be well.
When I look back on my younger self, the 24-year-old Amit from 20 years ago, I feel alarmed. There is just nothing he is doing right. His outlook to life, his ambitions, his work ethic, his food ethic, his attitude towards other people: they are all wrong. He is obnoxious, arrogant and delusional, and it seems certain to me that this cannot end well.
I cannot reach out across time and warn that kid, and he would not listen to me. This is a common lament of middle-aged people like me: Oh, if we only knew then what we know now. Still, I am lucky to get here and no longer be that guy. I know similarly aged people who have not lost their youthful delusions, and wake up every morning unhappy. I feel bad for them – but not too bad, for reasons that will be obvious by the time you finish reading this.
This is the 50th edition of Lighthouse, and my last column in this space, so in the spirit of a happy ending, I want to bow out with a list of learnings. Here are a few things I learned along the way from being that guy to this guy.
One: You are not special. You are one of over seven billion people on this planet, which is one of 100 billion planets in the Milky Way, which is one of 100 billion galaxies in the known universe. So forget what the self-help books tell you: you are not unique or different in any way. You are one accounting error of genetic composition away from a gorilla, and everything you are is a result of luck: the genes you happened to have, and the environment you were born and raised in. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it should be a relief.
Two: You are not entitled to anything. I am shocked sometimes to see how entitled some young millennials feel, till I remember that in my time, we felt as entitled. This is a quality of youth. (And the natural consequence of thinking you are special, which we are hardwired to do, for how else would we live?) But the world owes you nothing, and the more entitled you feel, the more you will be disappointed. If you feel entitled to nothing, on the other hand, everything good that comes your way will feel like a delightful bonus.
Three: Stop looking for validation. Our lives can be dominated by the need for the approval or admiration of others. This is foolish for one simple reason: others don’t give a shit, and are caught up in their own corresponding anxiety. They aren’t thinking of you all the time. You are only the center of your own universe. So stop caring about what others think of you. It doesn’t matter – unless you take it seriously, in which case you are doomed to unhappiness, as you will be sweating over what you cannot control.
Four: Focus only on what you can control. One sure route to be unhappy is to make your happiness dependent on things you cannot control. You will then feel helpless and exhausted as you are buffeted by the winds of chance. Instead, you should only feel good or bad about events in your immediate control. The rest is what it is. (If you take the route that there is no free will, you could even achieve a Buddhist sort of complete equanimity – or you could just panic. Leave that aside for now.)
Five: Focus on process, not outcome. This follows on from the last lesson: you cannot control the outcome, but you can control the process. The happiest writers are those who take joy in the writing, not in the awards or the money. If you are stressed about outcomes, you will spend your whole life stressed, because outcomes are never satisfactory, and when we do get what we want, we immediately revise our expectations. If you just take joy in the simple act of work, and leave aside the results, much of the stress in your life will just vanish.
Six: Focus on the positives. I know people consumed by negativity, who wake up every morning angry and bitter that the world has not given them their due. They are the sole cause of their unhappiness. The world is full of things that can make you either happy or unhappy. Focus on the positives. This creates a virtuous feedback loop: you feel better and work better when you do this, and that creates even more joy for yourself. Cut everything that is toxic and negative out of your life, including people who are always cribbing. Life is too short to spend it sunk in despair. (Some might argue that it is because life is short that we spend it sunk in despair – but you cannot control that.)
Seven: Happiness lies in small things. What makes you happy? If you make it dependent on the fulfillment of big dreams, or the actions of others, you will be chasing an elusive goal. The biggest lesson I have learnt is that happiness lies in small things: the rich taste of strong coffee on a rainy day; a few moments of laughter with friends or loved ones; getting lost in a book, or transported by a song, or giving in to the magic of a film. Look around you, and I’m sure you will find many things that make you feel blessed. What else do you need? Why?
Posted by Amit Varma on 08 June, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the sixth installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
From the way this government behaves, you would think that the people of India are a great danger. A few days ago, the government floated a tender asking for vendors who would build for it a “comprehensive analytics system to monitor and analyse various aspects of social media communication and World Wide Web.” Put simply, a surveillance system that will track all your online activity, and know everything about you, so that you behave. This tender came on the heels of an earlier proposal mooted by Smriti Irani, then the I&B Minister, to regulate online media.
These specific proposals were par for the course. Any government looks for ways to expand its power over its citizens. As much as we should protest these attempts, we should also consider that the real problem lies elsewhere. The biggest danger to our democracy is not one set of people lusting for power, but the mindset that all of us have.
The Indian people still behave as if we are subjects of an empire. We have no rights except those that our rulers are kind enough to grant us, and they are our mai-baap. Yes, since the British left we have a procedure to elect our own rulers – but we remain the ruled.
In a democratic republic, the people should be in charge, and the government should serve. The only legitimate role of the state is to protect the rights of its citizens – that’s what laws are for. And yet, in this inversion of roles that we have accepted, laws become the tool by which our rulers keep us in check. The mere rule of law is never enough for this, and the state always seeks to expand its power with that magic word, ‘regulation’. We accept and encourage this: whenever we see a social or economic problem of any kind, we assume that the solution must lie with government, and demand ‘regulation.’
We need to reverse our thinking. We should regulate the government, and not the other way around.
You should always be suspicious of any sentence with the phrase ‘government regulation’. Most of the time when someone proposes any kind of government regulation, it is something that will harm the common citizen, help a special interest group and expand the power of an oppressive state. Let me explain.
First of all, let’s take for granted that the fundamental role of the state is to protect the rights of its citizens. It has to maintain the rule of law. In any marketplace, whether of goods, services or ideas, this is all it needs to do. Punish cheats and thieves. Enforce contracts. Ensure that all interactions are voluntary and there is no coercion. It needs to do no more than this.
Now, consider what happens when the government decides to ‘regulate’ something in the ‘public interest’. The state is not a benevolent godlike force that works in society’s best interests. Politics is an interplay of power and money, and those in power have always been captured by special interests. There is already a power imbalance in favour of these special interests. To grant the government more power is to increase that imbalance.
Usually, in any market, competition is the best regulation. A common form of government regulation is to increase entry barriers in a marketplace, thus reducing competition. This hurts the consumers – or us common citizens. It helps entrenched special interests.
This is as true of the marketplace of ideas as it is of the marketplace for goods and services. Social and online media are already subject to laws that fight criminal activity—including many laws against free speech that should not exist. Further regulation is an attempt to protect one set of ideas and intimidate another. This reduces the possibility of dissent. This is bad for democracy.
The issue here is not which party happens to be in power at a given time. Whenever you concede a certain set of powers to a government, imagine the worst possible person in charge. It could be Yogi Adityanath or Sonia Gandhi or Arvind Kejriwal—whoever you dislike most. The state should have so little power, and such strong checks and balances, that the worst person imaginable being in charge will not be a threat to the nation.
So the next time someone proposes government regulation of any kind, with the most noble rhetoric behind it, raise your voice. It is the natural tendency of the state to try to grab as much power as possible. It is the duty of the citizen to resist.
Posted by Amit Varma on 03 June, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 49th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
In next year’s election, only Narendra Modi can beat Narendra Modi. And he might just do it.
I had a strange dream the other night. I dreamed that Narendra Modi was in a room, all alone, surrounded by full-length mirrors. Mirrors to the right of him, mirrors to the left of him, mirrors behind, in front, on the ceiling. He was in an ecstatic frenzy, turning hither, looking thither, admiring himself from every angle. And then, suddenly, he realised that these were not all just reflections. No, all these Narendra Modis in the mirrors were Narendra Modi all right – but they weren’t him. They were all different Narendra Modis, and at any moment, one of them could stride forward and attack him. He must keep an eye on all of them! A Narendra Modi could not be trusted!
Ok, so obviously I did not have that dream – or if I did, I don’t remember it. But I wonder if Modi feels like that sometimes. Surrounded by sycophants, does he feel he has nowhere to turn but to himself? And yet, after all these years of playing to different galleries, who is he really?
Enough metaphysics. The most remarkable thing about Indian politics in this decade is how suddenly and completely it shifted from revolving around one family to revolving around one man. The 2014 elections, like every elections before, was Congress versus Everyone Else – and the Congress is the fiefdom of one family. After 2014, Indian politics remained unipolar, though that pole shifted from being the Congress to being Narendra Modi. Just as all elections until now have been Congress vs Everyone Else, the 2019 elections will be Modi vs Everyone Else. Like him or hate him, you have to hand it to Modi: this is a phenomenal political achievement.
Modi has been helped by the lack of stature of the opposition leaders. I suspect he smiles every time he thinks of Rahul Gandhi. The young Gandhi – Rahul is 47, but still a toddler compared to the doddering dotards of Indian politics – is a shy, graceful man who is almost too nice to be in politics. He is also, despite much coaching and recent efforts to revamp his image, not the sharpest kid on the block.
While a new face of the party, he is also the old face of the party, and has no new vision to offer the country. He lashes out at Modi for all the right reasons, but all he promises is a return to the Congress of old, and he often defends even the disastrous economic policies of his grandmother, Indira. That Congress mindset kept India poor for decades, and it was partly a backlash to that that brought Modi to power. Gandhi does not seem to understand this, and so his party flounders.
But just as Gandhi is a gift to Modi, Modi is a gift to Gandhi. Young Rahul lacks the charisma or vision or political skill to become prime minister on his own, but he may yet get there because someone else might beat Modi for him. That someone else is Modi himself.
I predict that the 2019 elections will be decided entirely by Modi. There will be a fight between a positive vote for him and a negative vote against him. If the negative wins, then by default someone else will take charge. Despite the comic posturing of various regional leaders, it will probably be Gandhi. Lucky lad.
There are various reasons for this negative vote. Reason one: While he continues to excel in optics, he has failed in governance. Demonetisation crippled our economy, the botched implementation of GST hurt it further, and he has carried out no reforms. He has shown the command-and-control mindset of Nehru, who he no doubt has a man-crush on, going by how often he invokes him. And he is Indira’s true heir, both in terms of economics and that authoritarian streak. Law and order is also in bad shape, and the BJP state governments seem particularly clueless.
Reason two: In 2014, Modi put together a brilliant identity-based coalition that is now unsustainable. In UP, for example, the BJP cobbled together an unlikely coalition of the upper castes, non-Yadav OBCs and not-Jatav Dalits. After they won the state elections there, they’d all expect patronage gains, and there’s never enough to go around. Something has to give. The perfect storm that saw the BJP get 71 out of 80 seats in UP, 25 out of 25 in Rajasthan, 27 out of 29 in MP and all 26 in Gujarat cannot be repeated.
Reason 3: In 2014, as people fed up of the previous regime engaged in wishful thinking, Modi could be like a Rorschach test, all things to all people. But those who saw in him a reformer or a statesman should know better now. The ugly, petty venality of some of his electoral utterances – such as his recent jibe at Rahul Gandhi about his Italian roots – might please the converted, but are sure to repel others.
Reason 4: His shudh Hindi is impressive, but the South is fed up. You can’t condescend to Tamilians. You can’t tell Keralites not to eat beef. I don’t think the BJP think tank even understands South India.
When Modi came to power, someone in the know told me that Modi was boasting about being in power for at least 10 years. A couple of years ago, I would have thought it likely. 2019 seemed like a done deal. But nuh huh, not anymore. Modi might lose next year, struck down by the man in his mirror.
Posted by Amit Varma on 11 May, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 48th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
Twenty-20 cricket is the best thing that happened to cricket. It will keep Test cricket alive – and make it better.
The next few weeks will be hard on cricket purists. They will sit in the dark, drink whisky and listen to ghazals by Ghulam Ali. After months of exciting Test cricket, the IPL will dominate the headlines. The wives of these purists—for they are almost always men—will dress in scanty clothes and wear make-up to try and cheer them up. But their husbands will think of coloured pajamas and Russian cheerleaders, and gloom will descend like a fog that no fast bowler can penetrate.
I am a cricket purist. I love Test cricket. But if God existed, I would thank Her for Her kindness in bringing about the IPL. T20 cricket is the best thing that happened to cricket – and if five-day cricket is still alive 30 years from now, it will be because of the four-hour version of the game. Lest you think I am yanking your chain—and there is a special joy to trolling purists of any kind—let me lay out the four reasons for my saying this.
One, T20 leagues like the IPL increased opportunities for players. Before they came along, cricket was a monopsony. A monopsony is a marketplace with only one buyer. If an Indian player wanted to play at the highest level, he would have only one buyer for his services: the Indian team, or the BCCI. And to get there, he would first have to perform for his state association, and so on down the line. If he was treated unfairly somewhere because of bias or politics or nepotism, he would have no options.
But within a league like the IPL, there are multiple buyers for your services. The more the number of buyers, the more empowered a seller is, and the greater the price for his services. No wonder so many cricketers make a good living today, as compared to the past.
Two, there is more efficient discovery of talent. Consider incentives. A BCCI babu’s job, at any level, depends on politics, and not on how well he finds or grooms talent. (In any case, what can you compare his performance with?) But in the IPL, the bottom line of all the teams depend on how well they perform. As a matter of survival, they have to find and groom the best talent. The incentives are right, which is why all the IPL sides have excellent talent scouts, and so many fine players have emerged from this league.
Three, T20 cricket has led to the development of new skills. The compressed format of the game—only 20 overs for 11 players—has led to the cost of the dot ball rising and the cost of a wicket falling. Batsmen need to bat faster, and have developed new skills as a result: consider the 360-degree game of AB deVilliers, for example. Fielding and fitness levels have taken a quantum leap upwards—and despite the false cliché about this being a batsman’s game, so has bowling. A list of players who have had the greatest impact in recent seasons of the IPL will be filled with the names of bowlers like Bhuvi, Bumrah, Unadkat and Narine.
These skills enhance the other forms of the game as well. Batsmen counter-attack more in Test cricket—and bowlers figure out more ways of keeping them quiet or getting them out. There’s an added element to the drama.
Four, T20 cricket has made the game financially viable. Through most of the last century, Indians had just two forms of entertainment: cricket and Bollywood. No wonder there was an audience for five-day epics. But there are so many ways to pass the time today. The opportunity cost of a Test match is five days, and even that of a one-day match is eight hours. People don’t have so much time to spend on a sport. Even my fellow purists don’t actually watch enough Test cricket to make it profitable.
If the eyeballs are not there, where will the money come from?
There are many good arguments for T20 cricket. It has given a better life to cricketers, expanded the talent pool, enhanced the skills in the game. But the most important one if that by bringing down a match to the length of a football or tennis game, it has expanded the audience for the game. Cricket would otherwise have died. Now it won’t. Earnings from T20 cricket will subsidize the other forms of the game – and Test cricket will survive only because of this.
So all you cricket purists, put away your cassettes of Ghulam Ali ghazals, and stream some party music instead. Life is good.
Earlier pieces by me on this subject:
Opportunity, choice and the IPL (2008)
The Lesson From This IPL: Frontload Your Innings (2014)
Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Lamborghini (2015)
The New Face of Cricket (2015)
What Cricket Can Learn From Economics (2016)
National Highway 420 (and the EV of Aggressive Batting) (2016)
The Winning Mantra for this IPL: Attack, Attack, Attack (2017)
Posted by Amit Varma on 06 April, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 47th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
Narendra Modi seems to have one answer for every attack on him. But Jawaharlal has been dead for 54 years.
The Candidates tournament for the World Chess Championship is going on right now. Eight of the best chess players in the world are playing each other twice for 14 rounds of gruelling action. The winner will take on World Champion Magnus Carlsen for the title later this year. It is a close tournament and anyone can win, but I am a chess nostalgic with a fondness for symmetry, and I’m rooting for Vladimir Kramnik.
Kramnik first won the title at the turn of the century, beating Garry Kasparov at his peak. His masterstroke in that match was reviving an old opening for black called the Berlin Defence. Kasparov could not breach that wall, and the Berlin has since become an impregnable cliché in grandmaster circles.
This tournament is being held in Berlin, and I write this column after the third round, in which Kramnik played the Berlin against pre-tournament favourite Levon Aronian and won a spectacular game to go into the lead. It is as if the fates gathered around and decided, He revived the Berlin. Now Berlin will revive him.
Back in India, on the political chess board, Narendra Modi has found a similar defence for all seasons. It’s called the Nehru Defence. No matter what attack is unveiled against him, he counters it with the Nehru defence. Economy’s doing badly? Nehru started it. Problems in Kashmir? Nehru, doh. Modi hugs foreign leaders too much? Nehru hugged Edwina.
Well, not the last, but you get the drift. The obvious response to the Nehru Defence this is to point out that Nehru died in 1964. What he may or may not have done is irrelevant to Modi’s performance now. Modi may not like many of the policies that exist today because of Nehru, but hey, he got a mandate in 2014 to overturn them. Why hasn’t he?
There were a host of reforms Modi could have carried out in the last four years to make India more free. He hasn’t implemented any of them. Indeed, he has shown the same command-and-control mindset that was Nehru’s great failing. He has combined it with the authoritarianism of Nehru’s daughter, Indira, who he most resembles. If he hates them, then he hates them so much that he loves them. His actions indicate that he wants to be them.
What irritates me more than the irrationality and dishonesty of the Nehru Defence is how the discourse has been shaped by it. Everybody is thinking in binaries. One side thinks Nehru was a monster who ravaged India. The other side thinks Nehru was a great statesman who built everything that is good about this country. Both these narratives hold some truth, but you’re not allowed to acknowledge both. Either Nehru was evil or he was a God. You are either a patriot or an anti-national, depending on which simplistic fairy tale you believe.
These binaries apply to everything today, not just Nehru. This is a form of historical revisionism. Nothing can be grey any more. Everything must be black or white. You must take sides. Any attempt at nuance is considered a cop-out, and both sides could come after you. So it makes sense to either be unflinchingly partisan – or to stay shut altogether. And when those who care about nuance withdraw from the conversation, we are left with Republic TV.
Think about what this does to the discourse. Let’s continue the chess analogy. Aronian, Kramnik’s hapless victim and a cultured, thoughtful man, once said that a game of chess was like a conversation. One player asks a question; the other replies, and asks one herself; and so on, in the mutual quest for truth. I found this analogy moving – and also heartbreaking, because there is no space for such a respectful conversation in Indian politics.
If they play chess at all, the two sides in our politics – and there are two now, because of the forced binaries – are playing not against each other, but against imaginary opponents on adjacent chess boards. They are talking past each other, and each is convinced of possession of the truth. One side repeatedly plays the Nehru Defence. The other side, on the other board, plays I-don’t-even-know-what, it’s not coherent.
Maybe the game in question is not chess at all. Maybe it is mud-wrestling. And maybe in some parallel universe, a man in a pinstripe suit with a name on it wrestles a man in a sherwani. The man in the sherwani has been dead for 54 years, so he keeps getting flung to the ground. Finally, unable to take the gratuitous posthumous humiliation, he springs back to life and catches the man in the pinstripe suit, and then something strikes his eye. He realises that the name on the pinstripe suit of his opponent is not ‘Narendra Modi’ but ‘Jawaharlal Nehru’. What kind of man wears a suit like that?
Posted by Amit Varma on 16 March, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 46th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
Inequality and poverty are different problems, requiring different, even opposite, solutions. India’s problem is poverty.
Let me begin this column with a question, dear reader, which I urge you to read carefully and answer before reading on:
In which of these two countries would you rather be poor: the USA or Bangladesh?
Most people I ask this to go, Duh, of course I’d rather be poor in the US than in Bangladesh. Well, here’s something I’d like you to consider: the USA has far greater inequality than Bangladesh does. A measure called the Gini Index measures inequality across the world, and the USA, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United Kingdom all have greater inequality than Bangladesh, Liberia, Pakistan and Sierra Leone. And yet, that second group of countries is by far poorer than the first group
It has become fashionable these days, especially in elite, privileged circles, to agitate about inequality. But as my question and the data above make clear, inequality and poverty are very different things. Some of the poorest countries in the world are among the most equal. (Some Communist countries of the last century came close to achieving equality in poverty.)
So here’s my contention, in three propositions:
One: India’s big problem is poverty.
Two: The more we reduce poverty, the more we are likely to increase inequality.
Three: It is perverse, therefore, to worry about inequality. We should only keep our eye on poverty, and not worry if inequality goes up.
There is a fundamental fallacy at the root of the obsession with inequality. We think of the world in zero-sum ways. That is, we behave as if there is a fixed pie, and the rich can only become richer if the poor become poorer. In this vision of the world, the more inequality increases, the more abject the suffering of the poor. Redistribution is the only solution.
And yet, this narrative is wrong. The world is not zero-sum but positive-sum. The size of the pie increases with every voluntary transaction. Every time I buy a cup of coffee from a café, both the café and I are better off – otherwise we would not have transacted to begin with. The amount of value in the world has gone up.
The more you allow and enable such voluntary exchange, the more people trade to mutual benefit, and we all become better off. And the larger these economic networks of voluntary exchange, the greater the scope for such mutual enrichment. That is why people migrate to cities from villages, and rarely the other way around.
In fact, within a country, cities are far more unequal than villages are. If inequality was such a bad thing, why would so many poor people vote with their feet by migrating to cities? They embrace this greater inequality because they want to escape poverty.
The reason India remained a poor country for so many decades after Independence is that, with the zero-sum vision of our leaders, we frowned upon free markets. While the rest of Asia shot ahead, we restrained the natural ingenuity and enterprise of our people with our mai-baap vision of politics. We did reform a bit in 1991, but too little and too late. Our poverty levels did go down a bit, though, even as we grew more unequal, illustrating the fact that there is no correlation at all between poverty and inequality.
I don’t want to talk only in terms of abstract ideas, so let me illustrate one way in which reducing poverty would raise inequality. There is consensus among economists today, even left-wing ones, that we have crippled our manufacturing sector for decades with a series of bad laws, such as our labour laws, which don’t allow small businesses to grow, and force much of our nation into the informal sector. These regulations stopped us from becoming a manufacturing superpower like China. What would happen if these restrictions were to magically disappear one day?
You would have growth in the manufacturing industry. There is no question that there would be far more employment generated, which would reduce poverty. You would also have some of these businesses achieving scale and becoming behemoths. Poverty would go down and our per-capita income would go up; but because of the winners at the top, inequality would also go up. Would this be a bad thing? I don’t think so.
The zero-sum instinct is ingrained in us: we evolved in prehistoric times when we lived in small tribes amid scarcity, and the positive-sum view of the world would have been unintuitive. It is also natural to resent the super-rich among us, especially when they behave in ostentatious, obnoxious ways, and game the system with their money, which happens a lot in our crony socialist state. Maybe a country that has eliminated poverty can have the luxury to think about Inequality. But not us.
It is a moral shame that seven decades after Independence, we still have millions of people living in poverty. We need to fight this. We should not be distracted by false metrics.
Posted by Amit Varma on 09 February, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 45th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
Alpha Zero’s achievement in chess is staggering. It showcases a quantum leap for Artificial Intelligence.
If there is one thing that sets human beings apart from other species, it is this: we think too much of ourselves. Just because we lucked upon opposable thumbs and a powerful brain, both of which allowed us to dominate other species, we behave as if we are masters of the universe. It’s pathetic. We’re bawling babies in front of a bacterial onslaught, and we will soon find ourselves inadequate in front of machines that we ourselves will make. It is time for humility.
A few days ago, Alpha Zero beat Stockfish. We humans talk about Ali-Foreman and Federer-Nadal and Fischer-Spassky, but the most momentous match in human history might well have been the chess match between these two machines. But first, some context.
Here’s the Artificial Intelligence context. In 1950, when AI was in the realm of science fiction, Alan Turing came up with the Turing Test. Wikipedia defines this as “a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.” So if you’re having a text conversation with a party you cannot see, a machine would pass the Turing Test if you do not realise that it is a machine. I would hold that AI has achieved this easily, although many humans would probably fail. (Check out Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.)
Here’s the chess context. Until the early 1990s, the thought of a computer beating a human in chess was laughable. But technology progressed quickly, and in 1997 a machine called Deep Blue beat the then-World Champion, Garry Kasparov. Computers soon left humans far behind. Today, a program on your smartphone can thrash the best player in the world.
Now, you’d imagine that this would mean the end of chess. Everyone would use computers in their analysis and pedagogy, and we’d all start playing like machines. But exactly the opposite happened, and chess was instead enriched.
There was once a study that aimed to see how many moves a grandmaster and a novice could think ahead in a game of chess. The answer was that they saw the same number of moves ahead, but the GM saw the right ones. Learning chess is less about calculation and more about pattern recognition and heuristics. The more you play, the more patterns you learn to instinctively recognise, with an understanding of how they interact with other patterns. A strong player can glance at a position on the board and understand its salient aspects.
And then, the heuristics. Heuristics are simple rules that allow people to make decisions. For example, a chess player will be taught that it is important to occupy the center early, to take her king to safety by castling, to develop her pieces as much as she can, and so on. Now, humans cannot possibly calculate everything on the chess board. (The number of possible positions in a 40-move game is greater than the number of electrons in the observable universe.) So they use shortcuts – or these heuristics.
All humans learn chess by learning heuristics. These have evolved over centuries, and are a common body of knowledge that every player has to learn to reach a certain level. The famous Soviet School of Chess was the embodiment of this. Given this common body of knowledge, chess players actually played in a similar way, with individual style appearing on the margins.
Computers did not need heuristics, because they had the computing power to actually calculate every move and every position. (This is called ‘brute force’.) This did not make chess more homogenous, but less, as computers looked beyond the set of heuristics that were instinctive for players. This meant that the new generation of players who used chess programs as an analytical tool were no longer bound to the dogmas of the past, useful as they were. All the principles earlier generations had learned had exceptions, and all the exceptions could be explored using these programs.
As a result, the current generation of players has more stylistic variation than ones before. Younger players think about the game in unique ways that older ones can’t fathom, and is outside their playbook. And while all top players use programs like Stockfish for analysis, none of them plays games against it because Stockfish would thrash them, and it would be too demoralising. It’s like trying to race a car.
So what did Alpha Zero do? Well, Alpha Zero was built by Deep Mind, an AI division of Google. It is a self-learning program, and the rules of chess were fed into it, but nothing else. No opening databases, no heuristics. It played against itself for four hours to learn the game. Then it played Stockfish in a 100-game match. Alpha Zero won 28 games, and the rest were drawn. After four hours of learning, it beat a chess program into which years of development had gone.
Astonishingly, Alpha Zero achieved this by playing like a human. While Stockfish examined 70 million positions per second, Alpha Zero looked at only 80,000. While teaching itself chess, it discovered, developed and then used heuristics that seem to go beyond the ones humans discovered. For example, human are taught not to move the same piece multiple times in the opening when others lie undeveloped. Alpha Zero did this again and again, favouring activity over development. It also made long-term positional sacrifices, with no immediate gain, which machines otherwise do not do.
The games released by Alpha Zero are spectacular. Alpha Zero plays like a human, but an enhanced human. The grandmaster Peter Heine Nielsen, Magnus Carlsen’s coach, told chess.com: “After reading the paper but especially seeing the games I thought, well, I always wondered how it would be if a superior species landed on earth and showed us how they play chess. I feel now I know.”
The implications of the Deep Learning that Alpha Zero demonstrates are fantastic and unfathomable, and not just for chess. AI is already embedded in our lives – your smartphone would have seemed like science fiction in 1990 – and will become more so. It has become fashionable to be worried about AI, but I am optimistic. Technology will make us all better versions of ourselves – and that journey begins by accepting that we aren’t all that awesome to begin with.
Posted by Amit Varma on 15 December, 2017 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This op-ed of mine was published in the Hindu today.
Politicians like Trump and Modi play to our worst impulses as people believe what they want to believe.
The most surprising thing about these Gujarat elections is that people are so surprised at our prime minister’s rhetoric. Narendra Modi has eschewed all talk of development, and has played to the worst impulses of the Gujarati people. His main tool is Hindu-Muslim polarisation, which is reflected in the crude language he uses for his opponents. The Congress has a ‘Mughlai’ mentality, they are ushering in an ‘Aurangzeb Raj’, and their top leaders are conspiring with Pakistan to make sure Modi loses. A BJP spokesperson has called Rahul Gandhi a ‘Babar Bhakt’ and ‘Kin of Khilji.’ None of this is new.
Modi’s rhetoric in the heat of campaigning has always come from the gutter. From his references to ‘Mian Musharraf’ over a decade ago to the ‘kabristan-shamshaan’ comments of the recent UP elections, it has been clear that the Otherness of Muslims is central to the BJP playbook. Hate drives more people to the polling booth than warm, fuzzy feelings of pluralism. But, the question is, are the Congress leaders really conspiring with Pakistan to make sure the BJP lose?
Answer: It doesn’t matter.
A Disregard for Truth
In 1986, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote an essay named ‘On Bullshit’, which was published as a book on 2005 and became a surprise bestseller. The book attempts to arrive at “a theoretical understanding of bullshit.” The key difference between a liar and a bullshitter, Frankfurt tells us, is that the liar knows the truth and aims to deceive. The bullshitter, on the other hand, doesn’t care about the truth. He is “neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false,” in Frankfurt’s words. “His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.”
The bullshitter is wise, for he has cottoned on to an important truth that has become more and more glaring in these modern times: that facts don’t matter. And to understand why, I ask you to go back with me in time to another seminal book, this one published in 1922.
The first chapter of Public Opinion, by the American journalist Walter Lippmann, is titled ‘The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads.’ In it, Lippmann makes the point that all of us have a version of the world inside our heads that resembles, but is not identical to, the world as it is. “The real environment,” he writes, “is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance.”
We construct a version of the world in our heads, and feed that version, for modifying it too much will require too much effort. If facts conflict with it, we ignore those facts, and accept only those that conform to our worldview. (Cognitive psychologists call this the ‘Confirmation Bias’.)
Lippmann sees this as a challenge for democracy, for how are we to elect our leaders if we cannot comprehend the impact they will have on the world?
A Fragmented Media
I would argue that this is a far greater problem today than it was in Lippmann’s time. Back then, and until a couple of decades ago, there was a broad consensus on the truth. There were gatekeepers to information and knowledge. Even accounting for biases, the mainstream media agreed on some basic facts. That has changed. The media is fragmented, there are no barriers to entry, and the mainstream media no longer has a monopoly of the dissemination of information. This is a good thing, with one worrying side effect: whatever beliefs or impulses we might have – the earth is flat, the Jews carried out 9/11, India is a Hindu nation – we can find plenty of ‘evidence’ for it online, and connect with likeminded people. Finding others who share our beliefs makes us more strident, and soon we form multiple echo chambers that become more and more extreme. Polarisation increases. The space in the middle disappears. And the world inside our heads, shared by so many other, becomes impervious to facts.
This also means that impulses we would otherwise not express in polite society find validation, and a voice. Here’s another book you should read: in 1997, the sociologist Timur Kuran wrote Private Truths, Public Lies in which he coined the term ‘Preference Falsification’. There are many things we feel or believe but do not express because we fear social opprobrium. But as soon as we realise that others share our views, we are emboldened to express ourselves. This leads to a ‘Preference Cascade’: Kuran gives the example of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but an equally apt modern illustration is the rise of right-wing populists everywhere. I believe – and I apologize if this is too depressing to contemplate – that the majority of us are bigots, misogynists, racists, and tribal in our thinking. We have always been this way, but because liberal elites ran the media, and a liberal consensus seemed to prevail, we did not express these feelings. Social media showed us that we were not alone, and gave us the courage to express ourselves.
That’s where Donald Trump comes from. That’s where Modi comes from. Our masses vote for these fine gentlemen not in spite of their bigotry and misogyny, but because of it. Trump and Modi provide them a narrative that feeds the world inside their heads. Mexicans are rapists, foreigners are bad, Muslims are stealing our girls, gaumutra cures cancer – and so on. The truth is irrelevant. Facts. Don’t. Matter.
Think about the implication of this. This means that the men and women who wrote our constitution were an out-of-touch elite, and the values they embedded in it were not shared by most of the nation. (As a libertarian, I think our constitution was deeply flawed because it did not do enough to protect individual rights, but our society’s consensus would probably be that it did too much.) The ‘Idea of India’ that these elites spoke of was never India’s Idea of India. These ‘liberal’ values were imposed on an unwilling nation – and is such imposition, ironically, not deeply illiberal itself? This is what I call The Liberal Paradox.
All the ugliness in our politics today is the ugliness of the human condition. This is how we are. This is not a perversion of democracy but an expression of it. Those of us who are saddened by it – the liberal elites, libertarians like me – have to stop feeling entitled, and get down to work. The alt-right guru Andrew Breitbart once said something I never get tired of quoting: “Politics is downstream of Culture.” A political victory will now not come until there is a social revolution. Where will it begin?
Posted by Amit Varma on 14 December, 2017 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 44th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
A horror film from 1980 anticipated the Age of Instagram. And it is indeed a horror.
William Shakespeare was once confronted by his girlfriend. “You pretended to be so gentle and millennial while wooing me,” she said, “and then you go and write Titus Andronicus. What’s going on in that head of yours?”
“All the world’s a stage,” replied Willy, “and we are all performing. Even I don’t know what I really am.”
We live in performative times. Peeps on Twitter are signalling virtue, peeps on Instagram are documenting what they want others to believe their life is like, and solitary loners are blogging about their solitary aloneness. All this merely makes explicit what was true for humans all along: we’re putting on an act.
I thought of this recently while watching a masterpiece released in 1980: Cannibal Holocaust. This was one in a wave of Italian cannibal movies that came along in the late 70s and early 80s, and was directed by Ruggero Deodato, known to the French as ‘Monsieur Cannibal’. His work influenced directors like Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth. After Cannibal Holocaust, his ninth film, was released, Sergio Leone wrote to him to say: “Dear Ruggero, what a movie! The second part is a masterpiece of cinematographic realism, but everything seems so real that I think you will get in trouble with all the world.”
He did. He was arrested because it was believed that the murders that took place in the film were real ones, and it was a snuff film, such was the realism with which it was shot. The actors had to show up in court to prove that they were alive. The film was banned in more than 50 countries, before which it grossed US$ 200 million worldwide.
In the film, a group of documentary filmmakers go off into the Amazon jungle to make a documentary about cannibal tribes. They go missing. A rescue team led by an American anthropologist goes off in search of them. After numerous adventures, they discover the mutilated bodies of the filmmakers – and all the footage that they shot. They bring this back to New York.
This footage is like a film within a film within a film, because the filmmakers are like conceited millennials instagramming everything. Whatever you see on camera is a performance, and they record everything, even sex. They are stars of their own reality show. They will use only some of what they shoot, but they shoot almost compulsively. It feels like an addiction.
A few days into the trip, their guide is bitten by a snake. They record his pain. They amputate his leg to save him. They record the aftermath. They leave him to die. The camera is on all the time.
When they reach the tribes, they need spectacular footage, so they stage a massacre, forcing tribe members into a hut, setting it on fire and not letting them escape. This is for their documentary. (For a previous documentary, we are told, they had incited executions in war-torn countries so that they’d get some dramatic footage.) What happens next is not for the documentary.
They trap a tribal girl, and gang-rape her. Every detail of this is filmed, with one man handing over the camera to another when his turn comes. Later, they come across the girl impaled on a wooden stick, and find it hard to hide their glee at getting such a great shot. They do a pop-sociological explanation for the camera by saying she was killed because she lost her virginity.
Later, the tribe comes for revenge. As they scurry through the jungle, one of the two cameramen is hit by a spear. The director shoots him so they can get footage of him being mutilated by the tribals, and tells the other guy, “Keep filming, Mark.” They do, as the tribals cut off their captive’s penis, decapitate him, hack his body into pieces and then cook and eat him.
Then they are on the run again, the director speaking to the camera as they run. His girlfriend, the lone woman in the group, is caught and dragged away. He decides not to try to rescue her, with the surviving cameraman reminding him of his priorities. “Think of the film! Think of the film!”
They follow, they shoot. The girl is stripped, raped, hacked, decapitated. The tribals hold her head aloft and celebrate – and then notice the filmmakers in the bushes, who keep the camera on. The last shot of the footage is the bleeding face of the director besides the fallen camera, and you have to wonder at what point he snapped out of his filming state and realised that this was real. The horror of that moment!
The film was controversial for other reasons. Although no humans were murdered, six animals were killed live on film. With each death, the director cuts off the sound to play the elegant score by Riz Ortolani, and that repeats when the human deaths are filmed. This is also commentary.
Interesting trivia: years later, Deodato played a sophisticated cannibal in one of my favourite scenes in Eli Roth’s Hostel 2. He walks into the room, elegantly slices off a piece of thigh from a conscious captive, and then proceeds to sit at a table and eat it, as a theme from Bizet’s Carmen plays in the background.
Roth was inspired by Deodato, and I consider Hostel 1 and 2 to be great films as well. Isn’t this odd, that I find social commentary in horror films? No, it isn’t. Given what human nature is like, there is no genre more apt.
If you have the stomach for it, you can watch Cannibal Holocaust here. NSFW, trigger warning, etc etc.
Posted by Amit Varma on 24 November, 2017 in
Arts and entertainment |
Essays and Op-Eds |
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 |
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:
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.’
Politics = Bribery
The Great Redistribution
Posted by Amit Varma on 22 September, 2017 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
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 |
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:
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 |
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.
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.
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
Essays and Op-Eds |
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 |
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 |
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:
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.
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
Essays and Op-Eds |
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.
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.
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
Essays and Op-Eds
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
Essays and Op-Eds |
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 |
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 |
This is an essay I wrote last week for the magazine I edit, Pragati.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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 |
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
Essays and Op-Eds |
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.
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
Essays and Op-Eds |
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 |
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 |
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!”
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 |
Science and Technology |
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.
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 |
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 |
Essays and Op-Eds |