Category Archives: Lighthouse
This is the 27th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
One of the great things about social media is that we talk to each other much more. I am not being ironic: because of Facebook alone, I know much more about my friends than I would otherwise. I am also in touch with many more people than I would otherwise be, especially old friends. This is useful as one gets middle-aged. At some point around 40, the world starts to narrow and goes on narrowing. Social media keeps it broad, and even recluses stay up-to-date and tip-top, as they’d say back in my day. One could argue that this sense of connection is synthetic, even pathetic, and has no connection with the real world out there. One could also argue that there is only one world, and it is in our heads; and anything in our heads, it follows, is in the real world.
This column is not about the personal, though, but the political. There is far more political awareness among young people today than there was when I was growing up in the 1980s. When I was a teenager, I did not know the difference between left-wing and right-wing, and my informed opinion of Rajiv Gandhi was that he was handsome. Today, 12-year-olds have vociferous opinions and are signing online petitions when they are not on hunger strikes in between meals. Political discourse has increased exponentially in volume; but how much is noise and how much is signal?
There were hopes that social media would lead to a virtual global town square where informed citizens could debate with one another. Instead, it has led to a conglomeration of echo chambers, some of them truly bizarre. No matter what you believe in, you can now find hordes of like-minded people online, and be reassured by the validation they provide. This has lead to a phenomenon that social scientists call ‘group polarisation’. The economist Cass Sunstein defines it thus: “When like-minded people deliberate, they typically end up adopting a more extreme position in line with their pre-deliberation inclinations.”
Thus, we find that most political discussion online consists of people talking past each other. And when they do talk to each other, it isn’t pretty. Anonymity (or even physical distance) turns mice into tigers, and most political discussions online turn personal really fast. If you want to dominate a discussion, you ignore the issues involved and attack the person instead. There are three key ways in which this happens.
One, you accuse your opponent of hypocrisy. (This is also known as Whatboutery.) So if someone talks about the 2002 Gujarat riots, you go, ‘But what about the 1984 Delhi riots? I didn’t see you condemn that?’ If someone points to a Muslim lynched by a Hindu mob, you say, ‘What about that Hindu social worker killed by Bangladeshi migrants in Assam?’ If they defend the free speech of a member of phallana community, you say, what about dhimkana community, where were you when they were censored? Not just trolls, all politicians do exactly this.
When Arvind Kejriwal was questioned about the hundreds of crores of taxpayers’ money he spent on running ads for the Delhi government, he replied, ‘But the BJP also does this. Why don’t you question them?’ There is no end to such Whataboutery—and you will note that on every such instance, the original issue is soon forgotten, and the fight centers on the hypocrisy of the complainant.
Two, you question the intent of your opponent. She could be a CIA agent, a pinko stooge of the Chinese, a lackey for the corporates, a ‘paid audience’ or a ‘presstitute’, in that colourful coinage of a retired army general with that typical Indian penchant for tasteless puns. Ah yes, she could also be anti-national, trying to break up the country. Any issue they raise, they can be told, ‘Ah, but you have an agenda for kicking up a storm. We’re on to you!’
This can be combined most effectively with Whataboutery. For example, if the Congress raises the issue of a corruption scandal in the BJP government, the BJP can say that their intent in raising this matter is to divert attention from their own scam from a week ago. What about that? This can even get recursive. (To visualise this process, imagine fractals.)
Three, you categorise your opponents by applying a pejorative label on them, and then dismiss that entire category as being beneath contempt, thus removing the need to engage with it. This happens across the spectrum. Just go on Twitter, and you’ll find it packed with ‘bhakts’ and ‘aaptards’ and ‘adarsh liberals’ and ‘sickulars’ and so on. Once you apply such a label to someone, you do not need to engage with them in reasoned debate.
Attacking the person instead of the argument is an ancient tradition—some intrepid historian might even find that it is of Indian origin. I have just enumerated the three most common ways of doing this. There are many other ways of appearing to win an argument within even engaging with it to begin with. Check out ‘38 Ways to Win an Argument’, by Arthur Schopenhauer and you will see some examples. They include noble techniques such as shifting goalposts, attacking straw men and appeals to authority. The 38th of them is masterful, and one that many Twitteratti are adept at: ‘Become personal, insulting and rude as soon as you perceive that your opponent has the upper hand.’
Most delighfully, you can not only resort to this, but you can immediately turn the tables with some canny projection when your opponent reacts in anger. He’ll be like, ‘What the fuck did you just call me?’ And you go, ‘Don’t use bad language, did you just say “fuck”? You are clearly not capable of reasoned discourse.’
In a sense, this gets to the heart of the matter. The whole point of political discourse seems not to be political but personal. When we take a point of view, we make an assertion not about the state of the world but about ourselves. Our ideologies become a proxy for personal statements: ‘I am compassionate.’ ‘I am righteous.’ ‘I am clever enough to engineer society.’ Many of our actions in the political sphere are not meant to actually affect change, but to show our nobility. And because our positions are so tied to our identity, any attack on them is an attack on us. We react viscerally. It feels personal; so we get personal.
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Also read: My old column written just when the Twitter started getting crazy in India, Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims.
Posted by Amit Varma on 13 May, 2016 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 26th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
Is there anything that cricket can learn from economics? Over the decade-and-a-half that I have written on both these subjects, I’ve come to believe that understanding and applying the principles of economics can enrich the way we live our lives. It follows, then, that all economic concepts can also be applied to cricket.
This is especially relevant at the time of writing these words, when the Twenty20 World Cup has just come to an end. I was delighted that West Indies deservedly won the cup; and saddened that a number of teams, including India, made basic errors because they did not understand one fundamental economic concept: Opportunity Cost.
The term ‘opportunity cost’ was coined by the 19th century economist Friedrich von Wieser, and its simplest definition is: ‘the loss of other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.’ The online site Investopedia defines it as “the cost of an alternative that must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action.” Let me illustrate that with an example.
Say you step out of your office one muggy evening, and have Rs. 300 in your pocket. You feel like drinking a refreshing frappe at a nearby café; and you also feel like taking an AC cab home instead of your normal bus-train routine. The thing is, you only have enough money for one of them. So you go for immediate gratification and get that frappe. The opportunity cost of the frappe is the cab ride home.
Every banal decision in our lives involves opportunity cost. Do I watch TV or read a book? Do I go out with friends or spend time with family? When I choose to spend an evening watching Batman vs Superman, the cost of that decision is not just the price of the ticket and the popcorn, but all the things I could have done with that time.
Understanding opportunity cost is important because it helps us navigate the one fundamental truth about this world: scarcity. Everything is scarce: there is never enough money; or enough time; or enough energy. We have to negotiate scarce resources, which is why all our decisions carry costs. And as the economist James Buchanan said, the concept of opportunity costs “expresses the basic relationship between scarcity and choice.”
Cricket is no exception to these laws of nature. Within a cricket match, there are two kinds of scarcity that a captain or coach must contend with. One is a scarcity of time. The match can only last either five days or 50 overs per side or 20 overs per side. The second is a scarcity of resources. A team can only have eleven players.
Strategy in cricket boils down to negotiating between these two constraints of time and resources. For example, if a team needs 250 runs to win a Test match with two full days in hand, and are 18 for 2 against fired-up new-ball bowlers, they should be more worried about running out of batting resources than about running out of time. That would be a good time for careful consolidation. In contrast, in an ODI, if a team needs 15 to win in one over with eight wickets in hand, they are running out of time but not batting resources. This is a time to hit out and run for everything, and not to preserve wickets.
Every decision carries an opportunity cost. When a batsman shoulders arms to a ball outside off stump, that decision carries the opportunity cost of the runs that might have been scored off it. When he tries to drive it and instead edges it to slip, his action bears the opportunity cost of the runs he might have scored later had he not played that shot. These are opposite actions, and to evaluate which is appropriate in any situation, you need to consider the relative scarcities of time and resources.
Now, here’s where it applies to T20 cricket. Each side gets 20 overs to bat instead of the 50 they would in an ODI; but they still have 11 players! The balance between resources and time has shifted – but many teams haven’t adjusted to this. They apply the ODI innings-building template to T20s: hit out in the powerplay, taking care to consolidate if early wickets fall, then build the innings till the slog overs, then have a slog. This is wrong. It is a waste of resources – and it also allows the bowling side to allocate bowling resources optimally, with specialist death bowlers bowling at the end. What would they do if every over was a slog over?
The teams should adjust to this new dynamic by ‘frontloading’ – a concept I first wrote about in this context a couple of years ago. They should go for their strokes right from the start. If catastrophe comes and four wickets fall in the space of 10 balls, they can dial it back and look to bat all 20 overs so as not to waste the resource of time – but otherwise, they are wasting the batting resources available to them.
The optimal approach in a T20 game is to treat your first three overs as if they’re the last three. On average you will make as many as you would in the last three. Sometimes you will click and the momentum continues. Sometimes wickets will fall, and you can adjust accordingly, and still not make less than you would have with the traditional strategy.
Teams are wisening up to this, and both the finalists of this T20 World Cup frontloaded through the tournament – but India did not, to my dismay. In their semi-final, India made 192 for 2 and the wicket column alone tells you what was wrong with their approach. By losing only two wickets, consider the strokeplaying resources India left unused: Raina, Pandey, Pandya, Jadeja, even Ashwin at 9. Our middle overs were consumed by Ajinkya Rahane making 40 off 35, which was a criminal waste. Consider the opportunity cost: had Rahane been out while on 20 off 18, do you really think that this army of hitters would not have made way more than the 20 off 17 he eventually added?
This is not Rahane’s fault per se: he is a fantastic Test player, but he doesn’t have a fourth gear and this is the best he can do. It’s the fault of the selectors and the decision makers within the team who ignored this key lesson of T20 cricket. (To be fair to MS Dhoni, though, CSK usually frontloaded in the IPL under him.) It is also the fault of those pundits who will praise an innings of 50 off 40 without considering the opportunity cost, and the unused resources in the pavilion.
Teams will learn, though, and T20 cricket will continue to flourish. This is the future of the sport. Indeed, Test cricket might die out altogether, for reasons that can also be explained by economics. As the number of options to spend our time keep increasing, so does the opportunity cost of watching Test cricket. What is five days worth to you?
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The lesson from this IPL: Front-load your innings (2014)
Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Lamborghini (2015)
The New Face of Cricket (2015)
Posted by Amit Varma on 08 April, 2016 in
This is the 25th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
We live in strange times. A few days ago, my friend and fellow libertarian, the writer Shikha Sood Dalmia, posted on Facebook: ‘Am I going mad or is the world? In America, I’m rooting for a Democrat and in India I’m defending a bloody communist!’
I was doing the same. In America, the bigoted, nativist, protectionist Donald Trump was dominating the Republican primaries, unleashing invective of the sort that usually only anonymous online trolls dare to express. In India, Narendra Modi’s government carried out a venal persecution of a few university students, based on doctored videos and a fake tweet. They arrested one of them for sedition, who was then beaten up by lawyers in the courthouse as the police looked on passively. My support, instinctively, went to the Democrats in the US; and to the beleaguered communist students in India.
What is going on here? How can a man like Trump be on the verge of leading the party of Abraham Lincoln? Why is Indian politics slipping back into crude tribalism just when India should finally be marching towards modernity? Could there be one answer to both these questions?
A few days ago, the American columnist Glenn Reynolds wrote a piece titled ‘A Trump wave is on the way.’ To explain the Trump phenomenon, Reynolds cited a book by sociologist Timur Kuran, Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification.
Say you are at a dinner party at your boss’s place. The food is terrible: the dal makhni has no salt, the butter chicken has too much tomato puree. Your boss asks how you like the food. You murmur your appreciation, as you’ve seen others on the table do. You are hiding your actual preference in order to fit in or avoid social awkwardness. This is ‘preference falsification’. Everyone at the table may have hated the food—but everyone may think that everyone else loved it.
Preference falsification can have grave consequences. Kuran cites the Soviet Union as an example. The Soviets used the strong arm of the state to clamp down on free speech, which made it hard for people to express their preferences. Even if 99% of the people hated Communism and wanted the government to fall, it would not do so because of preference falsification: these people would not know that so many others thought just as they did. Until suddenly, one day, the public expression of that preference reached a critical mass, and a phenomenon that Kuran called a ‘preference cascade’ took place. From the outside, it might seem that a regime toppled suddenly, overnight, without warning—as we saw throughout the former Soviet Bloc. But while the preference cascade may have been sudden, the preferences themselves were not new.
Reynolds invokes Kuran in the American context, and speculates that Trump’s surge could be the result of a preference cascade. Maybe Trump is articulating views that other would never do themselves in public. (‘I hate foreigners.’ ‘Mexicans are rapists.’ ‘All Muslims should be deported.’ Whatever.) Once they see a prominent man like him say these things, and others rush out in support, they are emboldened to vote for him. Now that they know there are others like them, they join the Trump wave.
Now, shift your attention to India. My view of the last elections until recently was basically this: the BJP got its highest voteshare ever because not only did it mobilize its traditional base – the Hindutva voters – they also attracted other voters who were sick of the UPA’s corruption, who wanted economic reforms, and so on. And now that the BJP was bound to disappoint some of them, it would lose voteshare, compunded by the opposition consolidating against it (as in Bihar). So a desperate party would double down on Hindutva to mobilise its core Hindutva vote.
But what if this is all wrong?
What if the rise of Modi is a result of sudden preference cascades following decades of preference falsification. In Gujarat, for example, what if the majority Hindus bear an unspoken antipathy towards the minority community? They may not express it openly because it’s awkward to do so. Then the 2002 riots happen, and Muslims are ‘put in their place.’ Modi, then chief minister, never openly takes credit for it, but he doesn’t deny his culpability either, and you can read between the lines. Boom, Modi wins the next elections in a landslide—and every state election after that.
Similarly, what if many Indians silently share notions of cultural or religious superiority that are not polite or politically correct to express publicly? (I am attempting dispassionate political analysis here, and this is not meant to be judgmental.) The rise of Modi at a national level could have led to a preference cascade, and though these voters might have come up with many policy reasons for voting for him—‘He will make GST happen’ etc—those may have been rationalisations more than reasons. (Note: I am not implying that all BJP supporters are like this.)
But why now? What suddenly enabled this preference cascade? I have an answer : social media.
Social media exploded in India over the last six years, just as Modi’s national ascent began. Social media lets you express your preferences far more freely than in real life, because you’re either anonymous, or you’re at a physical remove from whoever you’re talking to. So more true preferences get expressed—and more and more people see more and more opinions validating their own preferences. Cascade!
If this is true, then in both America and India, beneath the veneer of sophisticated political discourse, there lies a primal core that cares about more basic things, like race and identity and so on. In fact, maybe the exact same impulse explains both Trump and Modi: the instinctive attraction for a strong leader who will lead our tribe well and shit on all others.
But these are just theories, and they could be wrong, or merely partly right. And there could be other silent preferences out there waiting for their cascade. What could those be? Who will make it happen?
Posted by Amit Varma on 18 March, 2016 in
This is the 24th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
I’m a devout carnivore, but a decade-and-a-half ago, I turned vegetarian for a year. My reasons were moral, and best illustrated by a story about the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. In his later years Tolstoy was a vegetarian, and one day he invited his aunt home for dinner. She said she’d come but insisted, ‘I must have chicken!’ Tolstoy paused at this condition, but then agreed to provide the bird. The lady duly came home, gup-shup happened, and then when they moved to the dining table, she found a live chicken on her chair, and a carving knife alongside.
‘We knew you wanted chicken,’ Tolstoy said, ‘but none of us would kill it.’
The story, as I know it, ends there—but I can’t imagine Tolstoy’s aunt ate Tolstoy’s chicken. She must have been rather exasperated, and Tolstoy was indeed a bit of a spiritual crackpot towards the end of his life. But the story of the chicken resonates with me. It demonstrates our denial when it comes to food. In our mind, there is a screen between the meat that we eat and the animals that are killed for that meat. We taste the flavour and enjoy the texture, but we behave as if the butchery never happened. We pretend that the chicken on the plate and the chicken on the chair are different creatures. But of course they are not. Tolstoy’s flapping, squawking chicken is Varma’s Chicken a la Kiev—and so, many years ago, I gave up meat.
Even if I later explained my subsequent regression by talking about recurring headaches and how my body was too used to meat to give it up, deep down I know that’s just a rationalisation. I didn’t have the strength of character to carry through on my resolve. I dreamed of luscious, succulent kababs, and ignored the screaming of the lambs.
The guilt and dissonance I still occasionally feel may soon be moot, though. Some fine scientists, much to be praised for their noble endeavours to better humankind, have recently found a way to grow meat in the labaratory, without a sentient creature being involved. Within a couple of decades, I predict, you will be able to eat a medium-rare steak that is, in every way, the same as any you would get today, except for the fact that no animal will be harmed in its making. The organ it will come from would have been manufactured a la carte, and would never have been part of a living creature. Tolstoy’s aunt’s grilled chicken leg would have nothing to do with Tolstoy’s actual chicken.
On that note, at the turn of this new year, let me tell you about a concept propounded by a gentleman named WEH Lecky way back in the 19th century: The Expanding Circle. Lecky posited that there is a circle of beings who qualify for our moral consideration as equals, and that this circle has tended to expand through human history. In prehistoric times, we might have regarded just our family or our tribe as being part of that circle, and everyone else would have been ‘the other’. Other tribes, then other nations, other races, and so on. But through time, that circle expanded. It began to include other communities and races, and eventually included all of humanity itself. It is this expanding circle that led to the end of slavery, to women being allowed to vote, to the great immigrant nations across the world, like the US of A. And this circle is still expanding.
The philosopher Peter Singer, in fact, argues that one day animals will be within this circle. He believes that one day we will be as aghast at meat-eating as we are today when we look back at slavery or women not being allowed to vote and so on. For a person in the 23rd century, looking back at the 21st, it will seem as astonishing that we once killed animals for food as it does to us that the great apostle of liberty, Thomas Jefferson, once kept slaves.
At this point, it is worth considering why the expanding circle expands. To my mind, and I say this with sadness, the reasons are instrumental. The circle expands because incentives change. The two main factors driving this are Trade and Technology.
Economics teaches us that every human being can provide value to this world (comparative advantage) and that voluntary trade always leaves both parties better off, leading to a positive-sum game. If ‘The Other’ is working hard to improve our lives, and it is in our interest to improve theirs, for that is how we profit, then the circle is bound to expand to include them. Immigration is great not just because of moral reasons, but because it helps societies and economies flourish. The larger our circles are, in whatever sense, the better we do.
Technology also plays its part. Until recently, half of humanity – the female half – was deeply constrained because that’s just how the comparative advantage game played itself out. Housework and raising large families took so much time that it made economic sense for family units to specialise, and for women to stay at home and for men to go out and be bread-earners. This got codified in social norms, and thus women got forced into subsidiary roles. That changed in the 20th century. Firstly, household technology freed up huge chunks of women’s time. Secondly, birth control gave them, well, more control over their bodies. There is much to be said for good intentions, but women’s empowerment really happened because of technology, and so hurray for technology.
And hurray for technology one more time, because if our circle expands to include animals, it will do so not because of the benevolence of meat eaters around the world, but because growing meat may no longer require the killing of animals. And here, consider the consequences of all animal products being manufactured without animals being involved. The incentives around rearing farm animals will change entirely. And so one day, cows and pigs and chickens and goats may go extinct not because we ate them, but because we stopped. The irony is delicious.
Posted by Amit Varma on 08 January, 2016 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 23rd installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
One of the things that most exasperates me about Indian political discourse these days is that we often speak in terms of ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’. This is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, this is not how politicians themselves actually speak (unless they’re humouring the English-speaking media). Voters in India vote for a myriad of reasons, mostly local, and they don’t frame issues in terms of left or right. Therefore, neither do politicians when they speak to their constituencies, or when they strategise among each other. There is, thus, a disconnect between politics and political discourse. Many political commentators, unable or unwilling to engage with the complexities of the political economy, insist on imposing simplistic narratives.
But this would not matter if a left-right prism was useful in evaluating the desirability of policies, or provided a compass to gauge the moral or instrumental value of the actions of politicians. But it does not, which brings me to my second reason, which is not a local one. Across the world, framing issues in terms of left or right misses the central principle at stake in any modern society: that of individual rights, and of freedom. I view the world through a classical liberal (or libertarian, if you will) prism, and my liberalism boils down to a respect for individual freedom. On moral grounds alone, if we come from first principles, we should respect individual freedom above all else. From a consequentialist perspective, also, we should defend freedom, for economic freedom leads to material prosperity, and personal freedoms, such as freedom of speech, enrich our culture.
As a true liberal, I see no difference between economic and social freedoms. As I am fond of saying, once we accept that two consenting adults may do whatever they want with each other provided they infringe the rights of no one else, it should not matter whether they are fucking in a bedroom or trading in a marketplace. Interfering with either is wrong. And here’s the thing: parties on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum support infringements on individual freedom all the time.
Parties on the right tend to want to impose their cultural values on others, and are suspicious of those they view as ‘outsiders’. They don’t care much for free speech or other personal freedoms. Parties on the left tend to oppose economic freedom. They do so stating noble reasons, but all infringements of economic freedom amount to a redistribution of wealth from poor consumers to a rich interest group, so they’re either hypocrites or delusional. They also tend to favour big government, which means more taxation, and therefore more coercion.
If you believe, as I do, that coercion is wrong, then it won’t make a difference whether you look left or right, you’ll see coercion everywhere. A classical liberal opposes both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, both Prakash Karat and Mohan Bhagwat. (I would give credit to those guys for at least stating their positions clearly, though. Politicians down the ostensible middle, slaves to special interests as they mostly are, tend to be equally coercive and far more hypocritical.) Looking at the political marketplace, you will find that the options available to you aren’t all that different from each other. And why should they be? Even when they cater to different segments of the population, they’re still reacting to the same inevitably corrupting incentives at work in the political economy.
Here’s the funny thing about India in particular. We have conveniently classified the BJP as a right-wing party and the Congress as a left-wing party—but they’re both practically the same party. In terms of economics, both are left-wing, and oppose economic freedom. It might surprise you to hear me say this about the BJP, but forget their campaign rhetoric and consider their actual policies: Modi I is basically UPA III. Modi has the same top-down way of looking at the economy as any Congress leader before him, and he’s trigger-happy when it comes to imposing new taxes and cesses.
Equally, on social issues, the Congress was as right-wing as the BJP allegedly is. They have a stellar record when it comes to banning books, and it was a Congress government that effectively banned The Satanic Verses. Censorship flourished under their watch, as did attempts at social engineering, which weren’t restricted to the Emergency: odious policies on sterilisation still exist, decades after the emergency was called off. Even in terms of attacking other communities, the Congress set the standards: more people died in the 1984 riots than in the 2002 riots. My friend, the political commentator Nitin Pai, once coined a term that describes this jostling between the parties perfectly: ‘Competitive Intolerance’. This is quite the kind of competition that makes the poor ol’ free-marketer in me cringe!
To sum it up, India’s political parties tend to be left-wing on economics and right-wing on social issues. In other words, they oppose freedom in every sphere. I would be no more disheartened by this than India’s freedom fighters were in the first half on the last century, when they gazed up at the monolithic British empire. They gritted their teeth, and hurled themselves into the battle for our political freedom. Likewise, we must keep fighting till we win these other freedoms, and emerge as a free country at last. Not a left country, or a right country, but a free country.
Posted by Amit Varma on 11 December, 2015 in
A shorter version of this was published as the 22nd installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
‘I’m not conceited. Conceit is a fault and I have no faults.’ Imagine this quote on an internet meme, alongside a picture of Narendra Modi, looking dapper in that famous pinstripe suit, or maybe a trademark Modi kurta. It would surely get thousands of shares on social media, many from bhakts impressed by the prime minister’s modesty. Don’t rush to share it, though: as one tends to do on the internet, I just misattributed. Those words were not uttered by Modi, or even Oscar Wilde or GB Shaw. The man who said them is former Van Halen singer Dave Lee Roth, with his back against a record machine. But Modi could have said them, could he not?
Please don’t think I am picking on Narendrabhai alone. All politicians are vain. Indeed, one could argue that in politics, vanity is a feature and not a bug. Politicians come to power by selling specific narratives about their excellence; and they can sell it most effectively if they believe it themselves. Success in many fields often begins, comically and ironically, with self-delusion. But politicians have consequences, and there’s nothing comic about that.
One reason that India is still a poor country is the ‘fatal conceit’ of our founding fathers. Jawaharlal Nehru, and his minions and successors, believed that economies were best planned from the top down. An economy is a complex thing, the poor and ignorant masses of India surely could not be trusted to perform this task by themselves, and needed to be directed by wise and benevolent planners. Those who have studied economics or paid attention to history know that this was foolish and wrong.
Economies, like languages, are products of “human action but not human design,” in the words of Adam Ferguson. They function brilliantly on their own, with millions of individuals pursuing their self-interest, and thus increasing the value in the lives of others, for that is the only path to profit. Planning is not only not required, it is an impediment. A central planner can never get a grasp on the huge amount of dispersed knowledge in an economy, and any intervention is bound to lead to a loss in efficiency. This hurts the poor the most: as I illustrated in a previous column, every intervention in a free market amounts to a distribution of wealth from the poor to the rich.
Nehru suffered from a disease that Friedrich Hayek called the Fatal Conceit. His coining of that term was inspired by the following passage in Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “The man of system […] is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.”
People are not chess pieces, of course, and Nehru and his successors ravaged the economy with their well-intentioned interventions. I won’t recite the litany, but here’s the thing: 68 years after we became independent, 24 after the Soviet Union collapsed, we are still enslaved by a failed philosophy. And we’re still suffering because of the fatal conceit of flawed individuals.
It amuses me sometimes that Modi is considered a right-wing politician. He actually embodies the worst of both left and right. Like his party, and the ecosystem of religious nutjobs that sustains it, he is right-wing on social issues; and left on economic ones. Basically, he is against individual freedom in every domain possible, and thus the exact opposite of me. If you put Modi and me in a test tube, the resultant explosion could blow the earth off its orbit, or at least result in a good rap album. But that is a digression, and it is possible that you have your mouth open because I called him an economic leftist. Well, if a man is to be known by his actions and not his public image, what else can we call him?
I know many economic liberals, bald because of six decades of tearing their hair out, who thought Modi would be a free-market messiah. My ass. Tell me this: exactly what reforms has he carried out that increase our economic freedom? When Modi took over, India was ranked 140 out of 189 countries in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index: it has since slipped to 142. He has not reformed the labour laws that, for decades, have prevented us from being a manufacturing superpower. The license and inspector raj remains what it was under his predecessors. A litany of what he has not changed would be the same as a litany of what was wrong with our country before he took over.
I have friends in high places who tell me that the system doesn’t allow him to act. But the truth is that Modi suffers from the same fatal conceit that Nehru displayed. He believes the economy needs a top-down manager. He would rather reform a public sector unit than sell it off. When he talks of ‘minimum government and maximum governance,’ as that catchy slogan went, he is speaking of making government more efficient and not at eliminating it entirely from areas where it has no business existing.
His conceit isn’t limited to his economic thinking, though. Look at how the man struts! He may not walk the walk in the sense of governance, but he certainly does in a catwalk sense. Once he was denied a US Visa; now he travels the world meeting the high and mighty. I wonder if he realises, though, that these global leaders give him importance because of the position he occupies, and not the man he is. I suspect he has actually drunk his Kool Aid, and believes the Modi Wave narrative of the last elections. He may be headed for a fall if so.
Look at the numbers from the 2014 general elections again. Our first-past-the-post system made it seem like a wipeout, as the BJP got 6.4 times the seats that Congress did. But they got just 1.6 the vote share of the Congress. It was 31% to 19%, and a 4% swing away from them next time could easily result in a hung parliament. They delivered outlier performances in states like UP, MP and Gujarat, which seem statistically impossible to repeat. And the following things are certain: Since the election, they have not won more supporters than they have lost; the turnout of their supporters is bound to be less the next time around; other parties, clear about what they are up against, will make smarter coalitions to consolidate the non-BJP vote; anti-incumbency will be a factor now that some of the Modi sheen is gone.
Modi behaves like the prime ministership was his destiny and he will win again easily in 2019. But if he doesn’t get his act together, reforming the economy and constraining the lunatic fringe in his party, he could be in for a surprise. India could choose another delusional politician over him, and 2014-2019 could be remembered as The Selfie Years.
Also read: ‘Lessons From 1975.’
Posted by Amit Varma on 16 October, 2015 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
A shorter version of this was published as the 21st installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
In 1975, a Tamilian dressed as a sardar landed up in Ahmedabad Railway Station, in disguise to escape the might of the central government, for whom he was a wanted man. He was met there, and escorted to a safe house, by a 25-year-old who had once sold tea on the platform of that station. Freeze that moment in history – Narendra Modi escorting Subramanian Swamy to his safe house – and contrast it to today. What a long way we have come.
Or have we?
I got the above trivia from Coomi Kapoor’s excellent book, The Emergency: A Personal History. Kapoor was a journalist living in Delhi in those days, and though her book was timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Emergency, it is anyway a timely reminder of the damage that people drunk on power can do, and the threat that such untrammelled power can pose to a nation.
The Emergency began with the filling up of jails. “The number of those in Indira Gandhi’s prisons during the Emergency,” writes Kapoor, “far exceeded the total number jailed during the 1942 Quit India Movement.” This included not just opponents in the opposition parties but also potential ones within her own party plus whoever they damn well felt like. (“The entire Sanskrit department of Delhi University was sent to prison.”) Personal vendettas were quickly settled, and torture was common in the jails. Those close to power were more like despotic rulers than public servants. For example, Kapoor writes, “When an old and respected lawyer of Panipat denounced [Bansi] Lal’s corrupt rule, he was arrested and stripped naked, his face was tarred, and he was dragged all through the streets of the town.” Such behaviour was more rule than exception.
The exploits of Sanjay Gandhi and his coterie were particularly shameful. He wrongly believed that India’s population was a problem rather than a resource, and even more wrongly set about solving it through forced sterilisations. Millions of those took place, and the story of the village of Pipli is particularly illustrative of how they functioned. Hawa Singh, a widower, died there after a botched forced sterilisation, and the villagers refused to have anything more to do with family planning. On hearing that, the government sent “several hundred policemen” who “took up positions around the village.” Shots were fired, and “two women making cowdung cakes outside their huts were mowed down by the bullets.” The men surrendered, and hundreds of them were sterilized.
The press was silenced. Loren Jenkins of Newsweek wrote, “In 10 years of covering the world from Franco’s Spain to Mao’s China, I have never encountered such stringent and all encompassing censorship.” One of the leaders of the opposition, LK Advani, later said that the press “was asked to bend and it chose to crawl.” A permanent (and brutal) dictatorship seemed likely, and we owe much gratitude to the fact that power had made Indira delusional, for she actually called for elections only because she thought she would win. Had she not thought so, she would not have called for them. (Indeed, Sanjay was opposed to the decision.)
To be honest, a political leader does not need to suspend democracy to devastate a country. Even without the Emergency, the vile Indira Gandhi would count as one of the worst leaders in our history. Through a series of disastrous economic policies, many of which her deluded partymen still support, she kept tens of millions of people in poverty, and adversely affected all our lives. There are no counterfactuals, of course, and abstract economic arguments do not have the visceral impact of the kind of stories that Coomi Kapoor’s excellent book is filled with.
Let’s get back to the present. To many, the general elections of last year felt like a landmark event because Modi’s win seemed to mark a final, clean break from everything that post-Independence Congress stood for. However, Modi was not brought to power by a monolithic votebank, but by a collection of disparate groups, all of whom were desperate for change for different reasons. Modi was like a Rorschach test – he stood for whatever you wanted him to stand for, and what you saw in him revealed more about you than about him. Hindutva bhakts saw him as the former RSS pracharak who would finally make India a great Hindu nation; economic liberals saw him as the leader who would finally liberate India from the Leftist policies that had kept us backward all these years; and so on. Some of the expectations from him were contradictory; most were impractical, given the constraints of the way our political economy is structured. But Modi encouraged all of them by discouraging none of them. He didn’t say much on policy issues, stuck to safe bromides, and you never really knew to what extent he supported Hindutva or free markets or yada yada yada. He was strong and silent, and he remained strong partly because he remained silent. You could believe whatever you wanted about him – and because the existing government was so incompetent, you wanted to believe.
If campaigning was like courtship, governance is like marriage. You can’t be delusional about the object of your affection any more: you’re living with the fellow. And while it’s okay if he burps and farts in your presence, it is simply not okay if he beats you up just like the previous guy used to. So a year down the line, how is the Modi government doing?
If you’re an economic liberal like me, Modi has been a disappointment. It is with good reason that people are beginning to refer to this government as UPA 3. Modi has not instituted any far reaching reforms, and the rhetoric of ‘incremental reforms’ does not cut it for me. If a man has gangrene in his legs or cancer in his liver, you do not give him an aspirin and call it incremental reform. ‘Gangrene’ and ‘cancer’ do not need to be managed efficiently, but eliminated brutally. Anyway, this is a subject I’ll elaborate on a future column. For now, I will concede this: Modi’s government is no worse than UPA 2 was. And it’s fair enough to wait out the five years they have been given before passing judgement.
It is in the domain of personal freedoms, though, that Modi has let the country down. Much of this is due to petty vindinctiveness, straight out of the Indira Gandhi playbook. Consider how Teesta Setalvad has been harassed after Modi came to power, with the latest salvo being the cancellation of the license of her NGO. (Why should any organisation need a license from the government anyway? Wasn’t Modi the Messiah supposed to do away with this kind of nonsense?) Consider the government’s harassment of NGOs like Greenpeace, and the offloading of Greenpeace campaigner Priya Pillai when she was on her way to England because officials felt she would give India a “negative image” there. Go online, search for videos of the recent Patel uprising in Ahmedabad, and see the brutality with which the police crack down on common citizens. (The Gujarat government also banned the mobile internet during this time, as well as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.) Consider all the nonsense the fringe elements on the Hindu right are getting up to, and the silence of the government on these issues – the same silence you would get from Indira very time she was confronted about the antics of her psychopathic son Sanjay.
Modi has not declared Emergency or jailed his opponents, but this approach to power does remind me of 1975, and make me wonder. Many of the prominent political actors of today played small roles in that particular production. Arun Jaitley spent the years of the Emergency in jail. In the hundreds of hours of solitary contemplation that he no doubt had, what did he think about? When the young party worker Narendra Modi guided Subramanian Swamy to his safe house, what did they talk about? Was it about how power always corrupts, the necessity to impose limits on it and the tragedy that politicians in India sought to rule rather than serve? Or did they simply say to each other, “Just wait. Just wait till we are on the other side, and we are the ones in charge.”
I suspect it was the latter. And what a loss that is.
Posted by Amit Varma on 18 September, 2015 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 20th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
Never talk to me about profit,’ Jawaharlal Nehru once said to an industrialist friend of his. ‘It is a dirty word.’
Nehru’s sentiments were understandable in those times, and his sentiments were noble. India had just rid itself of the British, who had come to India ostensibly to do business and had left it impoverished. Nehru, who had played a notable role in the freedom struggle, had spent his formative years in England learning from the Fabian Socialists, as well as from Howard Laski, the Marxist professor at LSE who had a greater influence on modern India than Mahatma Gandhi, through students such as Nehru and VK Krishna Menon. The Soviet Union seemed to be a model to admire, America itself vastly expanded the role of the state after the Great Depression, and the top-down command-and-control economy must have seemed incredibly attractive to Nehru. The center had to hold. The profit motive was evil. Those exploitative capitalists had to be kept in check.
It is not fair to judge Nehru in hindsight, and he was right about other things that mattered. But he was wrong about this. Profit is the secret behind all prosperity. And it is a distrust of the profit motive that has kept this country poor.
The fundamental fallacy that Nehru committed was of looking at the economy as a zero-sum game. By that thinking, if someone is winning, someone else must be losing. If the industrialist makes a profit, someone else is getting exploited. But this is not the way the world works. All trade is a positive-sum game; and indeed, it is not possible for one person alone to make a profit in a transaction.
I am fond of illustrating this by citing what the writer John Stossel calls the Double Thank-You Moment. When you buy a cup of coffee at a Cafe Coffee Day, you say ‘thank you’ when you are handed your cup of coffee. And the cashier says ‘thank you’ when you hand over your money. This double ‘thank-you’ illustrates that both of you benefited from the transaction. Both of you profited.
This is, simply put, the root cause of prosperity. Every single voluntary transaction that takes place makes both parties better off, and increases the sum total of value in the world. Equally, every impediment that anyone places on the ability of consenting adults to trade freely with each other reduces the notional value in the world, and is an impediment to growth. It stands to reason, then, that trade should lead to prosperity, and that economic freedom should be correlated with a nation’s wealth. Does the data bear this out? You bet it does.
First up, I urge you to consider this chart. (Here’s the source.) It shows the wealth of the world as a flat line for centuries, until 1800. And then, boom, the world economy takes off in a spurt that economists call the Hockey Stick of Human Prosperity. It correlates perfectly with the explosion of markets across the world, of double-thank-you moments.
But it doesn’t take off uniformly across countries. Free markets are a necessary condition for prosperity, so let me now draw your attention to another chart. This one, from the Index of Economic Freedom 2015 brought out by the Heritage Foundations, shows a clear correlation between economic freedom and the wealth of nations. The freer you are, the wealthier you tend to be. (Also, the freer you are, the faster you grow.)
Forget the data, you say. Capitalists are exploitative. What about the low wages paid by Walmart? What about sweat shops run by large multinationals in third world countries like Bangladesh, where workers toil jn inhumane conditions? Isn’t that the profit motive at work?
Yes, it is. And I deeply admire Walmart and every company that runs a sweatshop in a poor country. That is because the people who work in Walmart and in those sweatshops do so because it is the best option open to them. They are not fools. They are choosing to work where they do because they deem all other alternatives to be worse, and those evil capitalist behemoths should actually be thanked for actually providing them an option that is better than the best option otherwise available to them. We condescend to those workers when we say they are being exploited. (Indeed, it is possible that we are exploiting them by using them to feed our sanctimony.)
This doesn’t apply to slavery and trafficking, of course, for by free markets I mean markets where consenting adults trade freely under the rule of law. Also, let us not conflate rent-seeking and profit-seeking. Many large companies get together with government to put restrictions on markets so that their market share is protected from competition. Such protectionism hurts the common consumer, and amounts to a redistribution of wealth from the poor at large to rich special-interest groups. Big companies are often the biggest enemies of free markets, and capitalism often unfairly gets a bad name because it is confused with crony capitalism – or ‘crapitalism’ as some call it.
To sum up, the profit motive is not something nefarious, but is actually noble. You can only profit in a free market by improving someone else’s life. And the more you profit, the greater the good you do in the world, the more the value you create. Profit, indeed, is the purest form of philanthropy.
I must admit here the very slight, teeny-weeny possibility that I am being unjust to Nehru. Maybe he had a mischievous glint in his eye when he said that profit was a ‘dirty word’. I can imagine him sidling up to Edwina Mountbatten at a party, gently putting his hand on her waist, and whispering to her, ‘Edwina, my dear, would you like to, ahem, profit with me?’ That certainly could have led to a double thank-you moment.
Posted by Amit Varma on 28 August, 2015 in
This is the 19th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
India is a poor country. We were poor when we became Independent in 1947, and while other countries have lifted themselves to wealth in that much time, we’re still poor. And government policies are the reason for our continuing poverty. For the last 68 years, since a group of white-skinned rulers handed over power to a bunch of brown-skinned rulers, all the governments that have run India have done one thing incredibly effectively: they have redistributed wealth from the poor to the rich.
Yes, you read that right: I’m not talking about redistribution from the rich to the poor, which itself would be an ineffective way of fighting poverty, but from the poor to the rich. They have taken money from the poor in our country and given it to the rich, and, as if to troll us, they have done this in the name of fighting poverty. For that reason, while there are some very rich people in our country, on average, as our GDP-per-capita indicates, we’re still a third-world country.
Let me take a recent event to illustrate what I mean. A few weeks ago, the central government announced that it would not allow foreign direct investment in retail e-commerce. Business Standard reported: ‘Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Nirmala Sitharaman last month met executives of Flipkart and Snapdeal and representatives from the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) to assess the impact of FDI on Indian e-commerce companies.’ The government then decided that it needed to protect the local players, and therefore did not allow FDI.
Do you see what happened here? Who benefits from competition? The consumers do. The greater the competition, the more value for money the common consumer gets. This is axiomatic. Our local retailers—all the people consulted by the ministers—were scared that their bottomline would be affected by this competition, so they successfully petitioned the government to block it. The result: the consumers will get less value than they otherwise would; the local retailers will make more money than if competition was allowed. In effect, it is a transfer of wealth from a large, dispersed group of consumers to a small, relatively wealthy interest group.
All tariffs have exactly this effect. Let’s say I like to buy widgets. Local manufacturers sell me widgets for Rs 100 each. Foreign manufacturers, for a variety of reasons from technology to labour, can sell me widgets for Rs 80. But the local manufacturers petition the government to put a tariff on imports, and the government puts a Rs. 30-per-widget tariff on the foreigners, so they don’t bother coming over. The net result: each of us loses a notional Rs 20. Who gets that money? The local manufacturers. What just happened? The government redistributed wealth from the relatively poor masses to a specific relatively rich interest group.
Governments that impose or continue tariffs will do so in the name of protecting the domestic industry. But at whose cost? The French economist Frédéric Bastiat once wrote a great essay called ‘What is Seen and What is Not Seen’, which speaks of the hidden effects of such actions. What is seen here is the good done to one specific group of people (with money usurped from a poorer group, which by itself is surely morally wrong). What is not seen is what the consumers would have done with that money. They would have spent it or invested it, and it would have gone back into the economy, creating growth and employment. But the potential beneficiaries of that are not even aware of what didn’t happen.
Subsidies are also redistribution of the reverse-Robin Hood kind, if in a more obvious way. The wealth taken from the poor is not in terms of marketplace prices or value for money, but is taken directly from your taxes. And while the poor may not file income tax returns, they pay taxes too. Every time your maidservant buys a bag of salt or the beggar at the nearby traffic signal buys soap, they are contributing to the Rich Interest Group Benefit Fund. This is not just poor economics – it is morally wrong.
Here’s the upshot: All interventions in free markets amount to a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. Anything that reduces competition or artificially raises costs for the consumers amounts to just this. Restrictions on FDI, tariffs, licensing processes or regulations that make it harder to open a business or to run it, subsidies; and so on. The interest groups to benefit may differ in each case, and will often include rent-seeking forces within the government, but always, without exception, the wealth will flow, in relative terms, from the poor to the rich.
So why don’t we protest, you ask, given that we are a democracy? Well, think about the winners and the losers here. The costs of such redistribution are dispersed among more than a billion of us, and the benefits are concentrated to a few. If Rs 2 from the taxes you paid last year went as a subsidy to the widget industry, you won’t even know or care. The widget industry, making millions from the accumulated Rs 2s, will care, and will lobby aggressively, contribute to party coffers, buy off politicians and bureaucrats – whatever it takes. That is why government policy is not dictated by the people at large, but by the aggressive lobbying of hundreds of interest groups, out to make a killing at the expense of the poor. That is why government grows and grows, and so many constraints are placed on the only force that can make us wealthy: economic freedom.
Posted by Amit Varma on 17 July, 2015 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 18th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
A few days ago, I got ready for a meeting, switched on my Uber app, saw that there were no taxis available in my area, and remembered an earthquake.
More than two decades ago, when I was in college in Pune, an earthquake ravaged the region of Latur. I got together with some friends to collect money for relief efforts. We decided that we would go to the affected areas ourselves to figure out the most efficient way of using the money. We hitched a ride on an ambulance of paramedics headed there with medical supplies. While in the affected district, we stopped at a village where around half the houses had been destroyed, and only one grocery store was still standing. “They are the only place one can buy groceries from,” a resident complained to us bitterly, “and they have tripled their prices.” That made me very angry. “Exploitative bastards,” I thought to myself, “feeding off the misery of others.”
Today, I know that my reaction was misplaced – just like the complaints of everyone who’s taken issue with Uber’s dynamic pricing. In case you missed the controversy, cabs and autos in Mumbai recently went on strike to protest against the competition they got from the likes of Uber and Ola. Since people had to get to work, the ironic short-term beneficiaries of this were the very parties they were protesting against. So when demand for a particular product or service goes up and supply can’t keep pace, what happens? That’s right, the prices go up, and Uber uses a mechanism called dynamic pricing which is an incredibly efficient way of arriving at an appropriate price for their service based on demand and supply. So commuters who switched on their Uber apps in the morning were informed that the base price had gone up by as much as 5x. Naturally there was much outrage and shouts of ‘exploitation’ and ‘predatory pricing’, and Uber, rattled by the bad press, announced that they would suspend dynamic pricing for the duration of the strike, and operate at their usual base fare. They put this into effect, and I woke up the next day, switched on my app, and found that no Uber cab was available.
Do you see what happened here? When demand goes up relative to supply, two things can happen. The price can go up to reflect the growth in demand; or, if the price is fixed, there is inevitably a shortage of the product or service in question. In Uber’s case, with their dynamic pricing disabled, all their cars quickly got booked, and whichever customers switched on their apps after that found that there were no cars available. Their need could have been urgent: they may have needed to rush to the airport to catch a flight they couldn’t afford to miss; or take an aging relative to hospital; or head to town for a make-or-break meeting. But even if they were willing to pay more, too bad.
The most efficient way of allocating resources is to let things find their own equilibrium, their own prices. Price controls are foolish and never work. And the demand for them is based on a sort of a fantasy. Fixing the price of a product at a base price below what the market would pay does not mean that everyone gets it at this price—it just means that a lucky few get it and the others don’t. The fundamental truth about the universe is this: everything is scarce. You can’t wish this scarcity away by agitating or legislating against it.
* * *
Speaking of prices, another company that disrupted an industry, Amazon, has announced that it will pay authors on its Kindle direct publishing program according to pages read, not units moved. This is an opt-in program, applying only to self-published authors on their DP platform, but authors on my Facebook timeline have already reacted with horror. Their instinctive aversion to the idea is understandable: commoditization of art and all that. As in the movies, they can imagine a publishing executive in a suit telling them to clip their novel by 30% and have only one 8-letter-word-per-100,000 because more than that diminishes page-turning rate. The horror! But those fears are overblown. I think this development, like almost everything Amazon has done with regard to books, is visionary and good for authors.
Look, there isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a central politburo that decides how much authors get paid according to some high-falutin notions of literary merit. Authors get paid, quite simply, based on copies sold, and how many people want to read them. Literary authors accept that they will not make remotely as much as those who write airport potboilers. That’s just fine, because if they’re good at what they do, they’ll find an audience that appreciates their work anyway.
Amazon’s new system achieves the same end—paying writers according to the demand for their writing—with greater granularity. Good literary writers will still make money – I devour every word Alice Munro or Anne Tyler write—because their work is compelling. But if I get bored with a writer after reading ten pages of his work, I don’t see why he deserves any more of my money than those ten pages represent.
It’s somewhat silly for an author to have a sense of entitlement, and believe that other people should pay him money even if he can’t produce work they want to read. As silly, indeed, as for an Uber user to feel entitled to the service at a lower price than others are willing to pay, at the expense, therefore, of the service provider. Such arrogance is priceless.
Posted by Amit Varma on 03 July, 2015 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 17th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
Thank you for the recent love song, She Mooooves Me, which you wrote and dedicated to ‘all the cows on Planet Earth’. Me and my friends here in England have it on loop on CowTube. There are few humans we like—you lot enslave us, molest us for milk every morning, and kill us and sell our meat after that. So we’re not very fond of your species. But you, Amit, we have always liked you, because you understand us, you’re a good listener, and you’re so so cute! But this is not mere fanmail. I am unwell right now, hugely under the weather, and I need to rant. And like I said, you’re a good listener. So here goes.
I won’t go into the details of my illness with you, except to say it’s not just a mere cold. Serious shit is going down, and I’m in a lot of pain everyday. And how am I being treated? With sugar pills. Sugar fuckin’ pills. Oh yes, you may pick your jaw up from the floor now, you don’t want a snail entering while you’re all astonished. (Happened to Lucy once.) This is for real, so let me quote from a report last month in the London Telegraph.
The report says: “British organic farmers are being forced to treat their livestock with homeopathic remedies under European Commission rules branded ‘scientifically illiterate’ by vets. Although homeopathy has been branded as ‘rubbish’ by the government’s Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies, organic farmers have been told they must try it first under an EU directive which came into force last year.”
Yes, that’s right. There are serious issues with my liver, I need antibiotics badly, the pain is excruciating, and my owners are being forced to treat me with bloody sugar pills! You’re a rationalist, Amit, I know you feel my pain right now. (Well, not literally, for that you’d need my liver, but you know what I mean.) That some humans believe in this nonsense is understandable, you’re a nonsense species, and by all means do whatever you want to yourselves. But why force it on us cows?
I first got to know homeopathy was bunkum thanks to your writings. First, there’s the science behind it. The idea of homeopathy is that the substance that is to be used to treat the patient is so diluted that it is unlikely that there is a single molecule of the substance in the pills the patient ends up consuming. As Martin Gardner once said, it is “equivalent to taking one grain of rice, crushing it to a powder, dissolving it in a sphere of water the size of the solar system, with the sun at the centre and the orbit of Pluto at the outside, and then repeating that process 2 million times.” My mind boggles at imagining the scale of this: not the solar system, but the idiocy.
Naturally, homeopathy doesn’t work. The standard scientific way of testing medicines is via double-blind placebo-controlled tests, and homeopathy has repeatedly failed those. I have read accounts of this in two great books you recommended, Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and Trick or Treatment by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst. I no longer have copies of those books – let’s just say that they’ve been chewed and digested – but I recommend them to all those who wish to argue with me on the subject.
My friend Lucy is not into books, though – that’s why her brain is full of grass. And she said to me the other day, “Well, I had indigestion from accidentally swallowing a snail, and I was given homeopathy, and now I’m fine. So surely it works.” I get this all the time, which proves that some cows can be as thick as some humans. So I explained to Lucy the fallacies in such thinking.
First, I told her about the placebo effect. Sometimes, even if you’ve been given a pill containing no medicine at all, if you think you’ve been given proper medicine, you start responding to it. In Bad Science Goldacre wrote about an American anaesthetist during World War 2, Henry Beecher, who had to perform an operation on a soldier with “horrific injuries”. Morphine wasn’t available so he used salt water. And it worked! The placebo effect is an incredibly powerful and well documented effect, which is why when new medicines are tested, they are tested against placebos. Only if they do better than placebos are they considered effective. Homeopathic medicines always fail these tests, because hey, they’re just sugar pills as well.
Another phenomenon I explained to Lucy is regression to the mean. Many ailments work in a natural cycle, where you get worse and then get better, quite on your own. This is true for colds, backaches, migraines, and also Lucy’s indigestion. But if you are inclined to believe that a particular treatment works, you will take the medicine, get better on your own, and ascribe it to the medicine. This is the Confirmation Bias at work, and also that other one, I forget the name, you write about it often, which mistakes correlation for causation.
Anyway, so I patiently explained all this to Lucy, and you know what she did? She said ‘Whatever.’ Then she swished her tail, turned around and stepped into a pile of her own dung. I’d do a facepalm if I could.
Anyway, enough ranting. I just want to thank you again for your song. If you’ve visiting England sometime, please come over to the farm and meet the girls, we’d be sooooo happy. We can’t offer much in terms of hospitality, but I’ll gladly share my sugar pills with you.
Dorothy (but you can call me Dotty, tee hee).
* * *
And from XKCD:
(Previous posts on cows: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 , 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 110, 111, 112, 113, 114, 115, 116.)
Posted by Amit Varma on 29 May, 2015 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
Old memes |
Science and Technology
This is the 16th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
I saw the strangest thing the other day. Out on the road, there was a sleek Lamborghini with a man in a dhoti-kurta at the driver’s seat. His hands weren’t on the wheel. Instead, he held a whip in his right hand, which extended out of his window, and he was whipping a couple of bullocks tied to the front of the car. The engine was off; the bullocks were pulling the car.
Now, okay, this is perhaps a bit too weird even for India, and I confess that I didn’t see exactly this. But I did witness something very close. I was watching the IPL.
Twenty20 cricket is a relatively new form of the game which makes new demands on the teams that play it. Like a bullock cart driver who has just been given a Lamborghini, the men who run the teams and play for them haven’t quite come to terms with this. So they continue to whip the bullocks. When one-day cricket was born, teams played it much like they would a Test match—consider Sunil Gavaskar’s 36 not out in 1975 through 60 overs, and while that is an extreme example, consider the low par scores of those times. Eventually, players adapted. Even Gavaskar made a thrilling World Cup century before retiring, and par scores crept up until, as I wrote in my last installment of Lighthouse, they crossed 300 in the subcontinent, which was once an outlier score and not the norm.
Similarly, in T20 cricket, teams have basically adapted their ODI approach to this shorter format. So maybe they tonk in the powerplay at the start, then they consolidate and set a platform, then they tonk again towards the end. They often have freeflowing openers, but leave their hard-hitting maniacs, like Kieron Pollard of Mumbai Indians, to bat at the end. This is a flawed approach, because T20 is not just a modified version of ODIs, it’s a whole new format with its own imperatives.
First of all, consider that T20 cricket is played with the same number of players in each side as ODI cricket is: Eleven. This is not a banal point, but crucial to understanding how to approach the game. If T20 games were played 8-a-side, you would be justified in structuring your innings as you structure an ODI innings. But with 11 players, you have extra resources for the time given to you. Your task is to make sure these resources are not wasted, and are optimally used. If the hardest-hitting strokeplayer in the team routinely gets only four or five overs to bat, you are screwing up somewhere. So what should you do?
I’d written a piece after last year’s IPL for Cricinfo where I’d laid out what I felt was the biggest tactical advance of last year’s IPL: Frontloading. Basically, King’s XI Punjab decided to snort at the concept of building a platform, and just sent their hardest hitters upfront and treated every over as sides would usually treat overs 16-20. They attacked from the outset, with Glenn Maxwell, David Miller and George Bailey coming in at Nos. 3, 4 and 5, and sometimes if an early wicket fell, Wriddhiman Saha coming at 3, but also to tonk. Their frontloading ensured that batting resources were not wasted, and this approach got them off to an excellent start in the tournament. In contrast, Mumbai Indians consistently sent out their best hitter, Kieron Pollard, with just a handful of overs to go, and he had nowhere near the impact he could have had. Kolkata Knight Riders started poorly, but then adapted, dropped Jacques Kallis the accumulator, frontloaded the hitting, and things worked out. They also had a better bowling attack than Kings XI, and deservedly won the IPL.
This year has been bizarre. King’s XI, far from continuing to frontload, has reverted to traditional structures of building an innings, sending in Maxwell later than they did last year and even, at the time of writing this piece, dropping him from the side. Mumbai Indians haven’t learnt from their past mistakes, and continue to save Pollard for a dash at the end. They would be better served if Pollard and Corey Anderson batted 3 and 4, in whatever order, with Rohit Sharma opening. But no, they don’t use their elite V12 engine. The other day Mumbai Indians, with Pollard and Anderson mostly at the crease, added 81 runs between overs 16 to 20, but lost because the team scored too slowly in the first 15. What a waste. Imagine if they had scored those 81 runs between overs 6 to 10 instead. How nicely that would have set up the innings. Their chances of doing so between overs 6 to 10 were the same as between 16-20, but the upside of going for it early was far more and the downside the same. Keep the bullocks for later, if the engine fails.
The idea is not just to frontload resources but also to frontload intent. Every side doesn’t have a Maxwell or a Pollard. But whoever goes out there should attack, attack, attack. Sure, if a Starc or Malinga is on fire, play that one guy out. But otherwise go for it. Not only does it ensure you don’t waste batting resources, it also ensures that soft overs in between by lesser bowlers are not wasted. Batting strategies are so predictable that fielding captains can plan how to use their resources well, keeping their best restrictive bowlers, like Malinga, for the end of the innings. But what can they do if you’re going at them all the time?
The one team that has gotten frontloading right in this IPL so far is the Chennai Super Kings. Brendan McCullum and Dwayne Smith play every over like it’s the 18th of the innings, and Suresh Raina and MS Dhoni, two outstanding strokeplayers, follow at Nos. 3 and 4. This is exactly right, and good captaincy. Of course, Chennai also have an excellent bowling attack, which is why they’re among the favourites in the IPL year after year. All things being equal between teams, though, frontloading makes the difference. So when you have a Lamborghini, drive the damn thing.
Posted by Amit Varma on 01 May, 2015 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 15th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
One trend that never goes out of fashion is lamenting the present, claiming that things were better in the past. Logically, one would not expect this to be the case in sport. After all, most sports seem close to their zenith at any given point in time. Usain Bolt is way faster than Carl Lewis, Federer and Nadal would whoop McEnroe or Becker’s ass, Magnus Carlsen would probably beat Bobby Fischer. Better technology (including in training) and more accumulated knowledge about the past make this inevitable. The one sport that seems to defy this sort of analysis, though, is cricket.
We cricket romantics still speak of Don Bradman as the greatest batsman ever, of the West Indies pace quartet of the 70s and 80s as the best fast bowling attack, and we still sigh when we remember India’s famous spin quartet. Recently, a poll named Viv Richards, from the neolithic age of one-day cricket, as the greatest ODI player ever. And while batting records have been taken apart recently, including in this World Cup, cricket tragics ascribe this to a shift in the contest between bat and ball, the heavier bats which enable top edges to go for six, batsman-skewed field restrictions, and so on. This is a valid point, but it’s not the whole truth. My contention is that the game has evolved significantly in the last few years, and—please don’t burn me at the stake for saying this—Twenty20 cricket has been a hugely positive influence on the way cricket is played.
T20 cricket gets a lot of flak, and while much of the criticism about its commercial structure is justified, I don’t agree with any of the criticism about its cricketing value. Test cricket snobs complain that T20s are just a slogfest, but this is far from true. Bowlers have been hugely influential in the IPL, and every side that has won has done so because its bowlers stepped up and influences the game. Think Narine, Malinga, Ashwin, Warne. Just because bowlers go at 7 an over instead of 5, as in ODIs, doesn’t mean the fundamental nature of the game has changed. The goalposts have shifted, the parameters have changed, but the game is still a contest between bat and ball. If it wasn’t, the sides would just go out and have a slog-off against bowling machines, and teams would pick 11 specialist batsmen.
What has changed, though, is that batting has evolved to adapt to the challenges and constraints of a 20-over-a-side game. (And bowling has changed as a response to this.) When one-day cricket began in the 1970s, for example, games were 60-overs-a-side and batsmen approached their innings must as they approached Test matches. The traditional virtues of the game were still applicable, and a run-rate of 4 through an innings was acceptable. If a side scored 250, you’d say their batsmen did well, and not that the opposition’s side’s bowlers did a great job, as would be the case today.
One-day cricket underwent a change through the 90s, as sides began to exploit the field restrictions at the start of the innings. Opening batsmen before Sanath Jayasuriya had gone berserk, like Mark Greatbatch in the 1992 World Cup, but the Sri Lankans of 1996 were the first to treat it as a philosophy, not a tactic. The change in approach saw generally higher scores in ODIs, and a knock-off effect in Tests.
The T20 revolution, and specifically the IPL, turbo-charged the game. Twenty20 did not deserve any of the disdain it was greeted with: if we don’t diss football games for lasting 90 minutes or tennis matches for getting over in an afternoon, then why mock a three-hour game of cricket? Cricket is a beautiful sport, and the T20 format offers all the drama and nuance that any other sport in the world possesses. And because of the constraints of time, the format demands more out of both batsmen and bowlers than cricket did earlier. In T20 cricket, you have to optimise. To understand the creature that emerges from this, consider the insanely talented Glenn Maxwell.
The most remarkable graphic I saw during this World Cup was one the broadcasters showed after a cameo by Maxwell in this World Cup. It showed where bowlers bowled to him and where he hit them. Most of the balls pitched on off or outside disappeared on the leg side; most of the balls pitched straight or on leg were whacked on the off side. This is not because he got randomly funky. There was a method to his madness.
In the past, batsmen would carry a mental map of where the field was, and adjust to the ball according to that. Now they adjust to the field before the ball is bowled, and dance around the crease and set themselves up accordingly. If point and third man are up and a spinner is bowling, Maxwell is very likely to set up a reverse sweep, which in his hands is an orthodox stroke, like a cover drive or pull, with a similar risk-reward ratio. It doesn’t matter if the ball pitches two inches outside leg; he’s already decided where it’s going to go. And he plays like this from ball one. In that graphic in question, the bowlers actually bowled to their field; and he batted to that field too.
Players like Maxwell and AB deVilliers, who is known as a ‘360°-batsman’ because he can hit the ball to any part of the ground and plays as if the stumps aren’t there, have transformed the game with their inventiveness (and enormous talent), playing strokes that Richards, or even the recent Tendulkar for that matter, couldn’t have conceived. And they are not alone. Every team is optimising, and we have seen the knock-on effect this has had on ODIs in this World Cup, where, I submit, batsmen not only scored more runs than before, but also batted better. You will see Test matches transformed by this as well. I predict more successful fourth-innings chases of 300-plus in the next ten years than in the last 30. Hold me to this.
Having said this, I would not argue with measures by administrators to tilt the balance more towards bowlers. One could mess around with field restrictions, and I certainly think the 10-over limit on how much a bowler can bowl should go: there aren’t corresponding limits on batsmen. But please, do not say that there is no longer a contest between bat and ball. The two main contenders for the man-of-the-series award in this World Cup were bowlers (Starc and Boult), and a bowling performance got MOTM in the finals (Faulkner). When Mitchell Starc spears in that yorker at 150kmph to Brendan McCullum, after setting him up with two fierce dot balls, you know the game is doing just fine.
Posted by Amit Varma on 03 April, 2015 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 14th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
Yesterday was Holi. Of all the festivals in India, this is the one that vexes me the most. What is the worst that can happen during Diwali? Some misbehaved children, odes to contraception each one, could be playing with firecrackers on the road. One of them could explode (firecracker, not child, or maybe both) under my feet as I absentmindedly saunter down the boulevard singing a merry tune, and my left leg could get blown off. Big deal. We must not be attached to material things, and a left leg is a material thing, so what is there?
Ganpati is not so bad either. It is true that festivals of that sort provide social sanction for hooliganism, but what is the worst that can happen to me? I could get caught in a terrible traffic jam, unable to do Vipassana meditation because of the monstrous noise, and I could get out of my car and shout at a man trying his best to separate himself from his limbs as a holy hymm by Sri Sri Honey Singh plays in the background, at a volume I can only describe as one decibel for each resident of Mumbai. This man could stop gyrating, notice that his limbs are still with him, and decide to shoot the messenger. He and his friend could put their Ganesha idol in my car, and drag me to the beach and immerse me instead. And there I go, back into the ocean from whence humankind emerged, and that really can’t be all that bad.
No, Diwali and Ganpati are quite alright. Holi, now, that’s another matter.
Some people don’t like Holi because it is ok on that day to violate other people’s personal space. The gangly teenage boy from Jhumritalayya whose life’s greatest ambition is to be a spotboy in a Sunny Leone film, and who has never gathered up the courage to speak to a girl—he practises speaking to his hand instead—leave alone actually touch them, gathers up the courage on Holi to go around molesting all the women in his colony, with a gang of other gangly boys, under the pretext of revelry. Or, if he considers himself to have too much class to stoop to this, he positions himself on the terrace of his building and chucks water balloons at passersby like my humble, previously dapper self. Indian Sniper. But this is all in a day’s work for me. I spent a few years commuting in Mumbai’s local trains, which change your perspectives of personal space forever. The freedom fighter who said ‘We are one country, we are one people’ was frightfully prescient, for he foresaw the development of the Mumbai local decades before it existed. In developed countries they keep their meat in freezers, but, ah well, every day is a festival on the Virar Fast.
No, what really bothers me about Holi is not the invasion of personal space, but the color. Not the application of color, mind you, for even when a gangly boy is applying it you can always close your eyes and pretend it’s a nubile nymphet teasing you a trifle roughly, and who can fault her passion, for you are terribly handsome. Closing your eyes also stops the color from getting in, and is a practice I urge you to master even on non-Holi days. I frequently close my eyes these days, and it’s most pleasurable.
No, it’s not color in its material manifestation that bothers me, but the concept of it—and the ideological battles that spring forth over that ultimate hot button. Like what happened yesterday. My friends invited me over to celebrate the festival, and despite my misgivings about the festival, I went, for they are pleasant company. Besides, no one invites me to anything or wants to spend time with me, possibly because they are intimidated by my intellect and good looks, so I thought, might as well be a bit social. I carried two pichhkaris with me, one filled with blue water and the other with black, because I thought that would give me an opportunity, after spraying my targets playfully, to joke that I had beaten them black and blue, haha. So I sprayed my host , and unleashed my wisecrack. Nobody laughed. Then the host said:
‘What black and blue? This is white and gold.’
At first I thought he was joking. ‘What white and gold? What do you mean?’
‘The colours you just sprayed on me. They’re white and gold. Why would anyone spray white water on Holi. You’re whitewashing a house or something?’
I refrained from commenting on his bulk and need to lose weight, astonished as I was by his comment. ‘What are you smoking?’ I asked. ‘Or have you overdosed on bhang? That’s not white and gold, it’s black and blue. Back me up, someone.’
My other friend Narendra, who considers himself fashionable and keeps saying ‘I’m so modish, I’m so modish’, and who was dressed in white pinstriped breeches with saffron paint all over them, spoke up on my behalf. ‘That is indeed black and blue,’ he said, ‘in keeping with our heritage. We have always been a black and blue country. We have had blue gods. And India invented the colour black.’
Rahul, my host’s cute four-year-old nephew who insists that everyone calls him ‘Rahul Jee’, now piped up. ‘That’s white and gold,’ he said. ‘If Narendra uncle is saying that’s blue and black it must be white and gold. But if he changes his mind later, so will I.’ He now resumed sucking his thumb, despite the country-sized blister on it.
My old classmate Arnab, meanwhile, was taking a cellphone video of the host. ‘The nation wants to know what the colour of this paint is,’ he intoned grandly. ‘Amit, what did you say it was?’
‘Well, I think it is…’
‘Shut up!’ He cut me off. ‘But you asked me…’ I protested. ‘I know exactly what I asked you Mr Varma,’ he said, ‘and let me tell you once and for all, it’s white and gold.’
At this point the cook, Arvind, entered the room with a tray full of mangoes. So we asked him what he thought the colours were. He sprayed some water from one of my pichkaris on Narendra. Then from the other. Then he threw a bucket full of red paint on him, and then a bucket full of yellow paint. And then he gave us the final word on the subject: ‘Sab mile hue hai.’
Posted by Amit Varma on 07 March, 2015 in
This is the 13th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
You can hold a currency note up against the light, if you have been trained well, and detect whether it is real or fake. Is there a similar test that can help catch and expose a counterfeit liberal? Yes, there is. It is the ‘but’ test. A counterfeit liberal is one who will espouse a liberal principle but then, immediately, before putting a full stop on the sentence, add the word ‘but’. And there’s always a universe after that ‘but’.
For example, a faux-liberal will say, “I believe in free speech, but…” Or “I believe in free markets, but…” That ‘but’ invalidates all that comes before it. Anyone who says he believes in free speech “but…” is not a liberal but a hypocrite. (And he doesn’t believe in free speech, obviously.) I have a term for these kinds of people, who abound in the Indian intellectual space. I call them Kim Kardashian Liberals. Too much But.
What is a true liberal then? I consider myself a classical liberal, and it disturbs me that the term is used so loosely these days. Our discourse has become muddy, and words like ‘rights’ and ‘freedom’ are used in such nebulous ways that conversations around these concepts often involve people talking past each other, with plenty of Buts swinging here and there. So, in a further effort to help you identify counterfeit liberals, beyond the simple but useful heuristic of keeping an eye out for Buts, let me elaborate upon what classical liberalism precisely means. Specifically: the first principles from which we arise at our support for freedom.
Many classical liberals arrive at their liberalism through natural rights. Are there any rights that we are born with? According to the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, the most basic right of all is the right to self-ownership. “Every man has a property in his own person,” Locke wrote. “This no Body has any right to but himself.” This is, to borrow a term Thomas Jefferson used in the Declaration of Independence, self-evident. When we are born, we own ourselves – it doesn’t make any sense that anyone else does, or that everyone communally does. Our right to self-ownership, of course, is contingent upon our respecting the corresponding rights of others.
All other rights emerge from the right to self-ownership. Our right to life, to start with, is a direct corollary of the right to self-ownership. The right to free speech, for we own our thoughts and their expression. The right to the fruits of our labours – or, essentially, the right to property. The right to freely associate with anyone we wish to, whether that interaction is social or economic. And what does freedom mean? It means freedom from an infringement of these rights.
Talk of rights often gets muddy because a new class of counterfeit rights has come up in the last few decades (created by counterfeit liberals, as you’d expect.) These are not really rights, but entitlements. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin helpfully coined the terms negative and positive rights to demarcate the difference. Negative rights are all rights that emerge from the right to self-ownership – like the right to life, to property, to free speech, to free trade and suchlike. To respect these rights of yours, people simply have to not infringe them. So someone not killing you is respecting your right to life, a government not censoring you is respecting your rights to free speech, and so on. This why they’re called negative rights. Positive rights, on the other hand, are not rights at all, but entitlements disguised as rights. The right to food, the right to education, the right to broadband etc are all positive rights. To honor these rights, someone has to actively give something to you. And as money doesn’t fall from the sky – if it did, there would be inflation, and God would effectively be taxing you – the only way to honor a positive right is to infringe a negative right. You have to tax Peter to give Paul his free broadband.
To a classical liberal, negative rights, which arise from the right to self-ownership, are the only kind of legitimate rights. All these rights, in a manner of speaking, are property rights, as they arise from the fact that you own yourself to begin with. Thinking in this manner, from these first principles, can bring clarity on a host of issues. People who want to suppress free speech for the cliched reason that “you can’t shout fire in a crowded theatre” are using a flawed example: a person shouting fire in a crowded theatre, whether he be the owner defrauding his patrons or a patron creating a disturbance on someone else’s property, is infringing on the rights of someone or the other in any case. All our rights are contingent upon respecting the corresponding rights of others, which this particular miscreant is not doing. You do not need to limit free speech to punish this particular troublemaker. (As you’d have guessed by now, I’m a free speech absolutist. No Buts.)
Seen through a prism of first principles, most public intellectuals in India do not have a coherent worldview. For example, a few years ago, a prominent columnist wrote about how he supported free speech when it came to MF Husain, because he was an artist, but not when it came to the Danish cartoonists, because, according to him, they were out to provoke. (So what if they were?) This position makes no sense. What are the first principles of this person here? Don’t ask him – he might put those Buts to good use and twerk you.
The hypocrisy that really staggers me regards free speech and free markets. A classical liberal supports both. Those on the left support only the former. Those on the right do it the other way around. This is bewildering. Once you have decided that two consenting adults should be able to do whatever they want with each other as long as they are not infringing on anyone else’s rights, what does it matter whether they are fucking or trading? But no, our Kim Kardashian Liberals will find something to object to, and there will be no coherence to their arguments.
Many classical liberals arrive at their support for freedom from a utilitarian standpoint. Free markets lead to economic prosperity; freedom of expression results in cultural growth; so they support both, without reference to natural rights. This is also a coherent way of arriving at liberalism. Kim Kardashian Liberals don’t show this coherence, and are soon unclothed.
* * *
Recently I came across Jim’s Rule of Buts, a creation of the blogger Jim Henley. The rule goes: “In any charged conversation, find any statements containing the conjunction ‘but’ and reverse the clauses.” This usually changes the meaning of the sentence completely. One example Henley gives is “the classic apology:” ‘I’m sorry I yelled at you, but what you said made me really angry’ means a completely different thing from ‘What you said made me really angry, but I’m sorry I yelled at you.’ If our Kim Kardashian Liberals had to follow this rule, a statement like ‘I believe in free speech, but you should not offend anyone’ would transform itself to ‘You should not offend anyone, but I believe in free speech.’ Now that second But is most pleasing, and one I would gladly caress.
Posted by Amit Varma on 06 February, 2015 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 12th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
I am fascinated by New Year’s resolutions. Everybody makes them, no one keeps them, but they’re still great fun because they give you a chance to laugh at others. So every New Year I call up everyone on my phone’s speed-dial to find out what their resolutions are. (They never ask about mine, because everyone just loves talking about themselves.) This year, I started with our venerable PM, Narendra Modi.
‘Modiji,’ I said, in that deep baritone that women find irresistable, ‘Happy New Year. I’m calling to ask about your New Year resolution. Is saal kya plan hai?’
‘Amitbhai,’ he said, ‘this year it’s proving to be a bit of a problem coming up with resolutions. See, last year my resolution was to become PM. Been there, done that, got the kurta. Now, after that happens, what else is there? Maybe I could try a medium-rare steak, as you keep urging me to do, but beyond that it’s getting hard to think of something.’
‘What about fulfilling some of your promises to the people of India? Like, all that achhe din aayenge stuff and all that.’
‘Sigh. Amitbhai, aap tho poker khelte ho, you know what a bluff is. See, when I said achhe din aayenge, I didn’t specify for whom. Everybody can’t have achhe din, that’s just not possible. I have lived up to my promise in the sense that these are achhe din for me. I became PM, I have travelled across the world, and I’m having an incredible amount of fun trolling the people. Like, I trolled the nation by making a dropout education minister. Hahaha. You are like my bahu, I told Smriti, lol. I let the RSS and those other Hindutva nutjobs make whatever noises they want, which people actually think could become government policy. You see how worried the lefties are becoming, I’ve seen cctv footage of Prakash Karat praying at a temple, finally made a believer out of him, haha. But I have the most fun trolling my chaiboy at the office.’
‘Why, what do you do?’
‘Oh, I force him to make tea 40 times a day, and keep pouring it down the sink and telling him, “There, this tea is over. Now make another cup. And don’t look so sad, you could be prime minister one day. Look at me!” Hahahahaha!’
‘Erm, interesting. Modiji, I gotta hang up, there’s a herd of wild cows trying to break down my door. See you later.’
‘Bye, Amitbhai. Do come home one of these evenings, achha dine karenge.’
I hung up, went outside, chased the cows away by throwing Amul cheeseballs at them, and then came back indoors. Who should I call next? Who else but Rahul Gandhi.
‘Hey Rahul, this is Amit,’ I said, in that deep baritone he loves so much. (So much, in fact, that some times he calls me in the middle of the night and begs, ‘Say something, Amit. Anything. Just talk. Sigh.’)
‘Hi Amit, bro, what’s up?’ he said. ‘You called at a great time, I’m practising for an interview. Ask me something, anything. Go ahead?’
‘Ok. What day of the week is it?’
‘Well, um, it’s, ah, it’s the day to empower women. That day has come. We must empower the women. And also the youth, so that they get the escape velocity of Jupiter.’
‘Rahul wtf man,’ I said. ‘Did I not tell you specifically last year: No. More. Interviews. I even used my baritone, ffs, I would have squeaked if I’d known you’d ignore me.’
‘No, no, you misunderstand,’ he said. ‘This is not a media interview I’m preparing for. No more media interviews for me. Media interviews are like poverty, anyway, they’re a state of mind. No, what I’m preparing for is an entrance exam interview. I’m planning to do a correspondence diploma course on how to run a family business.’
‘Hmm, interesting. Best of luck. Anyway, why I called was to ask you, what’s your New Year resolution this year?’
‘What new year? Oh. Um, I don’t know, I’ll have to ask Mummy. But there’s a slight problem with that.’
‘I’ve forgotten her phone number,’ he admitted sheepishly.
The next person I called was Arvind Kejriwal. He has become a good friend over the years, and helps me file my income tax returns. He refuses to take any compensation for it, though I do fly him down to Mumbai in business class.
‘Hi Amit, such a pleasure to hear from you,’ he said. ‘I heard the phone ring and thought, dee yamm, it’s Anna again. He keeps calling me and asking, “Which train are you on, Arvind, which train are you on? I’m on a fast!” WTF man, WTF, he’s trolling me.’
‘Er, are you sure it’s him?’ I asked. ‘Anyway, the reason I called was, I’m writing a column on the New Year’s resolutions of my friends. What’s yours?’
‘You’ll have to file an RTI application to find out. Haha, just kidding. My resolution this year is to look inwards, not outwards. The nation, I have realised, doesn’t give a damn about me, despite all my efforts to convince them that I speak for the common man. They’d rather listen to that bloody chaiwallah. So anyway, I am moving from the political to the spiritual, in an effort to cleanse myself.’
‘That’s wonderful!’ I said. ‘I’m so happy for you. So how are you starting?’
‘Well, first up, I will examine all the negative emotions inside me. Greed, jealousy, bitterness, a sense of entitlement and superiority, all of those. Sab mile hue hai. They are corrupting my personality, and you know how I am against corruption. So one by one, I will take a stand against them and eliminate them.’
‘Fantastic. I’m so happy to hear that.’
‘In fact, I want to throw a party to celebrate this new awakening of mine. I’m going to call it the Aam Aadmi Party. You’re invited! It’s today evening, please do come, you know how the girls love your baritone.’
‘I’ll try and drop in,’ I said, and made a resolution to go for his party. But then I didn’t.
Posted by Amit Varma on 02 January, 2015 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 11th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
It’s wonderful to live in the 21st century. I bought a new Android Phone the other day, and was fiddling with its apps, marvelling at how the world has advanced so much and we can hold in the palm of our hand wonders that would have been inconcievable just a decade ago, when I came across a news item on the internet which reminded me that, despite all you can pack into a mobile phone, the real world outside is a lumbering beast that’s hard to change. And much of India still lives in an earlier century.
The news item in question was about a group of women who died after a sterilization camp in Chhattisgarh. According to a Guardian report, “more than 80 women underwent surgery for laparoscopic tubectomies at a free government-run camp,” after which around 60 of them fell ill and at least 11 died. The doctors were suspended, a criminal complaint made, and compensation packages announced. (Consider the obscenity of that term. ‘Compensation package.’ Really?) But what came as a shock to me was not that the government botched something up, but that in 2014, there was something such as a ‘sterilisation camp’ in existence. I had assumed sterilisations as a government-organised activity ceased after the Emergency of the 1970s, in which the evil Indira and Sanjay Gandhi had made it state policy to forcibly sterilize their ‘subjects’, as it were. Three-and-a-half decades after that, why on earth is the government conducting tubectomies?
“Such camps,” the Guardian report informed us, “are held regularly across India as part of a long-running effort to control the emerging economic power’s booming population.” Indeed, the government sets sterilisation targets for their health departments, and offers financial incentives to both doctors and the women who come forward. (Anywhere from Rs 1400 to “cars and electrical goods” for the women.) In 2013-14 alone, 4 million such operations were conducted. The report says, “Authorities in eastern India came under fire last year after a news channel unearthed footage showing scores of women dumped unconscious in a field following a mass sterilisation.”
There are three things terribly wrong with this: One, the government has no business interfering with the private choices of its citizens. Whether a particular individual wishes to have no children or ten is no business of the government. And to spend taxpayers money to manipulate these choices is absurd.
Two, It is women who are victims here. Poor women. Manipulated women. Always women. It is never the man who hops over and says, ‘Chal bhai, nasbandi karva le.’ It is always the woman, because women in this country have a status somewhere between object and person, possession and loved one. This makes me ashamed. It is not something that fills me with patriotism and nationalistic gusto.
Three, all of this is based on a flawed premise. Right from school, Indians are taught that people are a problem. Or, to put it the conventional way, that ‘overpopulation’ is a great danger to our nation, and that family planning is its essential antidote, and individuals must sacrifice their desires for the nation. ‘Hum do, humaare do,’ and so on. But this is flat out wrong, and terribly outdated thinking. India’s growing population is not a problem, but a blessing. And the term ‘overpopulation’ makes no sense. Every human being is precious and wonderful, and there can never be too many of us.
Worrying about the population started becoming fashionable in the late 18th century, with the publication of Robert Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus made the seemingly sensible observation that population tended to grow exponentially while resources, in particular food supply, grew arithmetically. Thus, to prevent a catastrophe, population control was essential. A latter-day Malthusian, Harrison Brown, worried about the population growing unchecked “until the earth is 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.”
Well, we’re not maggots, and that hasn’t happened. Human beings are resourceful and ingenious, and the more of them you have, the more resourcefulness there is floating around. The economist Julian Simon, in his book The Ultimate Resource, pointed out that through history, spurts in population and productivity coincided with each other. (The ultimate resource the book’s title refers to is people, of course.) Had Malthus been correct, you’d expect to see that the places with greatest population would density would have the highest resource crunches. But the opposite is true. As Nicholas Eberstadt pointed out a few years ago in a study titled Too Many People?, there is no link between population density and poverty. Monaco has a population density 40 times that of Bangladesh. It’s doing fine. Ditto Bermuda and Bahrain, which are more packed than India.
Indeed, the story of humanity is a story of urbanisation. Why is land in a city sometimes 100 times more expensive than in a rural area? Because of demand, because everyone wants to be in cities, because that is where the opportunities are. People migrate to cities because of the economic and social networks they contain – and the more people there are, the more desirable it is to be part of these networks. Cities would not be such desirable destinations if Malthus was right.
Malthusian thinking is completely discredited today, and the last couple of centuries have been testimony to the folly of his thinking. (Indeed, ‘Malthusian’ is a pejorative today.) And yet India, the first country to take up ‘family planning’ in 1952, is one of the last to continue to use government machinery to promote something that is wrong on so many levels. (Coercion, pseudoscience etc etc.) Given the top-down, central-planning-kind-of thinking of Nehru and his socialist minions, it must have seemed that people were a problem, for the more of them there were, the harder it became to control them and to feed them. This attitude is condescending, and the consequences can be criminal, as we saw in Chhattisgarh. For 67 years, we have been tied down, mentally, to the concept of a mai-baap sarkar, at whose mercy we exist. It is about time we re-orient our thinking. Our government’s sole purpose should be to serve us, not to rule us; to empower us, not to enslave us; to protect our rights, not to strip them away. Abolishing this family planning nonsense would be an essential step in that direction.
Posted by Amit Varma on 06 December, 2014 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 10th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
A friend of mine posted an interesting cartoon on Facebook the other day. A man stood in front of a gigantic empty bookshelf at his friend’s house, peering at three small items on one corner and saying to his friend, ‘Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader… I say, Hardwick, this sure is an impressive library.’ His friend, presumably Hardwick, sat impassively on the sofa, smoking a pipe.
Many of my friends would relate to that. ‘I can never read a book on a screen,’ says one. ‘I need to hold the book in my hand.’ Another says: ‘I love the smell of paper. E-books can never replace the real thing.’ And so on. But these sentiments, noble as they seem, expressed with an air of superiority, as if one is taking a principled stand, are somewhat misplaced. The chief reason for this is a popular misundertanding of what a book really is.
A book is the words a writer writes. Nothing less; nothing more. Everything else is packaging. Whether it’s printed on paper or written on rice, whether its paperback or hardback or a spectral presence in the Kindle app for Android, is irrelevant to the book itself. For centuries now, the dominant form of packaging has involved paper – but books existed before paper did. Media as diverse as clay, stone, bamboo, metal sheets and wood were used to carry the written word, as also was papyrus. Paper was the bold new technology that made all of them redundant; and now we have a newer technology that threatens to replace paper.
So all my friends who prefer printed books to ebooks are not showing a love for books per se, but just a nostalgia for a particular form of packaging. There’s nothing wrong with that – as long as you don’t imagine that feeling that way makes you some kind of connoisseur, like the wine snob who prefers Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Grand Cru to a mere Sula.
Indeed, imagine a novelist pausing in the middle of a paragraph and saying to himself, ‘Let me tweak this sentence structure a bit so that the paper smells better.’ That would be absurd – as absurd as pretending that you are somehow more refined than a guy who reads books on a Kindle because you can smell the paper. Are you a paper-fetishist or a book lover?
I am writing this column from Turkey, where I’ve been spending much time in museums, forts, palaces, mosques, underground caves, hot-air balloons and Facebook. In a place called the Museum of Mosaics in Istanbul, I was amused to see people furiously clicking cellphone pictures of what I thought were pretty mediocre mosaics. (The ones in the Chora Church are better, partly because of their proximity to a marvellous restaurant called Asitane, which I highly recommend if you visit Istanbul, but I digress.) So here’s a thought experiment: if you had a time machine at your disposal, went back to the age when mosaics were being made, cornered a mosaic maker and showed him a 20-second cellphone video shot in these modern times, how do you think he’d react? My hypothesis is that he’d instantly go insane, right there. He would not be able to fathom what just happened. And even if he got over it somehow, he would never make a mosaic again in his life. He would not see in it the charm that we do now. All he would want, more than love, sex, happiness or lamb on a bed of aubergines, would be a cellphone. That’s all he’d want.
Well, we have that.
Mosaics are an old technology that is now redundant; will printed books go the same way? I own thousands of printed books myself, though I am also a Kindle power-user, and my prognosis is that within 30 years, printed books will be like LPs are today: mere artefacts. We love printed books because we love reading, have always read printed books, and associate the joy of reading with the habit of reading printed books. My generation, and the one after, will keep buying them. But the kids growing up in the post-App era, who slide their finger to turn a page, won’t have that same habit or association. For them, it’s a no-brainer: e-books will be both cheaper and more convenient. (Besides, reading devices will also evolve. Although I love my Kindle, the model I use will be fit for a museum in 2040.)
The publishing industry will also be transformed by then. Much of what traditional publishers do now – printing and packaging the book, and distributing it – will be redundant, and the nature of book marketing will also change. The curatorial and editing functions will remain important, but publishers, in whatever form they exist, will get a smaller cut of the price of a book. (Authors will get more.) Books will also be cheaper, though the processes of discovering them, and shaping our tastes, will change in ways we probably can’t imagine now. There’s a brave new world coming up, and there are a lot of trees in it that should dance a dance of woody celebration, for if it were not for technology, we’d be cutting them down for paper. Start the music.
Posted by Amit Varma on 07 November, 2014 in
Arts and entertainment |
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 9th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
One of the finest graphic novels I’ve read recently is Paying For It, a ‘comic strip memoir about being a john’ by the Canadian writer Chester Brown. In 1996 Brown’s girlfriend informed him that she had fallen in love with someone else. Brown took it well, and they even continued living together for a while, till eventually Brown moved on. But he saw no sense in seeking conventional relationships that involved ‘possessive monogamy’, and instead started seeing prostitutes. Paying For It is an account of more than a decade spent eschewing romantic love and instead satisfying his sexual needs with a series of paid encounters.
Brown treats his encounters in a matter-of-fact way, right down to his chapter titles (‘Carla’, ‘Anne’, ‘Angelina’, ‘Back to Anne’, ‘Edith’ etc). There are no seedy, cheap thrills to be had here, and Paying For It is more about the internal workings of Brown’s mind through these years than anything that actually happens. He doesn’t try to sentimentalise or glamorise the lives of the women he sleeps with, and there isn’t much of their back story in the book.
The book would be worth your time for the appendices alone. In a series of clear, nuanced arguments, Brown lays down why prostitution should be decriminalised. He is a libertarian (as am I), and the basic premise of that argument is simple enough: what consenting adults do with one another is no one’s business but their own, as long as they do not infringe on anyone else’s rights while doing so. When a john sees a prostitute, it is fundamentally an economic transaction, with one party paying the other for services rendered. That’s it. There is no moral dimension to it.
One can argue, especially in a third-world context, that many prostitutes are forced into that line of work, and that there is always coercion involved. This is exactly why prostitution should be legal. Whenever the state outlaws victimless crimes, such as prostitution or sports betting, the underworld fills the resultant vacuum, and things get shady. Human trafficking thrives not because prostitution exists, but because it is illegal and we’ve left it to the mafia. (Ditto match-fixing in the context of sports betting in India.) If it was legal and transparent, trafficking and coercion would be vastly reduced, and easier to counter when they did happen.
There are those who hold that prostitution necessarily involves implicit coercion, because which woman would choose it willingly? This is just plain disrespectful to the women who make that choice. If someone deems it the best option open to them, who are we to pass judgment on their choices? Also, why is it frowned upon if you sell sexual services for money, but not if you sell other parts of yourself? One of my marketable assets, for example, is my writing ability, and I’ve sold my services to dozens of publications over the years. (Indeed, at the moment I write columns for both Hindu Business Line and the Economic Times.) Am I a slut then? Do I become a slut if I sell my physical labour? If I work as a construction worker or a massage therapist? Why do we stigmatise sex?
You could look at that last question as either a rhetorical question or as an anthropological one. But here’s my point: if we look down upon sex workers for the kind of work they do, then that reflects badly on us, not on them. People who use the terms ‘whore’ or ‘slut’ as pejoratives are demeaning themselves.
That brings me to the sad, sad story of Shweta Basu Prasad, who was caught a few weeks ago in a ‘prostitution racket.’ Prasad is an accomplished national-award winning actress, who has also made a documentary on Indian classical music, and decided, at some point, to look at other ways of earning money. She was arrested during a raid at a five-star hotel in Hyderabad where she was, we are salaciously informed, ‘caught in the act’. She was sent to a government rehabilitation home for ‘rescued’ women. (She had no say in this.) And of course, she was named and shamed in the media.
Some of the people who spoke out in her defence were outraged that she was put in the spotlight and humiliated, and not the businessmen on the other side of the transaction. But why should even they be named and shamed? In my view, both Prasad and the businessmen were doing nothing wrong – there was clearly no coercion involved, just consenting adults getting together. Nor did the pimp involved do anything wrong in bringing them together. The people who should be ashamed here are the police, who spend time and effort busting victimless crimes instead of focussing on so many of the other duties they fail to perform. And it’s obvious why. Why do you think the raids happened in the first place and the businessmen weren’t named?
The police across the country act like a mafia engaged in extortion of those unfairly criminalised by our antiquated penal system, such as homosexuals, prostitutes and their customers, gamblers and so on. They are the ones who should be shamed, who should not be able to look at themselves in the mirror in the morning, whose families should feel embarrassed by them. And yet, poor Shweta Basu Prasad is treated like a criminal and humiliated in this manner. It’s a disgrace. She did absolutely nothing wrong, and is the victim here, not of the clients she was working with, but of the police, and of our hypocritical, repressed Indian society.
The last chapter of Brown’s book is titled ‘Back to Monogamy’. But unlike what that might indicate, he doesn’t realise the error of his ways and goes off and find a conventional girlfriend. Instead, he finds his comfort zone with one of the women he has had paid sex with, and decides to be monogamous with her while continuing their financial arrangement. This might seem unusual to you, but on reading the book, you’ll see why it makes perfect sense for Brown. We all stumble through life, trying to understand what makes us happy, making compromises, negotiating with our destinies. Whatever works, works. There is no right or wrong in this.
Laws Against Victimless Crimes Should Be Scrapped
The Matunga Racket
Posted by Amit Varma on 11 October, 2014 in
Arts and entertainment |
This is the 8th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
I have a coffeeshop question for you. You are sitting in a café with a friend, talking about this and that, and a stranger comes and sits at the next table. It could be anyone: a gorgeous girl, a Bollywood celebrity, a gym-toned hunk. There is a moment’s pause, while you and your friend take in the presence of this new person, and then you continue talking. But you are aware that this stranger, who is alone, can hear every word you say. You and your friend are not talking about anything private; maybe you are talking about a new film you saw, or a book you read, or a friend’s divorce. Will the presence of the stranger at the next table affect the content and tone of your conversation?
* * *
There is a YouTube clip floating around on the interwebs that has been linked to a lot recently. It features Robin Williams and Stephen Fry chatting with Michael Parkinson. In it, Fry, who had just written a book on bears, comments on how animals are different from humans. “‘When you wake up in the morning, a bear does not say, ‘Oh god, I was a very bad bear yesterday. I’m guilty.’ They don’t feel guilty that they possess organs of sexual generation. They don’t feel they should wear clothes. They just spend 100% of every minute of every hour of every day being a bear. And a treefrog spends all its time being a treefrog. We spend a lot of time trying to be somebody else. You know, trying to be like the person next door, the person on television, the person in the movies… we’re trying to be somebody else. Animals, supremely, are themselves.”
(If I may add to this, it could be said that animals are Buddhist. They are always living in the moment. They are mindful. I know people who go to Vipassana courses to attain just this quality. I did once, many years ago, and for the last eight days of the 10-day course, I basically thought about sex. But the first meal I had after the course, at an Italian restaurant, was the best I’ve had in my life. The restaurant had nothing to do with it. My ten days of focusing on the senses were responsible. My taste buds took in every damn nuance of the dish I ate. I was in the moment – though I suppose in a different way from a bear having a meal, which probably just goes through the routine motions programmed into it. Also, bears are vegetarian, which puts a limit on prandial pleasure. And this is precisely the kind of pointless parenthetical digression that humans, and not bears or treefrogs, indulge in too much.)
Fry’s point, I suppose, was that what sets humans apart from other creatures is that we are social animals in such a way that we allow other people to define our self-image. We care too much about what they think of us. This is absurd.
* * *
The stranger at the next table. Would you speak differently, or say different things, because someone you had never met before and would never meet again was listening? Does the approval or admiration of strangers matter to you?
I reached middle age recently – it is a mental state more than an age, I know, but I got there anyway – and got down to thinking about all the things I didn’t like about myself. At 20, I had been an obnoxious, insufferable, arrogant fool, but I wouldn’t dislike that guy so much if I hadn’t changed in many ways, so that’s okay. But there is one quality I still have and don’t like and would love to discard : the anxiety about how other people perceive me. This damn anxiety is common to us all; it’s probably the most prominent part of the human condition. We dress up before going to social gatherings, comb our hair, put make up or shave or suchlike, preen preen preen – and then spend all our time at these gatherings behaving like the person we’d like others to believe us to be. Everything we say or do in public is, at some level, for the consumption of others. When we are truly ourselves, whatever that is, if such a thing is even possible, it is because we are fatigued from the pretence, and let our guard down.
So my middle-age resolution, which I have the rest of my life to break repeatedly, is that I want to be comfortable in my own skin. I don’t want to care about what others think of me. And if I am in a café chatting with a friend, I don’t want that conversation to be affected by a stranger at the next table. Even if my friend is an imaginary friend.
* * *
The Stephen Fry video. The reason people have been linking to it is that Robin Williams killed himself recently, and this is one of the YouTube clips where he is at his funniest. I also found it incredibly sad. In the first part of this interview, Williams speaks alone with Parkinson, and brings the house down. In the second part, Fry joins Williams, and you’d expect this half to be mainly about Fry and the book he’s promoting. But Williams keeps interrupting him, wisecracking constantly, not letting Fry complete many of his thoughts. It’s almost like at some level he is saying, “Look at me. I’m here too. I’m so funny. Don’t you love me?” Fry is graceful about this, and even jokes about Williams’s ‘logorrhea’, and Williams has the wit to laugh at himself. You sense his self-awareness here, and also his sadness. (This interview was in 2002.) I think Williams knew, as most comedians must, that humour is an anesthetic. That’s all it is. And there must be times when it isn’t enough.
Posted by Amit Varma on 05 September, 2014 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the seventh installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
You are lucky to be reading this. When your father ejaculated into your mother, somewhere between 300 to 500 million spermatozoa were released. One of them held the blueprint for you. That one sperm cell made it through the acidic furnace of the vagina, the graveyard for most sperms, and then outlasted the survivors to somehow become a person. Taking into account the fact that this was almost certainly not the sole sexual encounter between your parents at the time, your chances of coming into existence were probably a few billion to one. Given that your parents were born of similar odds, and somehow managed to meet and hook up and produce you, it is even more of a miracle that you exist. Indeed, consider that our specific species should itself evolve and survive through the ages, on this one out of trillions of planets (yes, trillions), and you get a true idea of how remarkable your existence is. Don’t be under the illusion, though, that this makes you special: everything around you is there despite similar odds against it. However unlikely it is for a specific something to exist, it is inevitable that some things will, indeed, be there. Congratulations.
While everything else pales into insignificance beyond the spectacular fact of our existence, we’re still not satisfied. We spend our days striving for this or that trivial little thing, and stressing out over small matters like the maid coming late or the scratch on the car or the tax returns or the in-laws or getting laid. (We are programmed to worry specifically about that last one, but we are again uniquely fortunate, among species, to be able to ignore our programming. Be a rebel, don’t fuck today.) Honestly, just the fact that we are here should keep us in a constant state of elation and wonder. But we get tripped up by vanity. We believe that we are special (as a species and as individuals), and that we possess the intelligence to make sense of the world, and to rule it. This vanity, in the cosmic scale of things, is either comic or tragic, depending on how seriously you take yourself. And me, I find it hard to take myself too seriously when I’m sitting in a dark room in New Bombay playing cards with a drunk builder who’s snorting cocaine as he asks me, “Kya laga liya, sirjee?”
Four years ago I became a serious poker player. I did it to make money, but ended up learning how little I knew about life. The most important thing I learnt from poker was about the role of luck in the world. Poker is essentially a game of skill, but only in the long run (which can be longer than you imagine). In the short run, luck dominates. Every action has associated probabilities, and you try to manouver your way through a poker game in such a way that the probabilities are on your side. Keep getting your money in as a 51% favourite, and in the long run, all the money is yours. In the short run, you could get hammered again and again and again. For that reason, poker players are constantly told not to be ‘results-oriented’. As Lord Krishna recommended in the Bhagawad Gita, just keep doing the right thing, and all will be well. Eventually.
While I am an atheist, the Lord was on to something. In life, too, luck plays a far bigger role than we realise. And as in poker, the management of that luck is the key skill we need to learn. Let me turn to sports to illustrate what I mean. In the last installment of Lighthouse, I had written about how luck plays a huge role in football, which is also a game of probabilities. For example, Lionel Messi scores from a direct free kick 1 in 12.5 times. This is the bare number, over a sufficiently significant sample size of free kicks. And yet, we cheer madly when he curls one in, and groan and go ‘WTF is he doing’ when he flips one way over – even though, in the larger scheme of things, they’re the same shot. While fans and even most reporters don’t get this, managers do, working furiously to maximise the probabilities in their favour. (Every action on a football field has a probability associated with it.) But fans go by results, and while those may even out in a league over a season, they never do in knockout tournaments, much to the bemusement and frustration of the men in charge. Maradona has won a World Cup, Messi hasn’t, what does that say to me? Nothing at all. It’s luck.
I was a cricket journalist for a few years, and in retrospect it amazes me how seriously we took results. Every action on a field has a number associated with it. A full delivery outside off in the 40th over has X% chance of reverse-swinging into the batsman, Y% chance of being cover-driven if it doesn’t, and Z% chance of beating the field when that happens. Through a day, as the overs go by, thousands of events of different probabilities intersect as we arrive at a result that is determined partly by skill and partly by luck. And yet, we cheer the slog that goes for six and boo the batsman holing out in the deep with a majestic lofted off-drive. Chance can determine careers: MS Dhoni blundered by leaving the last over of the first T20 World Cup final to Joginder Sharma, but it was hailed as a masterstroke when it happened to work. After Sharma conceded a wide and a six, what if Misbah-ul-Haq hadn’t played that one false stroke? Would Dhoni be Dhoni?
Life, like sport, consists of millions of intersecting events with varying probabilities, and Luck is a lead character in the drama of every person’s life. The lesson here is to not sweat what we cannot control, to take nothing in our lives for granted, and to make each moment count. And also, to be humble, because humility is the only appropriate response to the awesome complexity of this world.
Meanwhile, in that dark New Bombay room, my builder friend asks me again, “Kya hai bhai? Gutty laga li kya?” I stare at the table and show no emotion. He calls. I show him my cards, reflecting on my good fortune, and on billions and billions of spermatozoa.
Posted by Amit Varma on 01 August, 2014 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the fifth installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
Writing a column is an act of hubris. When you present a column to the world, you are essentially saying, before whatever you say in the column: ‘Listen to me, my opinions have value.’ No writer will deny that this is the implicit premise of the very act of writing columns. This is both arrogant and delusional, but we choose to be in denial of this, for if we were not how could we write, in the same way that we choose to be in denial of our mortality, for if we were not how could we live? Anyway,in today’s column, I shall not present my views before you. Instead, I will ask you a few questions, to which there are no right or wrong answers. These are just difficult questions, even if some of them have seemingly simple answers, and I present them in the hope that you might find some of them stimulating. I have just one request to make: Instead of just skimming over the piece, please pause at the end of every question and formulate an answer in your mind.
Question 1: Do you support the rights of two consenting adults to do whatever they wish with each other provided they do not infringe on the rights of anyone else? Q2: Why? Q3: Do you support gay rights? Q4: Do you believe in free markets?
Q3 and Q4 are related to Q1: If you believe that no one should interfere in what two consenting adults choose to get up to with each other, as long as they mess with no one else, then that should apply to both sex in a bedroom and commercial transactions. The moral case for not interfering with free markets and homosexuality is, thus, exactly the same. If you support gay rights because you believe in freedom, it would seem hypocritical to then condemn free markets. Or vice versa. If you support either of these because of a reason not based on your support for individual freedom, then that’s ok. But Q5, If so, what is that first principle you draw from?
Now, you might say that you support gay rights but not free markets, because much as you love freedom, you also have to look at the consequences of actions, and ‘unfettered’ free markets can have adverse consequences. (The same argument could be made from the other side about homosexuality and its impact of society.) Q6, Do you believe that freedom should be subordinate to utility? That our attitude towards a particular behaviour should depend on the consequences of that behaviour? Q7, If so, who determines what the likely consequences of anything could be, and how we should therefore treat that act? A democratically elected government? Q8, If so, can you think of examples where a democratically elected government fucked up spectacularly? Q9, If so, might it make sense to instead enshrine certain principles in the constitution that even a democratically elected government cannot mess with? Q10, If so, should these include freedom? Q11, If so, what kind of freedoms should be included? Personal freedom? Freedom of speech? Freedom of sexual orientation and carnal intercourse? Economic freedom? Q12. If you value some of these over others, why so?
(To deviate a moment from questions and actually make an observation, allow me to point out that none of these are actually protected by the Indian constitution, although it pays lip service to a couple of them. But that’s neither here nor there.)
Moving further along the subject of freedom and consequences, here’s Q13: Do you believe that women should have the right to choose whether or not to abort a baby? I’m guessing that’s an easy one to answer, so here’s another easy one: Q14: Do you support the ban on female foeticide?
If your answer to both these questions is ‘yes’, then Q15, How can you resolve the contradiction inherent in supporting a woman’s right to choose whether to abort and being against female foeticide? If a woman has the right to choose to abort, aren’t her reasons behind this decision irrelevant to that right, and an examination of those reasons invasive to her privacy? You might personally find her reason for it repugnant, but should your feelings affect her rights? And as a general practice, should the feelings of some people be an excuse to abrogate the rights of some others?
Of course, if you are into consequences, you could argue that female foeticide should be banned purely because it skews the sex ratio, which is bad for society. But, to consider a thought experiment, what if in the natural course of things, 11 girls were born for every 10 boys, and the prevalent rate of female foeticide actually corrected this imbalance? Q16: Would it be okay then? If not, why not? (Apart from the rights of the foetus, which you already agree are subordinate to the rights of the mother if you answer ‘yes’ to Q13.)
I haven’t asked the questions above to show the absurdity in this position or that, or to bring you round to any particular way of thinking. These are thorny issues with many nuances. I’m a libertarian and a freedom fundamentalist, and I support both gay rights and free markets, with my support for the latter, though it stems from principle, being bolstered by the benefits of economic freedom. (Contrast the two Koreas.) But the first principles I draw upon are not the only ones you can construct a worldview from. And there are situations where even those first principles don’t lead me to a coherent answer. At times, one is left with more questions than answers. And that’s okay. We are feeble creatures, and don’t have to know everything.
Previously on Lighthouse:
The Minister’s Lament
The Language of Indian Politics
Politics and the Sociopath
A Godless Congregation
Posted by Amit Varma on 13 June, 2014 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the fourth installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
I love group photos. All the ministers of this new government had gathered to be shot, and I was dressed in my finest khadi. My party wasn’t originally part of this coalition, which consisted of one national party and 16 regional ones, and ended with 269 votes. It needed three seats, and I had four, mostly thanks to biriyani and fractured votebanks. They promised to make me a minister. ‘Actually we’ve run out of ministries,’ I was told, ‘but we’re creating a few new ones to keep up with demand.’ I took my place in the group portrait. The photographer stood a long, long way back.
The next day I showed up at the newly built Secretariat 3, was shown into my office, and met my secretary, Mr Batra. As we waited for word from the PMO about what we were supposed to do exactly, he showed me what Twitter was. Who knows, he said, it might come handy sometime.
Who woulda thunk? That evening, word reached us that I was now the first ever Minister for Social Media (MSM). I was asked to go to the PM’s office within an hour, where I would be handed a statement that I would read out at a press conference. We duly headed off. We could have walked, but I chose to be driven in my official Honda Accord with a red beacon on top. Sitting inside, siren blaring, beacon flashing, I remembered the village where I had been born.
‘The Ministry for Social Media,’ I read out, ‘will empower the youth of our country by ensuring the smooth functioning of social media. We will make sure that poor and disempowered people everywhere have access to it. Everyone will have a voice. Thank you.’
‘Minister,’ a voice piped up behind the many television cameras, ‘social media functions well enough on it’s own, and already gives a voice to the disempowered. What more will you do? Will you censor social media?’
‘No questions,’ barked Rameshwaram, the secretary from the PMO, and ushered me backstage. As I left he told me, ‘Good luck minister. And a word of advice: keep a low profile.’ I pondered on this as I was driven home, siren blaring, beacon flashing, trying my best to be low key in the car. People stared.
When I reached office the next morning, Batra was exultant. ‘I’m already at work on budgets, sir,’ he said. ‘We’ll need new departments. One each for Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, YouTube. Hahaha, Yummy!’ I wasn’t quite so happy. The ministry did not give licenses for anything. No one had to come to me for permission to do phallana dhimkana. I controlled nothing; and therefore had no sources of revenue. All these years of building my political career and this was my reward: a cow without teats. But I did have power. Now, how would I use it?
Soon enough I started getting phone calls from ministers. A sex tape of Ram Lakhan Yadav had just been uploaded on YouTube. (‘It’s doctored, of course, but even then, my good name is being besmirched, samjhay na?’) The PMO called to say that there was a fake Facebook page up purporting to be the official PMO page. Mrs Goel, minister of women’s welfare, informed me that some people on Twitter were abusing her. And so on. I was asked to get these pages removed, the users banned, and in one case, arrested. (He had threatened to attack Mrs Goel.)
We couldn’t go through with the arrest because the culprit turned out to be a 65-year-old professor of anthropology in the US, but YouTube videos and Facebook pages were removed, Twitter users banned. I even assigned a few minions to edit and monitor the Wikipedia pages of my fellow ministers. My ministry grew; we were never short of work.
And yet, policing social media felt like trying to empty out an ocean with a bucket. By the end of the first month, there were six Facebook pages pretending to be the PMO’s official page. We’d ask for one to be taken down, two more would pop up. Ram Lakhan Yadav could have started a TV channel, there were so many different clips of him engaging in carnal contact with members of both sexes. (‘All doctored, this is a conspiracy against me. I think the CIA is involved, samjhay na?’) Mrs Goel had a fan club bigger than Scarlett Johansson, and horror of horrors, there were even people attacking me on Twitter, the audacity of it.
It got worse. Three big corruption scandals broke out via social media in month 2 of the government. I felt a certain schadenfreude at that, and was secretly gleeful that they happened at ministries I was denied. Meanwhile, the PMO was frantic. I told Rameshwaram that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube all complied with our requests: but there was only so much they could do. ‘Can’t we just stop the internet itself?’ I asked. ‘Let no one in India access it?’
Rameshwaram sighed. ‘I set up a committee to examine the matter,’ he said. ‘But the only thing the bastards on the committee did was surf porn. No, we’re stuck with the internet, I’m afraid. Find another solution.’
Desperate times call for desperate measures. I sat with a glass of my favourite single malt at 11pm in my office when I got a new email. The subject: ‘Your naked pictures are now on Twitter.’ I instantly clicked through to the link provided, but Twitter didn’t open, some other site did, and then my computer went blank. So did I. You have seen the video by now on YouTube: I stood up, punched the monitor off the desk, threw my glass of single malt across the room, slammed my phone down on the ground and banged the wall saying ‘Shit, Shit, Shit.’ (All this while my peon was shooting the action like he’s Govind Nihalani.) Yes, I banged that wall, till my fists bled and I was sobbing. I never thought it would come to this, that I would be a minister in the biggest democracy in the world, and I would. Feel. So. So. So. Helpless.
Previously on Lighthouse:
The Language of Indian Politics
Politics and the Sociopath
A Godless Congregation
Posted by Amit Varma on 09 May, 2014 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the third installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
Indian politics is a strange beast. I just completed an online politics quiz that promised to tell me which political party I should vote for based on issues. I answered questions on economics, foreign policy, healthcare and brands of dog food to be told that I supported 81 per cent, 78 per cent and 68 per cent respectively of the main three parties’ positions. In truth, I am repulsed by Indian politics – but that finding is not as absurd as it seems.
How does one think about Indian politics? In Arnold Kling’s excellent book, The Three Languages of Politics, he argues that American politics revolves around ‘three dominant heuristics (oppressor-oppressed, civilization-barbarism, freedom-coercion).’ Progressives look at the world through the prism of oppression, conservatives through that of Western civilisational values being under threat, and for libertarians, individual freedom is paramount. These three ‘tribes’ have their own political language which usually just serves the purpose of talking past the others, who they typically regard as ‘unreasonable’. They frequently engage in ‘motivated reasoning’ – parsing the facts for only those that support the conclusions they’ve already reached – instead of ‘constructive reasoning’ – analysing the facts on their own merit to try and arrive at the truth. Kling argues that the political space in America is getting more and more polarised because these three tribes just can’t talk to each other anymore.
Now, in a superficial sense, it might seem that these heuristics are relevant to Indian politics. The BJP, with its religious nationalism, might seem like an Indian version of American conservatism. The Congress, from Jawaharlal Nehru’s Fabian Socialism to Indira Gandhi’s ‘Garibi Hatao’ to Rahul Gandhi’s vacuous social welfare talk, might seem to fall into the progressive camp. Local political commentators have long been used to analysing Indian politics in terms of ‘left’ and ‘right’. This is misplaced.
In America, while the beliefs of each side might seem idiotic to the other, they are at least internally coherent. The political parties in India, in contrast, are all over the map. If you cut-paste paragraphs from the party manifestos and submit me to a blind test on who said what, I would surely fail. (The fault would not be mine.) And if we ignore rhetoric and examine the behaviour of the parties when in power, whether at the centre or state level, the difference between them is negligible. If the BJP is against free markets – witness their stand on FDI in retail – the Congress has always been an enemy of free speech – they are the ones who banned The Satanic Verses. Who is left and who is right?
There are two factors that shape politics in India. One is the nature and structure of government. Our government is far more powerful than it should be, with an excess of discretionary power over the common man. We are worse off under our government, regardless of which party is in charge, than we were under the British. Our government is effectively set up not to serve us, but to rule us – and to extract hafta from us as the underworld would. Think of political parties as rival mafia gangs fighting for the right to loot us for five years.
The second factor shaping our politics is the nature of our electorate. Most of our politics is local; and all of it is tribal. Our tribes aren’t formed around ideas or ideologies, though, but around identity. (Caste and religion, mainly, in that order.) And the art of Indian politics is creating and sustaining votebanks out of these many disparate tribes. The alleged pseudo-secularism of the Congress, for example, is a consequence of their wooing minority votebanks. The rise of the BJP in Gujarat in the late ‘80s and the ‘90s, in fact, was partly because the Patels and the Brahmins came into the BJP fold as a backlash to the Congress masterplan of consolidating their KHAM votebank (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) with the help of reservations. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement, a political masterstroke, finished off what was left of the KHAM alliance. There were no higher ideals being pursued here: Indian politics is about patronage, about mustering up enough votes to get to power; and then rewarding the folk who got you in.
Our two main parties are an abomination. The Congress is an empty shell devoid of belief, and tied up in a feudalism that has harmed our nation and made Narendra Modi possible. (India would be a better place if Kamala Nehru had had a headache all of February 1917.) The BJP has its roots in a religious outfit in which grown men show how macho they are by doing PT drill in khaki knickers, though I believe their leader is more in thrall of Mukesh Ambani than Veer Savarkar. Hindutva is just a political tool. Offer Modi a chance to rule in hell or serve in heaven, and he will choose hell. Power is the only religion.
AAP might appear to be an exception to this – but is it really? It defines itself mainly in opposition to the other players – ‘politicians bad, we’re the common man, vote for us’—but what exactly do they stand for themselves? How you you reconcile a party that brings together strange bedfellows such as Kumar Vishwas and Medha Patkar, Meera Sanyal and Prashant Bhushan? Arvind Kejriwal correctly focussed on a huge problem in our country – corruption – but came up with a solution that would make the problem worse. (Instead of reducing the discretionary power of government, which is the root cause of corruption, he wants to add an extra layer of discretion in the form of a Jan Lokpal. Like, duh, that will work, really?) They’re an outstanding political startup, but politics is to governance what courtship is to marriage, and we all saw how they behaved in Delhi.
One remarkable thing about these elections is that it seems to have shaken the young, the urban, the middle-class out of their apathy. I can’t say the same for myself. It’s going to be a long, hot summer, and I’d like some lemonade.
Previously on Lighthouse:
Politics and the Sociopath
A Godless Congregation
Posted by Amit Varma on 11 April, 2014 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the second installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
‘For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: Hunt or be hunted.’ – Frank Underwood, House of Cards.
I have often wondered, what kind of person wants to be a politician? Growing up, we gravitate towards our future professions on the basis of interests or aptitude or, often, just circumstances. What we are drawn towards depends on the kind of person we are: someone bad at maths in unlikely to turn to engineering or investment banking, just as an introverted geek is probably going to avoid a career in news broadcasting. So what are you like, then, if you aspire to be a politician and actually end up being good at it?
First up, the stated reasons are mostly bunkum: aspiring politicians want to serve the community or make the world a better place only as much as Miss India contestants want to be like Mother Teresa. No, with few exceptions, people are driven to get into politics by just one instinct: the lust for power. It’s primal, it’s hardwired into us—the chief of the tribe has the best chance of propagating his genes—but there are many who want what only a few will get, and the road to the top is always bloody. Those who navigate this road successfully need to possess ambition, charm and ruthlessness in equal measure.
The kind of person best suited to navigating this road is a sociopath. A sociopath—the term is also used interchangeably with ‘psychopath’—is essentially a person who feels no empathy towards his fellow humans, a condition that is innate and originates in the brain. (Damage to a part of the brain called the amygdala is the most likely culprit.) The psychologist Robert Hare defined sociopaths as “intraspecies predators who use charm, manipulation, intimidation, and violence to control others and to satisfy their own selfish needs. Lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they cold-bloodedly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.”
Needless to say, sociopaths are therefore cut out for some professions more than others. While sociopaths comprise upto 4% of the general population, they are estimated to make up over 20% of the prison population in the US, which is what you’d expect from people who lack any conscience. It has been theorized that they are also over-represented among trial lawyers, bankers and, you guessed it, among politicians.
A study published last year analyzed the 42 US presidents leading up to George W Bush and found a high degree of sociopathy in their personalities. But this is not necessarily a negative assessment. As Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist who worked on the study, said, “Certain psychopathic traits may be like a double-edged sword. Fearless dominance, for example, may contribute to reckless criminality and violence, or to skillful leadership in the face of a crisis.” Indeed, over a century ago the philosopher and psychologist William James had said, “When superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce [...] in the same individual, we have the best possible conditions for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries.” Sociopaths can aquire power more easily than others—what they do with this power is a different matter entirely.
While politics is the natural habitat of the sociopath, political systems differ across the world. Sociopaths are more likely to dominate politics in those countries where the state has more power and less accountability than it should. I would think, therefore, that there is a greater likelihood of finding a sociopathic politician in India than, say, in Scandanavia. Indeed, the disdain with which Indians regard politics and politicians in general indicates that there is something to this. In the general population, one in 25 people is a sociopath; list down the names of 25 Indian politicians and see, according to you, how many fit the bill.
There are exceptions, of course. In my view, the following gents don’t seem to be sociopaths: the hapless Manmohan Singh, an accidental politician; Rahul Gandhi, a buffoon trying to run the family business because he’s good at nothing else (or simply because it’s there); Arvind Kejriwal, a sanctimonious and misguided activist who took an unusual route into politics. But one man who seems to fit the bill, and who even his opponents would admit is remarkably talented as a politician, is Narendra Modi. To me, he seems to be a textbook sociopath, who believes in nothing, has no principles, and will simply do whatever it takes to get to power and stay there.
If you agree with my assessment, consider the implications: if Modi is indeed a sociopath, all the things you like or loathe about him may be misplaced. He may be neither a bigoted Muslim-hater nor a champion of development and growth, but simply an opportunistic politician pandering to different constituencies at different times. (On one side, the electorate of Gujarat, with whom the perception that he engineered the riots, whether or not he did, brought him much support. On the other side, the small business owners and industrialists who fund him, and spread the impression that he supports free markets while his actions reveal him, so far, to be no more than a crony capitalist.) Every aspect of his public image could simply be carefully constructed to get him political gain, and his actions if he becomes prime minister would be tailored around the constraints and opportunities of his political environment, which will be different at the national level from what they have been in Gujarat or on the campaign trail.
All this, I must clarify, is neither a defence nor a condemnation of Modi. Being a sociopath is biological destiny, just as being left-handed or gay or allergic to coriander is, but how you are born should be neither a reason to condemn you nor an exculpation for your actions. Men should be judged by what they do, not by what they are—and it is not the purpose of this column to examine whether Modi is a genocider or a developmental messiah, both of which are simplistic narratives anyway. Just consider this: If Modi is indeed a sociopath, whose public persona is constructed around whatever will get him to power in this democracy of ours, then whatever you like or dislike about him reveals less about him and more about the state of India itself. When India looks at Narendra Modi, it looks into a mirror. What you are is what you get.
* * *
Previously on Lighthouse:
A Godless Congregation
Posted by Amit Varma on 14 March, 2014 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
I have just started a monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line, called Lighthouse. This is the first installment.
A few days ago, a curious thing happened at a friend’s place. Seven of us were sitting around a dining table enjoying the postprandial bliss that inevitably follows copious consumption of Coorg Dry Pork and Hanumantu Mutton Pulao, when somebody asked the question, ‘So, when did you first realise you were an atheist?’ We traded stories, and realised at the end of it that every one of us was a non-believer, thus making us surely the most godless dinner congregation that evening in Mumbai. A full table, and not one deity between us. How unusual – and how very strange that in the second decade of the 21st century, such a gathering should be unusual to begin with.
Let’s not talk about science and modernity – we still live in primitive times. There are 13 countries where people who admit to atheism face execution under the law – and even in the supposedly modern USA, being an atheist pretty much finishes your prospects as a politician. The Huffington Post recently reported that there are no self-declared atheists in the US Congress, and a study by the Universities of British Columbia and Oregon found that ‘atheists are among society’s most distrusted groups, comparable even to rapists in certain circumstances.’ This is no doubt true of India as well, where Arvind Kejriwal, once an atheist, rediscovered religion as he ran for public office, and breathlessly thanked ‘the Supreme Father, Ishwar, Allah, Waheguru’ when he became chief minister of Delhi. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and put those ravings down to cynical roleplay rather than to genuine self-delusion.
I was an atheist long before I knew I was one. Back in the day, I shared the common misconception that atheists are people who believe that there is no god. But this is a faulty definition. The dictionary will tell you that atheists are actually people who do not believe that there is a god. Consider the subtle difference: atheism is the absence of belief. Until something has been proven to exist, it is rational not to believe in it – and the burden of proof always lies with the believer. An absence of belief does not always correspond to a belief in absence, which explains why most nonbelievers are non-militant about their nonbelief. As a correspondent to the Economist put it a few years ago, atheism is no more a belief system or a religion than not collecting stamps is a hobby.
When I realised this, it struck me that I had never collected stamps. And as I grew older, the nonbelief that existed perhaps out of laziness was reinforced by learning about science and examining my own deepest fears. All these millennia, god had needed to exist for two reasons: one, to explain everything about the world that we cannot. (The God of the Gaps.) Two, to provide consolation for our deepest existential fears. Over time, and especially in the last century-and-a-half, the gaps in our knowledge have shrunk drastically, and we no longer need a divine explanation for natural phenomena. As Douglas Adams once said about the theory of evolution, ‘The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.’
A deeper reason for why god must exist, however, is to mask our own cosmic insignificance. We are tiny, temporary fragments of a universe far larger than our inadequate brains are capable of imagining – and we’re too scared and arrogant to accept this simple fact. No, we must build narratives of our centrality to the universe, and devise potential afterlives that help us stay in denial of the one simple fact that we will be dead one day, with no greater meaning or purpose to it all. It is said that humans are set apart from other species by our self-awareness – you could also call it self-delusion, perhaps?
It is easy to be a fount of rationality and say these things, of course – but beyond the chatter, we actually have to come to terms with it. It eats me up, knowing that I am just a speck of dust in the larger scheme of things, and that soon I’ll be gone, poof, just like that. What good is my existence if I won’t be around after the fact to reflect on it? As loved ones die and I grow older, I can’t help but envy those around me for their false consolations, their anesthesia: they cope, they thrive, they manufacture meaning in their lives. Our job is harder.
But that is a private matter, and I overstate the angst. Atheists don’t live their lives tormented by the absence of a man in the sky with a beard – and most of us, if I may use the collective noun for non-stamp collectors with little else in common, aren’t even militant about our atheism. Why, then, are atheists held in such poor regard by believers everywhere?
One possible reason is that this has nothing to do with religion per se, and more to do with how we construct our identities with the belief systems we follow. Liberals abhor conservatives and vice versa, and clashes of ideology can get deeply personal. Perhaps it is the same with believers and nonbelievers. Every atheist is, in a sense, a personified slap on the face of all believers, a walking, talking reminder of their weakness and their delusions. It is natural to react viscerally to this, is it not?
Believers sometimes rationalise their distaste for atheists by arguing that religion is the source of morality, and that atheists can’t possible have any incentive to behave ethically. Let’s leave aside the historical issue of the staggering amount of violence committed in the name of religion – there is also a case to be made that codes of conduct existed before religions did, and that religions merely codified what already existed, and might even have been hardwired into us. Ultimately, we behave the way we behave, do the things we do, out of regard for our fellow human beings, and for our own humanity. And if that is all we ever believe in, well, it’s good enough.
Previous posts on atheism: 1, 2, 3.
Posted by Amit Varma on 14 February, 2014 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
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