Excerpted economics doesn’t work

“Even if the rupee falls to 80, it will not be a concern, providing all other currencies depreciate”, our Economic Affairs Secretary was quoted as saying, earlier this week, on the front page of the Mint.

The logic is pure Alice in Wonderland – if all other currencies depreciate, then what exactly does the rupee depreciate against? One commentator explained – “he’s transposing the dollar against the rest of the world”. She was probably right. And maybe the honorable secretary had mentioned that elsewhere. If so, then the Mint editors took the quote out of context.

This morning, the Vice Chairman of Niti Ayog, Rajiv Kumar, was quoted, in the same paper, as saying,

“The rupee rose by about 17% during the last three years. Since the beginning of this year, rupee has declined 9.8%. So it has recovered. It is coming back to natural value”.

This is a staggering statement, for many reasons:

  1. The math – if something rises 17%, then drops 10%, it ends up 5% higher. But the rupee is at it’s lowest against the dollar. If the dollar is the benchmark here – which it typically is, this defies logic.
  2. If the rupee has declined, how exactly has it ‘recovered’? Recovery usually suggests rising, not falling.
  3. What is the ‘natural value’ of a currency?

Again, in response to my tweets, a  commentator tried to add context – namely that Mr. Kumar was talking in the context of REER (Real Effective Exchange Rate). That may well be the case, but even read like that, it makes the math illogical. And it definitely puts the Mint editors in the dock, again, for printing an excerpt out of context.

Careless comments typically appear when people are in a hurry. Why are our senior-most economic bureaucrats in a hurry? It doesn’t behove the custodians of a large rapidly growing economy. And it certainly doesn’t behove the custodians of a responsible newspaper, to rush half-baked statements to press.

 

Mohit Satyanand

Who the *@# are you?

I am that pesky Uncle whose car blocks a motorcycle heading the wrong way up a one-way street, and asks the driver what he thinks he’s doing.

I’m also that elitist idiot who once rapped on a lady’s car window, and handed her a Subway sandwich wrapper she just tossed, saying, “Madam, you left something behind.”

When I was not a silver-haired senior citizen, I would often get “Who the @#* do you think you are?” in words, or body language. Now, it’s more, “Don’t waste my time, move on.”

Sometimes, it’s more hopeful. Recently, on my cycle, I caught up with a motor-cyclist who swerved across two lanes, crashed one red-light, but was forced by traffic to wait at the next. I smiled at him, and asked him how much time he’d saved by the last manouver. “Not much”. he acknowledged.

And even if he had, I persisted, what would he have done with the time. He had the grace to consider that a valid question. “True”. And actually went to say, ” I won’t do that again.”

I’m not idealistic enough to believe that I modified someone’s behaviour that morning; but I got through.

I once read that traffic in Italy – long renowned for it’s unruliness – began to tip into the lane of European civility when it became socially unacceptable to drive with extreme selfishness. In Delhi, where I live, the blatant disregard of driving rules is worsening; I don’t see the traffic police responding in any meaningful manner.

As long as I have the energy, I will continue to be that pesky Uncle. But the years have taught me that you have a much better chance of getting through when you engage with civility and decency, rather than anger. And humor is the best recipe.

Once, tired at the end of a long day commuting by metro, I stood in front of the seats reserved for senior citizens and the disabled. The two young men occupying the seats pretended not to have noticed me. Loudly, I asked, “Which one of you is a senior citizen, and which one disabled?”

One scooted into the next carriage. The other looked around, saw another white haired-gent, and asked him resignedly, “Would you want to be sitting, too?”

I think we have a responsibility to engage with our fellow citizens, to make ours a more respectful, orderly society. But, if we want to succeed, we too, need to engage with respect.

The World’s most livable city

Yesterday, a cousin sent me a triumphant WhatsApp message from Munich, a city he has made his own: “Munich named world’s most livable city, again!”

The top city ranking was awarded by Monocle Films, which does an annual ranking of the world’s 25 top cities. Mercer, a global consultancy firm, ranks Munich at Number 4.

No.1 or No.4, Munich’s a gorgeous city, with great museums, a vibrant student life across 16 universities, beer, and above all, the English garden. With 78 kilometers of paths, this is one of the world’s largest urban parks. The Isar river runs through it, and a quirk in the topography creates a standing wave that challenges surfers in body suits. 10 minutes downstream, an artificial island hosts a Japanese tea house. Some of the garden’s architectural features are somewhat kitschy, but the feature that caught my liberal soul was this signboard posted at the top end of a meadow reserved for nude sun-bathers

 

I translate loosely:

LAWN FOR NUDE SUNBATHERS

 

  • Nude sunbathing is permitted in the meadow within the horse track
  • It doesn’t need saying that dogs in this area must be on a short leash
  • Please don’t disturb the peace of sunbathers here – many other lawns within the garden are at your disposal
  • Football and other ballgames are not permitted

Please regard this freedom as a special expression of a liberal and tolerant society

 

For this one sign board, and the worldview it represents, I hereby nominate Munich as the most tolerant city I have ever visited.

 

Jobs amongst the Transgender community

The employment figures tell a positive story but much is left to get jobs for the transgender community in India.

It was a major feat when Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016 was tabled in the parliament. Even though the bill was not passed, the mere act of recognising the community provided economic freedom and social support for around 4.88 Lakh people. Also finally, the transgender community has became a part of vital data sets like employment and unemployment surveys.

Source: Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR), Worker Population Ratio (WPR) and Unemployment Rate (UR) for persons aged 15 year & above according to Usual Principal Status Approach (UPS) based on 2″d, 3’d, 4th and 5th Employment-Unemployment Survey (EUS), Annual Report 2017-18

The 2016-17 Employment and Unemployment Survey captured the Labour Force Participation rate amongst the transgender population. Labour force participation rate refers to the part of working population that is currently employed or seeking employment. It is, hence, used widely to understand the willingness to work within the population between 16-65 year olds. Hence, its a major accomplishment if the LFPR for transgender population was 48 percent in 2016-17. In comparison,  the LFPR for women and men was 23 and 75 per cent respectively clearly signifying how low the female labour force participation is.

Although the figures tell a positive story, the reality lies in the fact that in the first week of their job, 8 of the 23 transgender people, all trans women, quit. As elaborated by Somak Ghoshal,

Employed in a variety of roles, from ticketing to housekeeping staff, which paid between ₹9,000-₹15,000 a month, most of them found it impossible to make ends meet, especially since landlords in the city charged them ₹400-₹600 a day for the most basic accommodation. That is, if they agreed to rent a place to them at all.

The Ocean of Humanity

Ex-President Pranab Mukherjee’s speech at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha (RSS) headquarter has stirred up the proverbial hornets’ nest.

The RSS is not an academic institution. It is a cadre-based organisation with strong ideological moorings. Certitudes are important both for it’s existence and survival. Despite this, they invited probably the most cerebral and scholarly ideological opponent to address their valediction. It shows a certain confidence and suppleness that must be appreciated.

As for the citizen Mukherjee’s speech, it was impressive to say the least. The central feature of his speech was neither the invocation of Jawaharlal Nehru nor of the constitutional patriotism. For me, it was the reference to Tagore’s celebrated poem ‘Bharat Tirtha’. Tagore’s formulations on the nationalism and patriotism are important and have a contemporary resonance for a variety of reasons.

Tagore was in the search of an authentic Indianness. He expressed his vision lyrically in a number of poems and more concretely in the form of Shantiniketan, the institution he established and nurtured. His vision was rooted, yet cosmopolitan; traditional yet modern. Synthesis and reconciliation, and not recrimination, was it’s essence. Tagore was also the most important spokesperson of the Indian version of liberalism. His ‘Ekla chalo re’ is possibly the best articulation of an individual spirit unafraid of the collective tyranny and his ‘Chitto jetha bhayashunyo’ the most appropriate translation of the Kant’s Sapere Aude.

Needless to say, Tagore’s vision of India is very different from the ethnicity and identity centric versions of nationalism. If the subsequent discussions of Mukherjee’s provocative speech can bring out those nuances and rescue the richness of Tagore’s message from the collective amnesia, it will have served it’s purpose.

Social norms and the Bangalore Metro

I am a regular user of the Bangalore Metro. In the monstrosity that this city’s traffic is, Bangalore metro is an island full of all things beautiful. One can be sure of no pollution, no traffic snarls, no delays, functioning public utilities (elevators, escalators, etc.), clean platforms, and clean train compartments. There are no bins inside the compartments. In the three years of travelling on the Metro, I haven’t seen even one person eating inside the train let alone throw things there. Ditto for platforms.

I’m surprised by how the organised metro world is so different from the chaotic one you experience as soon as you step out of the metro station. In particular, the cleanliness inside the metro trains and stations causes cognitive dissonance. Even more so, if you think of the damaging behaviour that people usually have toward public transport.

What explains this rule-following by the otherwise rule-violating people that the Indians are? Mind you, people adhere to rules even though there are no guards inside the train compartments. While pondering over this question yesterday with colleagues, here are the few explanations that we came up with. Metro stations are ring-fenced and stepping inside this ring signals to the people that they must now play by the rules inside. There are surveillance cameras on the platform and inside the trains, so there is fear of humiliation if caught on camera. Fines/penalties inside the metro stations are spelt out and displayed, so people know their liability should they flout the rule. Metro stations, platforms, and trains are new, and people’s psychology is to not dirty what looks shiny and clean.

Last year the government started a new train, equipped with personal TV screens, clean toilets, and everything. The train was vandalised in the first journey. And one can argue that that was because for the people who boarded the train, it was only the train which was shiny new. The railway platform and the rest of the experience was same old same old. In contrast, once you enter the metro station, your “world” changes completely. For similar reasons, malls are less littered than BDA complexes.

So here are the questions that follow. If the same commuters are put in the trains and platforms run by the Indian Railways, will we achieve similar standards of cleanliness and rule-compliance? What does the Bangalore Metro tell us about social norms and how to create and change them?

The philosopher Christina Bichhieri says, “for a social norm to exist, social expectations must matter.” Should we then stop saying that “we are like this only” and look at how to change the expectations that we have of ourselves as a society? Will we have to recreate the world to change how people behave?

Beyond petty politics

A few days ago my office folks had a long debate on the morality of voting. This entire conversation was ignited when one of the colleagues questioned how non-voting is considered to be a lesser moral position that voting. The conversation that followed was a like a strong debate where both sides had valid arguments. On one hand came the argument that supported non-voting as a lesser moral activity since it’s about the aggregates impact that registering the discontent has as opposed to not voting. On the other hand, it was argued that going to the voting booth to cast a NOTA (None Of The Above) vote was as good as showing dislike for all parties and emphasised on how little an impact a single vote has in such situations. I supported the latter. 

All of this conversation reminded me of a brilliant book by José Saramago called Seeing. Here’s the brief summary from a review:

The story begins with those ordinary citizens, who not so long ago regained their sight and their tranquil day-to-day lives, doing something that seems quite unconnected with vision or lack of it. It is voting day, and 83% of them, after not going to the polls at all in the morning, go in the late afternoon and cast a blank ballot.

We see the dismay of bureaucrats, the excitement of journalists, the hysteria of the government, and the mild non-response of the citizens, who, when asked how they voted, refuse to say, reminding the questioner that the question is illegal.

I will not ruin the book for you but it was interesting to remember how the story shows that coalitions and disagreements between parties is a much smaller problem for a democracy compared to apathy of the people. The citizens in the book were not just indifferent to who came to power but did not see how the person who did come to power would make any difference to them. This stark realisation brings forth the significance of governance and institutions structures that secure the incentives and relations between the civilians and their governments, beyond the rigmarole of political terms.

While the Congress and JD(S) government come into an agreement over Karnataka’s election, it is time to see beyond the petty politics and realise that although there has been just 0.9 per cent of NOTA votes this time, it is more than six smaller parties in Karnataka, including two parties with a nation-wide presence. 

PS: I would also highly recommend Death at Intervals by José Saramago.

All Indians are outsiders

Yesterday, I went through the chapter on India in David Reich’s wave-making book Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the new science of the human past. I’m listing a few thoughts here.

Until now, archeology and anthropology were the key disciplines that helped us decode our past. But now, DNA studies have matured and are adding new, explosive insights. And these studies have a lot to say about ancestry of Indians.

First, Indian bigots of all garden varieties will find the conclusion of the chapter on India deeply disturbing. What it essentially says is that nearly all Indians have significant ‘outsider’ ancestry. None of us are exclusively indigenous.

.. We found that West Eurasian-related mixture in India ranges from as low as 20 percent to as high as 80 percent.. No group is unaffected by mixing, neither the highest nor the lowest caste, including the non-Hindu tribal populations living outside the caste system.

There’s large amount of Iranian-related ancestry in all of us, regardless of whether you are from the north or from the south.

Second, this mixing of ancestry happened in the last 4000 years. Which means, the people who lived on this land 4000 years back were completely different from the people who live here today. 

Subsequently, the caste system and resulting endogamy meant that Indians were never truly a single large population like the Han Chinese. Instead, India is composed of a large number of small populations.

People tend to think of India, with its more than 1.3 billion people, as having a tremendously large population, and indeed many Indians as well as foreigners see it that way. But genetically, this is an incorrect way to view the situation. The Han Chinese are truly a large population. They have been mixing freely for thousands of years. In contrast, there are few if any Indian groups that are demographically very large, and the degree of genetic differentiation among Indian jaati groups living side by side in the same village is typically two to three times higher than the genetic differentiation between northern and southern Europeans.

This sustained endogamy over thousands of years makes Indians more susceptible to rare disease-causing mutations. Just one more reason for why endogamy propagated through caste sucks.

So next time someone tells you to ‘go back where you came from’, hold their hand and ask them to join you for a trip to West Eurasia.

And if you’re interested, we have a podcast episode on this chapter on Puliyabaazi.

 

Quebec is getting TASMACs for Marijuana

Quebec is pulling a leaf out of Tamil Nadu’s playbook for legalising marijuana. Quebec will be procuring marijuana in bulk from six suppliers and then operating the entire supply chain. Quebec will not only levy an ‘excise’ tax, but also sell marijuana out of government-owned dispensaries. In other words, Canadians will be buying their weed from a Canadian style TASMAC!

Hydropothecary Corp, Canopy Growth and Aphria Inc are among six companies that have signed agreements with Quebec’s liquor board to supply the province with marijuana when Canada legalizes its recreational use this year, the companies said in separate statements on Wednesday.

Canada’s senate is set for a final vote on legalizing marijuana on June 7, with sales expected to start in the fall. Provinces, including Quebec and Ontario, plan to open government-run stores, while others such as Alberta and Saskatchewan will allow private ones. British Columbia plans to have both.

[The Globe and Mail, April 11, 2018]

Back in India, this is what a government dispensary of marijuana looks like. Canada must do better.

Government authorised Bhang shop, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India.