A Global Shift in the Nuclear Weapons Narrative

It’s quite fascinating to observe the global conversation on nuclear weapons. It resembles a simple pendulum oscillation with a time period of ten years.

Back in 2009, the then US president pledged to seek an arms reduction treaty with Russia, ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and convene a global summit to discuss the eventual elimination of nuclear stockpiles. It was the first time that a US president spoke of a roadmap for nuclear disarmament.

And yet that goal seems even more distant nine years later. An excellent article titled ‘The Vanishing Nuclear Taboo‘ in The Foreign Affairs describes the situation well:

After decades of arms control agreements, security cooperation, and a growing consensus about the unacceptability of nuclear weapons, the world is now headed in the opposite direction. Geopolitical tensions have heightened. New arms races have started. States have reverted to valorizing nuclear weapons. The nuclear taboo is weakening. But nothing about this is inevitable; it is a choice our leaders have made. Nuclear disarmament will have to be a long-term project. Today’s decision-makers may not be able to complete the task, but they have an obligation to pursue it.

The taboo is vanishing fast. Apart from the usual suspects, the European states have also changed their tones. This excellent paper gives an idea of the possible scenarios in Europe that seem likely as a result of the ongoing churn. While rejecting the idea of a single European deterrent, the paper argues that the following scenarios appear realistic:

  1. In the current context, Paris can consider extending nuclear deterrence to Europe as a whole including rotations of Rafale fighter-bombers (without their nuclear missiles) to allied bases across Europe.
  2. If the US-Europe relationship worsens further, France can consider these options:
    • base part of its airborne arsenal (say, in the order of ten missiles) in Germany or in Poland (basing) and/or agree that they could be carried by European fighter-bombers (sharing).
    • replace the NATO SNOWCAT (Support of NATO Operations With Conventional Air Tactics) procedure with an identical European one, where non-nuclear nations commit themselves to participate in a nuclear strike with non-nuclear assets.
    • create the possibility of a European nuclear maritime task force, with accompanying European ships and, possibly, a European nuclear squadron based on it.

The fact that such themes are even being discussed seriously in Europe is just another indication of the fact that the NPT regime is falling apart. Consequently, the terms of the debate now need to shift from the ambitious goal of zero nuclear weapons to the more realistic goal of nuclear restraint by a global commitment towards no first use and by taking weapons off high alert to reduce possibilities of accidental use.

The terms of the nuclear weapons debate are definitely up for a change; it would be interesting to see which nation-state will declare itself as the next nuclear power. Any guesses?

 

 

BBC on Fake News in India: Nothing New

The BBC recently released a report on fake news in India as part of a larger project aiming to investigate the effects that fake news is having on societies across the globe.

The key finding of the report is that the majority of sharing in India is driven by two factors. The first is “sender primacy” – there is an implicit assumption that news shared by someone known to an individual is more trustworthy, given the low levels of trust which traditional media houses enjoy. The second is the validation of identity – both in broadcast platforms (Facebook) and narrowcast platforms (WhatsApp), individuals tend to share information that supports their identity and reject other information as being fake or otherwise part of a conspiracy.

Neither of these conclusions is particularly earth-shattering: in fact, I wrote about exactly this behaviour in a series for Pragati last year, and it is not a problem that is confined to India alone. The biggest innovation that the report makes, in my view, is shifting the onus of the spread of fake news from platforms to individuals. Understanding the particular social context within which a technology is adopted and used is critical to understanding its use, and that’s a conversation that has been long been overdue in India.

Here’s an example. Social media and smartphone use flood users with a deluge of information and notifications. In Western societies, this has been identified as a cause of anxiety as users struggle to stay up to date. In India, it’s a cause of irritation at worst – Indians seem to be more attuned to constantly wanting to stay up to date for a variety of reasons ranging from the fear of appearing uninformed to wanting high general knowledge scores in exams. Social norms may also explain why Indians tend to forward so many messages – sending “Good morning” messages or forwards about health and policy updates, for example, are considered civic duties. It helps that for such messages are seen as imposing a low cost on recipients even if they turn out to be fake. One is expected to be engaged in a social group – whether this is because Indians see identity in different ways from Western societies may be a question worth exploring – but it is clear that behavioural norms like these lead to a somewhat different sort of online behaviour, and a different way of consuming and sharing information.

As a result, the conclusion that “nation-building” is behind the spread of fake news isn’t really that surprising. What is surprising is that India still lacks public discourse on the social norms that contribute to this sort of behaviour – a lack of self-introspection that will prove extremely damaging to our democracy in the long run.

The Durian

Today is the last day of the 33rd ASEAN summit in Singapore. Many things, including the menu of the gala dinner and napping Presidents, have been making the news. One of the main items on the agenda, however, was Myanmar’s on-going humanitarian crisis. In a departure from the traditional position of non-interference, the ASEAN chairman called the crisis “matter for concern” in his statement. The following days had Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and U.S Vice President Pence making remarks on the lack of progress Myanmar is making towards restoring the situation.

The other high-stakes agenda item was the disputed South China Sea. It has been reported that ASEAN and China would continue to advance their strategic partnership, the joint maritime exercise held last month as evidence, and work towards a more robust Code of Conduct in the waterway. ASEAN countries, however, are hedging their bets. In his intervention during the summit, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that ASEAN countries view the US-China relationship as the most important set of bilateral relations that have profound implications for them, and want to engage with both China and the U.S.

India at the ASEAN summit

The annual ASEAN-India summit, attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was centred around the creation of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). New Delhi has been hesitant to join the RCEP citing discomfort opening its markets to China. Keen to have India join the RCEP, ASEAN has made a concessional offer –  India can open up 83% of its market against the earlier set 92%. The pact is seen as vital to securing the region’s continued prosperity, especially after a trade war broke out between its vital trading partners US and China. At a time when significant trade is being diverted out of China, India stands to gain a lot by joining the RCEP.

At the summit, Prime Minister Lee noted that India has consistently supported ASEAN centrality and he hopes the strategic partnership between the two continues to grow.

The False Promise of Connectivity in International Relations

When the first transatlantic telegraph cable became operational in 1858, utopians hoped that nationalism would soon perish. And just two years ago Facebook was talking about how it aimed to create one global community.

But we now know that nationalism has proved to be an adversary deserving far more respect and reflection than what the technologists believed it to be. For an excellent discussion on this topic, I recommend this episode of The Secret History of the Future podcast.

What caught my attention were the parallels between the false promises of information connectivity in inter-personal relations and infrastructure connectivity in international relations.

It is almost an axiom in foreign policy circles today that powerful nation-states should envision and deliver on infrastructure projects in regions where they seek higher influence. China’s BRI has only strengthened this narrative — alternatives to BRI are often just modified variants of infrastructure connectivity projects. This narrative has its own dodgy economic reasoning as well: connectivity projects are thought of as ‘global public goods’ providing initiatives.

Even if we leave the misapplication of economic theory aside, the utility of many connectivity projects is not immediately clear to me. One, these projects will also run up against the force of nationalism. Familiarity will breed contempt regardless of the benefits of these projects. The BRI has started encountering this force in Palau and Sierra Leone. It’s not long before CPEC will face this challenge as well. Two, even from an economic standpoint, assuming the financial risk of connectivity projects in under-governed regions makes no sense for the investing countries. Just like pipeline projects, it is not difficult to sabotage such road projects — warlords and terrorists can easily block them in areas where the writ of the state runs weak.

Maybe converting infrastructure debt to equity control (in the form of transfer of land rights etc) is the primary consideration that makes countries project connectivity as the lynchpin of their foreign policy.

 

India’s Human Capital Problem Won’t go Away.

The World Bank released it’s first Human Capital Index (HCI) on the 11th.

Our government was quick to reject the findings – presumably, in respect of the comments on India*.

The headline finding – “A child born in India today will be 44 percent as productive when she grows up as she could be if she enjoyed complete education and full health.”

But we already know much of this – for example, that we have more stunted children than all of sub-Saharan Africa.

Part of the motivation for the Swacch Bharat exercise came from the research regarding stunted chidren – the insight being that fecal-borne diseases led to stunted growth, rather than food shortage. Sanitation would be a key contributor to children achieving their full growth potential.

Rejecting the World Bank findings does nothing to improve the lot of these children.

Our government’s reaction to the HCI report mirrors the reaction of an earlier regime to our participation in the bi-annual PISA rating on education in 2009. The report showed our students at the bottom of the charts – we did beat Kyrgyzistan, though**. Lant Pritchett said, “The PISA 2009+ results, which are both official and are beyond gain-saying, are unspeakably bad.” Our bureaucrats and politicians muttered some stuff about the tests being inappropriately designed, and withdrew in a sulk.

But again, we already know how dysfunctional our school system is. The home-grown ASER tests have measured learning levels for over a decade now, and tell us that less than half our 5th grade children can read a 2nd grade text; less than half of 8th grade children can do a simple division. The 2016 ASER report underlined that “this situation has remained unchanged since 2009, when the Right to Education, or RTE, Act was passed by Parliament.”

Dismissing a report just because it was Not Made Here helps no one – it shows a deep-seated inferiority and refusal to deal with reality.

 

*http://databank.worldbank.org/data/download/hci/HCI_2pager_IND.pdf

** https://blog.theleapjournal.org/2012/01/first-pisa-results-for-india-end-of.html

 

Why the RBI held interest rates (the dog that didn’t bark)

On Friday, the RBI surprised our financial markets by holding the interest rate structure.

There was a broad-based consensus that the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the RBI would raise rates by 0.25% (25 bps). Some market watchers predicted a steeper hike, of 0.5%. Less than 20 % of economists surveyed before the MPC meet thought it would vote to hold rates. Yet, the committee took that decision, by an overwhelming majority of 5:1.

My effort here is not to opine whether the MPC took the right decision or not; both on the committee, and outside, there are highly qualified economists, armed with massive data sets, who do this kind of analysis full-time. I am, instead intrigued by how there can be such a sharp divide between economists on the panel, and those outside – 82% on the outside for a hike; 83% on the inside against it. Polar opposites.

Why would this have happened?

At this point, I can think of only one reason – the economists on the inside have access to data that those on the outside don’t have.

This cannot be about external conditions, which occupy so much of the economic news today – oil prices on the boil; our widening foreign exchange gap; the sliding rupee; surging interest rates in the US; reverse fund flow from emerging markets to global financial centres.

It can only be about Indian data sets. Our public data shows India is growing at 8.2% per annum. If this were the case, since imported inflation is a threat, it would make sense to raise interest rates pre-emptively. But supposing the economy is NOT growing at 8%, and domestic demand is under threat, then it might just make sense to hold back an interest rate hike.

Economy-watchers know that the new GDP series has several inconsistencies, but are not equipped with the data to understand exactly how wrong it is; the RBI, on the other hand, has much more insight into the current state of the economy, and the risks to growth.

To my mind, the RBI’s concern about the fragility of the Indian economy is the most logical explanation for its surprise decision to hold back a rate hike.

Why do Murder Rates Vary so Much Between Nations?

Earlier this year, my wife was invited to Brazil for a conference. When she said she would extend her trip to travel a bit, I was more than a little concerned by the prospect of her traveling alone in a country I associated with violence.

Travel Advisories from US and UK governments were not very cheery, but when we talked to friends who had been there, and mailed contacts in Brazil, the general consensus was, one needed to be careful, and aware of ‘No-Go’ areas.

Meanwhile I had looked at the numbers – Brazil has a homicide rate of almost 30 per 100,000 people per annum. India is just above 3. The global average is just above 6.

I can’t make sense of the numbers; the popular notion is that poverty, inequality and joblessnes bring violence.  Brazil and India have all three afflictions – both are poor, though India does worse in this regard; both are highly unequal, with Brazil worse off; jobs for the youth a common problem. Why does one nation have a homicide rate that is almost 10 times as high as the other?

I don’t have a clue, and welcome inputs. Global data suggests there is a geographical (and hence cultural) pattern. The Americas have a homicide rate of 16.3, with the Central American nation of El Salvador topping the charts at 80+. Africa comes next at 12.5. Europe, Oceania and South Asia, are all around 3, with some tiny nations like Liechtenstein and Nauru reporting zero homicides.

 

 

 

Interventions at MSME level are not the answer for job creation

The jobs problem in India is acute and there isn’t enough we have done to solve it. We have around 12 million new people joining the working age population every year but we create only 4 million jobs per year. To solve this grave issue, the Union Skill Development and Entrepreneurship Minister Dharmendra Pradhan recently started a new centre to guide new entrepreneurs and provide helpline to MSMEs. A novel step but it based on a common assumption that interventions targeted at MSMEs would create new jobs. This assumption has been questioned by a systematic review by Michael Grimm and Anna Luisa Paffhausen that looks at whether the interventions targeted at MSMEs create new jobs.

Grimm and Paffhausen reviewed the existing evidence on the employment impact programmes to evaluate what impact do interventions have when made on the MSME level. The review concluded that the impact was modest. The interventions are able to “successfully affect intermediate outcomes such as management skills (however) only very few interventions enhance job creation.”

The reviewers have looked at employment created as the new jobs coming up in existing MSMEs (privately or publicly owned) and as jobs that arise through the creation of new MSMEs, including self-employment. The authors analysed 53 studies to understand what form of interventions were taken and if employment generation was the primary objective. The review considers that various interventions would have varied responses. For instance, a measure to increase productivity, such as training, would only result in an increase in employment if the interventions are able to increase outputs and reduce cost. A mere increase in efficiency that does not help reduce cost would not convert into more hiring.

The review brings out various insights but some of the most significant ones are:

  • Most interventions at the MSME level are not intended to create jobs. Primarily because, “enterprise performance is typically measured in terms of output, sales, revenues, business expenditures and profits.” The interventions, therefore, focus more on entrepreneurship training and business development.
  • Entrepreneurship training is beneficial for business skills but mostly does not result in business expansion or more jobs. Unless the firms can generate profit and reduce the cost to a point where they can expand, the training does not do much for job creation.
  • Addressing capital constraints is not enough. Most of the firms use the credit or cash provided as working capital used to increase the inventories. It is rare for firms to use it on fixed capital investment like labour. To add to it, the credit is mostly too small to lead to large changes in capital or production technology which could lead to an increase in employment. For potential business starters or subsistence-type enterprises, the credit is substituted for personal needs like healthcare, housing improvement etc.
  • Formalising the firms does not translate into job creation. To begin with, it is difficult to formalise a firm “because the average firm is simply too small and not profitable enough to make use of the potential that formality offers”. Instead one of the studies shows that the firms that do generate more jobs are the ones that create more permanent and large-scale jobs.

One of the things that do work is an intervention that provides a mix of financial assistance and entrepreneurial training. Although the review has looked at a handful of studies for certain conclusions, the learning is in-depth and needs to be taken seriously to avoid falling into the same traps as other countries have.

Traffic cops and a city’s ethos

Yesterday, I got flagged down by traffic cops for steering my car across the yellow line in the middle of the road. I was bemused, because I don’t think any Delhi driver regards it as a traffic violation.

I pulled over, and lowered my window. The constable asked me whether I knew what I had done; I said yes. “That’s a fine of Rs. 1100”, he said, and asked for my driving licence. I handed it over, and while entering my name into his machine, he paused and said – “I was transferred to traffic duty 6 months ago, and you’re the only person I’ve met who admitted to making a mistake, without argument”.

That’s a crazy comment on our city, I thought – 2 minutes at a  traffic crossing, and you can document 10 traffic violations, but people do not want to be told they’re in the wrong.

“I’m glad you’re trying to enforce the yellow line”, I told the constable, and handed over 3 five-hundred rupee notes. “Wait,” he gestured with his palm.

“Insaaniyat ka javaab insaaniyat se karna padegaa”.

(Civility must be reciprocated by civility).

He busied himself with his machine, and then looked up – ” I’ve issued a ticket for driving without your seat-belt. That’ll be a hundred rupees.”

Here was a completely different comment on our city, one you don’t hear often – an uncivil populace, and a charming, sensitive man in uniform.

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.