Blogging Is Not Dead Yet

In the first episode of this weekly podcast, Amit Varma and Hamsini Hariharan discuss the launch of Pragati Express, and their favourite pieces for the week. Here are some of the pieces that were spoken about in this podcast:

  1. The Freedom Fighters of Pakistan by Chintan Girish Modi
  2. Breaking New Ground by Manoj Kewalramani
  3. A Strong Law is Not Enough by Rishi Majumdar
  4. We Will Not Protect You by Alok Prasanna Kumar
  5. I Want My Free Sub by Gaurav Sabnis
  6. The Future of The Internet on the Seen and the Unseen

 

Closure of Bars on Election Day Reflects Failure of Democracy

The Election Commission in Karnataka has been overzealous in enforcing the model code of conduct, with special regard to sale of alcohol. Election times are generally a pain for owners of liquor stores and bars, but this year seems to be a whole lot worse.

The EC has issued directives and guidelines for owners of bars and other establishments selling liquor. They must maintain diligent accounts of every sale of alcohol. The specific order that has many bar owners worried states: “If there is more than 10 per cent difference in sales compared to the previous year, such outlets will have to face inquiry”. This is ridiculous.

The 20th of April in 2018 was a Friday, when sales generally tend to be high and in 2017, the date fell on a Thursday. The discrepancy could easily be 10 percent.

There will also be a flying squad constituted by the excise department which will patrol the city. It can visit any shop at any time and ask the owners to produce the accounts and sale details. This makes it ripe for rent seeking and discretionary abuse of power. Consider this:

Till Tuesday afternoon, 303 excise licenses have been temporarily suspended in the city alone, and a total of 793 establishments have been temporarily shut till the polling day for various violations across the state.

Further, there has been a lot of seizure of alcohol stock by the excise department, the flying squads and the Election Commission’s vigilance units. In less than a month, these entities together have managed to seize a total of 3,65,388 litres of alcohol seized since March 27.

There are also restrictions on how much alcohol a retail store can sell to an individual: no individual can be sold more than 2.2 litres of beer, or 750 ml of hard liquor. Again, these limits are ridiculous. Is it impossible to imagine a person buying two full bottles of alcohol for a private party he is hosting at home?

Finally, the biggest problem I have with all of this is that it curbs economic freedom. How is it fair to restrict the business of one type of commercial establishment? How is it fair to close down bars and disrupt business on election days? The election day closures are a feeble compensation for state failure and on a larger scale, failure of our democracy. If people vote based on liquor they receive, the problem is not with whether bars are open or not. Finally, I would argue that it is on the election day and the day of results that I could really use a drink.

Is the US immigration policy an opportunity for India?

Earlier in the day, we discussed the impact of a tighter US immigration policy regime on India. At the margin, will it lead skilled Indians to return to India? Nitin Pai in The Print gives a conditional yes as an answer.

Even if pay scales were equivalent (say in terms of purchasing power parity), few NRIs would trade the comfort, security and quality of life in a developed country and come back and face the challenges of daily life in India. Despite sentimental links, patriotic feelings and family connections, most NRIs prefer to live abroad. It won’t change because of government schemes, no matter how attractive they are on paper.

This idea can be conceptualised as two forces acting in the opposite direction. One force is a “India” premium — the extra salary that would compensate for the returnee’s lower quality of life in India. A force in the opposite direction is the “motherland” discount — the discount arising out of patriotic and familial considerations, leading people to stay back or return to India. It is the interplay between these two forces that will decide the direction of skilled labour flows.

As of today, the “India” premium is way larger than the “motherland” discount. Closing this gap is necessary to convert US immigration policy into an opportunity for India.

Enemies With Benefits

The Times of India reports:

Congress on Thursday alleged conspiracy and lodged a complaint with the Karnataka police over what it called “unexplained malfunctioning” of the 10-seater Dassault Falcon 2000 aircraft (VT-AVH) carrying party president Rahul Gandhi to Hubballi from New Delhi.

According to the complaint, filed by Rahul’s close aide Kaushal K Vidyarthee, who was travelling with him, the aircraft suddenly tilted heavily on the left side and the altitude dipped steeply, combined with violent shuddering of the plane’s body, during the course of the flight.

Apparently Narendra Modi called up Gandhi after the incident. I imagine his concern was genuine. These two men should love each other, because they need each other. Modi needs Gandhi because he wants to destroy the Congress, and a weak leader like Gandhi is helping the process along. Gandhi needs Modi because he does not have the skills to come to power on the basis of his own personality, but an anti-Modi wave could get him there.

Basically, the relationship between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi should have BFF-status. You think they send each other cat videos?

India’s plagiarism policy is facepalm

I could’nt believe my eyes when I read in this week’s Science magazine. Here’s an excerpt from Pallava Bagla’s report on UGC’s new plagiarism policy:

The new policy creates four tiers for addressing plagiarism, which is defined by UGC India as “the practice of taking someone else’s work or idea and passing them as one’s own.” The first tier, for what it calls “similarities up to 10%,” would carry no penalty. The second tier, in which 10% to 40% of a document is plagiarized, would require students to submit a revised manuscript and force faculty members to withdraw the plagiarized paper. In cases where 40% to 60% of the document is plagiarized, a student would be suspended for a year and the faculty member would forfeit an annual pay raise and be prohibited from supervising students for 2 years. Students who plagiarize more than 60% of their thesis would be kicked out of the program, while the penalties for faculty members would be extended to a loss of 2 years of pay increases and a 3-year ban on supervising students.[Science]

This is not lenient. It’s breathtaking. By failing to seriously penalise persons who copy as much as 40% of their work, the UGC is effectively condoning massive levels of plagiarism. Whether or not universities are able to catch and act against those who plagiarise, the signal this sends to students and the academic community is perverse. It’s telling them — “it’s okay to copy!”

Now, plagiarism is rampant in Indian academia, a manifestation of the rot that has set in our education system and intellectual life. Instead of attempting to stem that rot and turn things around, the UGC seems to have decided that it might as well legitimise the copying culture. This, to put it mildly, is not expected of the regulator of higher education.

Plagiarism is theft. Condoning theft perverts the settings of the moral compass of young minds. The cascading effects of this will be disastrous for Indian society.

What should the UGC have done? Set the plagiarism threshold very low. The tiniest plagiarism fetches a warning. At 10% you get kicked out. Then announce a transition window of two years to allow everyone to understand and adjust to a new, stringent regime.

As it stands, the proposed plagiarism policy is not, as V S Ramamurthy asks, merely “a joke”. It’s a license to copy.

Small Decisions, Large Effects

Do humans make environmental history or does it make us? I recently came across a paragraph in Sunil Amrith’s Crossing the Bay of Bengal which captures the beauty of migration between India and South-East Asia. Here it is,

“Blood and dirt” gave the frontiers of Southeast Asia their dynamism— the human suffering of migrant workers reshaped the land. We tend to think of environmental history as something that happens to us. Environmental history on the largest scale is made by the forces of nature that shape human society: human beings are “biological agents” alongside plants and pathogens, competing for supremacy. Alternatively, we think— anthropocentrically—that environmental history is driven by the state, particularly in its modernist incarnation in a drive to conquer nature and make it productive at any cost. But what would it mean to turn this around, to think of those who crossed the Bay of Bengal as agents of environmental transformation? They crossed the sea to alter the land. Small decisions within families, small acts of coercion—the motive force of debt, or the glitter that adorned the kangany’s promises— accumulated to shift the “metabolic balance” of the Bay of Bengal.

No sermons, no carrots, only sticks

The Reserve Bank of India on April 6th prohibited banks from:

dealing in Virtual Currencies or from providing services for facilitating any person or entity in dealing with or settling Virtual Currencies.

This is not strictly a ban on people from mining bitcoins or possessing them. Perhaps, it’s not even possible for RBI to enforce that ban given the decentralised nature of cryptocurrencies. Nevertheless, prohibiting banks from dealing with any cryptocurrency is symptomatic of how quickly governments resort to blunt policy instruments in India.

Carrots, Sticks, and Sermons has a wonderful classification of policy instruments. It argues that any government primarily has three policy instruments available to it: information (moral suasion, transfer of knowledge, communication of reasoned argument, advice, and persuasion etc), economic instruments (grants, subsidies, charges, fees etc), and regulation (absolute bans, prohibition with exemptions, obligation to notify etc).

Now, which of these three policy instruments should governments choose? The book has this to say:

All other things being equal, in most cultures at least, the use of coercive power is more alienating to those subject to it than is the use of economic power, and the use of economic power is more alienating than the use of information and exhortation. Or, to put it the other way around, exhortation and information tend to generate more commitment than economic instruments, and economic instruments more than regulatory instruments.

The book says that even politically, it is rewarding if these three instruments are applied in a sequence:

politicians have a strong tendency to respond to policy issues (any issue) by moving successively from the least coercive governing instrument to the most coercive. The idea is that over time a policy problem is tackled in three different ways: first by the provision of information such as uttering a broad statement of intent, subsequently by the application of selective incentives, and lastly by the establishment of regulations accompanied by the threat of sanction. The underlying notion is that in solving social problems the authorities employ instruments of increasing strength in successive stages.

But is this order followed in India?

It would take a thorough study to investigate this. But if the regularity of prohibitions is taken as an indicator, it appears that even if this order is adhered to, the predilection in Indian policymakers is to pick the coercive option fairly quickly. And this says a lot about India. It can be taken as a proxy for how liberal political philosophy is stillborn in India. A liberal society would default to a minimal constraint principle – cause as less trouble to the populace as possible. Policy instruments are ends in themselves as they determine the style of policymaking in a polity. So, a high number of bans and prohibitions indicates that at the margin, greater government control is the default in India. Seen through this lens, the RBI note does not surprise.

Inefficiency in Toilet Construction

There have been a series of infographics that have been circulated to show that the NDA government has performed better than its political rival, the UPA. One of these images deals with the number of toilets constructed and the amount of money spent on toilet construction.

 

According to its own data, the NDA government has spent nearly 3.5 times more for construction of one toilet.

If the data is true, the NDA government has clearly done better on both counts. However, what the numbers betray is that the NDA has also spent more money per toilet, thus indicating inefficiency or worse. The UPA has spent Rs.1750 per toilet and the NDA has spent nearly 3.5 times more per toilet – Rs. 6176.

The Real Parliament Washout

It is a national shame that our parliament is not functioning. But does it make a difference when it was made irrelevant in 1985?

The anti-defection law in 1985 made it impossible to vote across party lines. That meant that parliamentary debate was moot, and the quality of our discourse dipped. Why should MPs even be physically present, when one could conduct the vote as per an excel sheet?

That is the case my friend Barun Mitra made in a conversation with me on an old episode of The Seen and the Unseen. Listen in!

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.

Who made Xi move half-way across the country?

Ananth Krishnan points out that Xi Jinping’s decision to travel halfway across his own country to meet Narendra Modi (who had travelled completely out of his own country) for an informal summit in Wuhan is remarkable, and no one in Beijing expected it. It’s been quite a journey for their India policy, from threatening to order military attacks to perhaps ordering a six pack for a chillout session between the two leaders this month.

Were they really impressed by India’s resolute stance of not backing down at Doklam, of not signing up for the Belt and Road Initiative? Perhaps. What really made Xi travel halfway across his country is a man halfway across the world. A certain Mr Donald Trump. Washington is putting extreme pressure on Beijing on two counts: North Korea, and more importantly on trade.

It took Trump to remind Beijing that their projection of power ultimately relies on their economy, and that in turn relies on the goodwill of China’s trading partners. Most importantly, on the United States. A trade war will not only have unsettling effects on the Chinese economy in the short term, it can take the wind out of China’s economic sails in the longer term. The wise men in Beijing ought to have expected this. If they didn’t, then their wisdom is overrated. If they expected this, then they ought to have cautioned Xi Jinping against getting all on the front foot and antagonising India, Japan and Vietnam all at once. If they did and Xi didn’t heed their advice, then his astuteness is perhaps more limited than is made out to be.

In any case, India must expect that Xi’s front-footedness is China’s long-term strategy. Trump’s mercurial policy positions have caused Beijing to buy time and space by reaching out to India and Japan. The moment the pressure is off — for Trump can as quickly change his mind — it’s likely that Beijing will resume pushing the envelope again. New Delhi can certainly hope that Beijing has learned that it is not a good idea to antagonise your neighbours as you set out to confront your distant adversary. Yet if you were sitting in Beijing you might reckon it’s important to suppress your neighbour’s power to create trouble, before you confront your main adversary.

It is in India’s interests to have better relations with China and the United States than they have with each other. So the chillout at Wuhan is a good thing. Modi, however, must be keenly aware that a China reset in Delhi does not mean a India reset in Beijing. There’s nothing to indicate China’s fundamental approach towards India has changed. Or that it will change. For now all the chilling out is contingent on the extent and duration that the United States maintains pressure on China.

 

Three Dollars a Mind

Turns out that armchair activists like yours truly, who sit and analyse issues and write op-eds, are not completely useless!

A new study by David Kirby, Emily Ekins and Alexander Coppock finds that op-eds (opinion pieces in newspapers) actually do end up persuading their readers. General readers are apparently persuaded in a larger number compared to ‘elites’, from a sample of US readers with different political leanings. While the observed effect of persuasion drops by half after 10 days of reading an op-ed, that effect lingered and lasted for much longer.

Analysing the costs of persuading a single reader, Kirby et al find that:

Based on the cost of producing an op-ed, the number of people likely to read it, and its ability to sway a reader’s opinion, the researchers estimated that an op-ed costs from about 50 cents to $3 per mind changed.

[Science Daily, April 24, 2018]

The key to this is to figure out how many people even read op-eds. Even in the United States, a New York Times op-ed can only hope to get 500,000 readers, and a Newsweek op-ed can get only about 50,000 readers. The numbers in India would be drastically smaller.

Ping me on twitter if you want to take a look at the full text of the paper.

Hat-tip to Raju Narisetti for sharing the paper on Twitter.