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.

Déjà vu

India’s Aadhar is often compared to the Social Security Number system of the United States. Most of these comparisons are about how they are in use today.

The US SSN is necessary for you to draw a salary, open a bank account, it’s linked to your credit history, it’s linked to your taxes, tax waivers and a lot more. In India, it’s a similar set of linkages that is up for question at the Supreme court today.

But how did the SSN come into being in the first place?

The story is fascinating. NPR’s Planet Money podcast has an excellent episode on the Social Security Number:

A few things that jumped out:

The Social Security Number came into play in 1935, with the Social Security Act getting signed into law by Franklin Roosevelt. The original aim of the number was to track workers’ earnings through their career, such that they could receive appropriate social security benefits on retirement.

Europe said that it couldn’t be done. (Europe’s current extreme stances on data protection today are eerily reflective of similar sentiments)

The Americans decided to not use a fingerprint, because fingerprints had a criminal connotation, and the optics of hauling all workers in to get their fingerprints taken were… bad, to say the least.

The Number 666 is never used in the SSN!

Initially, people did not fully understand the need for secrecy with the SSN. Giant printed versions of social security cards, with the numbers intact, would be used in TV shows.

The SSN’s ambit gets expanded, starting 1943. The US Federal government started telling its other departments to not invent a new ID for any purpose, but use the SSN instead.

  • In 1962, it starts getting used for people to pay taxes.
  • Around the same time, it starts getting used for enrollment into Medicaid, a large healthcare programme.
  • In 1977, it’s used for distributing food stamps, or food subsidy.
  • In parallel, the number is being used by the Federal government and the military as personnel ID numbers.
  • In 1982, for loans from the federal government… and the list goes on. Driving license, Marriage registration, everywhere. And eventually, credit ratings.

The Social Security Administation did not have the legal authority to stop people from using the number for other purposes.

…and then these numbers got hacked.

History, it seems, often repeats itself.

EPFO Releases Payroll Data

The Employees Provident Fund Office has, for the first time, released data on payroll enrolment in India. This data shows, by age group, the number of enrolments with the office by month, and this is the first instance that we’re having such data being available.

While it would be easy to start those “data science machines” churning to process this data right away, a closer look suggests a more careful approach.

Screenshot source: Somesh Jha on Twitter https://twitter.com/someshjha7/status/989095752411570176?s=12

Firstly, the data for September 2017 for the 22-25 age group is clearly an error, being an order of magnitude lower than the number for the same age group in all subsequent months. Hopefully this will be corrected in a subsequent release.

Next, what explains the age bands? Why do we have 18-21 and 22-25 (4-year bands) and then a 3 year age band (26-28), and a 7-year age band (29-35)? And why is everyone in the 35+ age group put together into one band?

Then, the note attached to the data release states that this includes temporary employment as well. While the number of enrolments of temporary employees might be low, it would have been far more useful to have that data separately.

Notwithstanding all this, the publication of this data is welcome, since the Indian policy environment is so data-poor that any new data release is welcome! It is fair to expect that these errors will get corrected in time, and this might yet become a great source of data on formal employment in India.

 

Reservations don’t affect bureaucratic performance

Bhavnani and Lee have a counterintuitive insight.

the performance of bureaucrats hired through affirmative action is similar to those who were not, is striking within the context of the polemical debate on affirmative action, in which strong claims are often made for the positive or negative effects of affirmative action. We find that reservations have neither led to hiring of officers unable to perform their jobs or led to a dramatic change in institutional output, at least for one important government program.

They use the provisioning of MGNREGA at the district level as a proxy for bureaucratic performance. Their major finding is that MGNREGA provisioning does not worsen in districts where the IAS officer is a beneficiary of reservation.

Two possibilities arise if this result is reflective of the reality. One, UPSC exam performance does not reflect aptitude for governance. Or two, getting into the IAS is so competitive that despite reservations, efficiency of those with lower ranks is not compromised.

 

Incels and Tinder Taming

When I read Amit Varma’s post on Incels, I couldn’t help but think of this piece I’d come across while doing research for my book Between the buyer and the seller.

Written by Dustin Silgardo in Man’s World, this piece talks about Incels (yay, now I can use that word!) in India, and how dating apps such as Tinder have suddenly laid (no pun intended) bare the possibility that a large section of Incels in India can’t get dates because nobody wants to date them.

Silgardo writes:

In the online dating world, where men outnumber women by close to three to one, men, thus far protected by the perceived power a patriarchal society heaps upon them, are being forced to face an inconvenient possibility: perhaps they are just not that attractive.

And this:

Indian men, on the other hand, are sheltered from this truth and are cocooned by the promise of a dainty woman served to them on a platter, via an arranged marriage. This complete lack of awareness that Indian men seem to have of their own sex appeal is quite apparent from some profiles on Tinder.

Go read the whole piece. It will give you excellent insight into the world of Indian Incels.

And while you’re at it, read the part of my book where I used this article by Silgardo as well! And hopefully you’ll like that, in which case you might want to read my whole book (tongue in cheek)!

The Incels are Coming

The journalist Arshy Mann has an excellent tweet thread up that introduced me to a new word — and a new movement. Here’s the tweet defining it:

In that thread, Mann writes about how Incels–men who can’t get laid–are “almost entirely men who are laser-focused on their inability to have sex.” They “blame women,” and are “virulently misogynistic.” Incels “often play out violent fantasies online,” and these can include “acid attacks & mass rapes.”

Mann’s thread was in the context of a terrorist attack that killed ten people in Toronto yesterday.

The problem, you think, is far from our shores? Well, do read this piece by Simon Denyer and Annie Gowen that reveals that “men outnumber women by 70 million in China and India.”

That should lead to many homegrown Incels, right? What happens then?