Sunday, November 16, 2008

Indirect Signaling in non-Indian Societies

I was reading Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat recently. One of the things it says is that during the dot-com boom, companies laid excessive amounts of fiber-optic and other data carrying cable, so that communication became dirt cheap. The surprising thing is that communication is not dirt cheap for the consumer in the USA. In the competitive market, competing companies have somehow accomplished the feat of dividing up turf and avoiding a competitive price war without any explicit negotiations (that would be illegal). They signaled their intentions through indirect communication and were able to arrive at figures that were profitable to them (and, of course, detrimental to the consumer).

This kind of indirect signaling appears common in many societies. Its features are:
  1. Enhancement of the common good
  2. Existence of conditions which make agreements/pacts impossible
  3. Decision making based only on observation of behaviour of other agents
It seems to find less purchase in India. For example, Jihadi terrorism finds a lot of sympathy in India. There are many people who are staunchly opposed to it, but there are also apologists for terrorism who give sympathetic reasons why it exists. This makes it hard to act against terrorism: there is always a section of apologists opposing any anti-terrorist move. On the other hand, in Western society people are somehow able to get together on issues like terrorism: everybody condemns it and no one makes apologies for it. Those who do make apologies for it are excluded nonviolently but very firmly. Society is able to act more coherently against the problem.

Another example comes from the recent India-Australia cricket wars. In Australia, Ricky Ponting set a nasty tone by employing a sledging approach as well as dishonourable calls (claiming catches that bounced) to win matches. Initially, the Australian press seemed annoyed with Ponting for this behaviour. But pretty soon, they almost magically banded together and began vilifying the visiting Indian team to put pressure on them. Harbhajan Singh came in for particularly nasty attacks. The Australian press went so far as to position a camera that exclusively shot footage of Harbhajan throughout one of the matches, and soundly criticized all off-field moves the Indians made. The Australian press rallied around this psychological attack on the Indian team in a way that the Indian press can never do. There is often a "fashionable" section of the Indian press which will support the Australians in such situations. Putting concerted pressure on the Australian team during their visit to India never occurred to the Indian press. Thus, teams like Australia have an extra card up their sleeve that the Indian team is unable to possess.

Perhaps another example of such signaling lies in the way European powers divided up India and avoided conflict with each other to a great extent in the 18th and 19th centuries. They somehow recognized it was better that a European power win control than the alternative of fighting among themselves and letting the Indians repulse them. The Indians, on the other hand, failed to recognize that defeating the European powers should have been higher on their agenda than trying to use the Europeans to defeat other Indian powers. Europe signaled, India didn't. This example may not be valid because I'm not sure the Europeans didn't explicitly discuss this among themselves. Maybe they did.

That Indians fight among themselves is well-known; we are taught this in our history classes from primary school onwards. It is obvious in our politics and our culture, which seem based on primacy. However, the distinguishing feature in indirect signaling is the indirectness. Some societies seem to be able to act in concert even without explicit agreements. India seems to be able to do this to a lesser extent than some other societies.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dog Haters

There have been some recent articles (here and here) about removing stray dogs from public spaces. The suggestion is that all dogs must have designated owners, who are then responsible for the dogs' actions. This may or may not be implementable in Indian cities, but the articles do have some asymmetric blind spots.

First, they start with the hidden assumption that the well-being of those to whom dogs are a nuisance trumps the well-being of those to whom the dogs are a benefit. An analogy given in one of the articles is that of a car:
Would it be just to enjoy the thrill of racing your BMW, yet not pay damages for breaking a 10-year-old kid’s leg in an unfortunate accident? No, it wouldn’t. And this is why parents’ associations don’t demand removal of all cars. Private property ensures costs and benefits are borne by the same person, encouraging citizens to behave with caution and due care.
Suppose we approach this from a different angle. One could equally well start with the assumption that the natural state of affairs is the presence of stray dogs and the happiness that people derive from it, and that if dogs are removed, those who demand their removal should be required to compensate others for the loss of emotional satisfaction. Dog haters (not taxpayers in general) should be exclusively required to pay for all expenses involved in removing dogs. Further, they should be held liable for any thefts deemed preventable with the presence of dogs which might have given due warning.

You shouldn't be able to divert a river or cut down a forest without compensating those who would be affected. In the same way, you shouldn't be allowed to remove the benefits of having dogs -- the natural state of affairs -- without compensating those who want the dogs around.
But, what about “animal rights”? “Animal right” is a contradiction in terms. All rights derive from human beings’ right to own oneself, from which follows an individual’s right to own things non-human. Slavery is unjust, but rearing cattle is business. And dogs are no exception to this.
The author seems to have missed the point completely. The point that animal rights activists make is that all rights should not derive from human beings' right to own animals as property because, for example, a BMW does not feel pain or anguish, while animals do. Moreover, the statement "Human beings have a right to own oneself" does not logically imply "an individual’s right to own things non-human", in spite of the author's blithe claim.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

NYT on the Nuclear Deal

The New York Times has this hack of an opinion piece on the Indian nuclear deal. I felt like expressing my Indian viewpoint on some of the things it said, so here goes:

Article: IN the next day or so, an obscure organization will meet to decide the fate of an Indian nuclear deal that threatens to rapidly accelerate New Delhi’s arms race with Pakistan — a rivalry made all the more precarious by the resignation on Tuesday of the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf.

Response: The Pakistan angle is always used as a catch-all to explain why India shouldn't have nukes. This is hypocritical and specious. Hypocritical, because rivalries between the USA and Russia have always been closer to nuclear flashpoint level than those between India and Pakistan. Specious, because India and Pakistan are actively taking steps towards reconciliation and there's no clear reason to believe that nukes will play a role in any future conflict.

Article: If the president gets his way, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — for 50 years, the bulwark against the spread of nuclear weapons — would be shredded and India’s yearly nuclear weapons production capability would likely increase from 7 bombs to 40 or 50.

Response: The NPT is no bulwark; all it does is allow for a veil of secrecy for certain nations to secretly proliferate with impunity. China has been giving nuke tech away to Pakistan for decades. The USA gave nuke tech to Israel. And Pakistan proliferated to Iran even as the US mollycoddled it and gave it military funds.

Article: India’s nuclear history is checkered at best

Response: Er, no. Now you're just lying. India has a perfect nonproliferation record.

Article: ... exploits foreign nuclear energy assistance to make a bomb, as India did. [India] misused civilian nuclear technology to produce its first nuclear weapon in 1974

Response: How was it better or more ethical to use Nazi war tech to create nuclear weapons, and then use those weapons to kill hundreds of thousands of people, than to use civilian nuke tech to explode a handful of proof-of-concept weapons? Does the former not count as misuse?

Article: Just last month, the Pakistani government darkly announced that waiving the nuclear rules for India “threatens to increase the chances of a nuclear arms race in the subcontinent.”

Response: Perhaps this is just a pressure tactic from a nation which had also demanded the same concessions that India did but never got them? That ever cross your mind?

Article: India must sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a step already taken by 178 other countries and every member state of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. After all, why should the group’s members grant India a huge exemption from the rules that they themselves are supposed to follow?

Response: Perhaps this can wait until India achieves nuclear parity with the exclusive nuclear club and stockpiles a few thousand nukes. Why not ask why the nuclear weapon states aren't required to reduce their arsenal to the 5 or 6 bombs that India has? After all, the USA has thousands of nukes, enough to destroy the entire world. Why should a treaty designed specifically to protect the USA and other nuke countries' nuclear stockpiles be allowed to stand? Finally, this demand is ridiculously unrealistic in the face of the fact that India has consistently refused it for 5 decades and domestic public opinion is perhaps 90% opposed to it.

Article: India must agree to halt production of nuclear material for weapons.

Response: First, is India continuing to produce nuclear material for weapons? Then why aren't there any more than 5-7 nukes in India? Second, India should halt production when the existing nuke powers reduce their stockpiles to Indian levels, and not before that.

The world will be a better place when 60 year old, old-world, Nixon-era-educated India-haters like the authors of this article are all gone.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Rajiv Gandhi: Enhanced by Publicity and Imagination

Of India's Prime Ministers so far, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi stand out as clear giants in the line-up. In terms of contributions to the Indian nation and popularity no one but Mahatma Gandhi can match Jawaharlal Nehru. Indira Gandhi was a great leader as well, immensely popular and able to take tough decisions that shaped the history of the subcontinent.

After Nehru and Indira, no one stands out quite as much in the line-up of Prime Ministers. Three significant leaders are Rajiv Gandhi, P. V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee. Lal Bahadur Shastri didn't have enough years in office and Morarji Desai was too stymied by politics. The others are small by comparison.

Among the three, the tallest leader is P. V. Narasimha Rao, who was the real architect of the economic reforms of 1991. The real challenge at that time was political and Rao provided Manmohan Singh with a shield that allowed him to complete the reforms unhindered.

However, Rajiv Gandhi's public image has been raised much higher than that of Rao and Vajpayee. This has been done by his family members and Family sycophants in the Congress party. He has a samadhi. An international airport, national medals and various institutions have been named after him. The Family jealously guards such "naming assets", ensuring that to the extent possible no assets are named after non-family members.

Rajiv Gandhi has a samadhi near that of Mahatma Gandhi. It is interesting to see what other samadhis are in the vicinity. Mahatma Gandhi (Raj Ghat), Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Shastri have samadhis in the same location. Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri have obvious claim to samadhis here. Indira Gandhi is borderline: although she was a great prime minister, one wonders whether she should be placed in the same category as these three stalwarts. The others are completely out of place; this area is not the Family's personal space. Sanjay Gandhi was the nation's prime thug; his samadhi has no business there. Rajiv Gandhi did some good but is nowhere near worthy enough to merit a samadhi here.

In Hyderabad, the Family made certain through its extraordinary hold on the central government that N. T. Rama Rao's name was not applied to Begumpet airport. Instead, it was named the Rajiv Gandhi airport.

Now Rajiv Gandhi was a great prime minister and diplomat in his own right. However, the homage the nation paid to him is simply not commensurate with his standing. The Family's tendency to hijack the naming of national institutions for themselves must stop.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Huh? Hindus are Vegetarian: NYT

Here's a "Huh?" quote from this interesting article in the New York Times:
It was a Muslim establishment, serving carnivorous fare. But in deference to its many Hindu patrons, the gruel came in a vegetarian version, too.
The stereotype of the vegetarian Hindu is surprising, considering that it is well-known to be false: most Hindus are not vegetarian. I read on a blog that NRIs encourage this stereotype: if that's true, is it because most Indian emigrants are vegetarian? It is a stereotype that many Indians believe: a non-vegetarian Hindu NRI once insisted that an overwhelming majority of Hindus are vegetarian.

The suprising thing is that, unlike most stereotypes, this stereotype is well-known to be false.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Stereotypes about Caste

I read an article titled "Schedule Conflict: the persistence of caste in India" by a Harvard student recently. It brought home to me how stereotypes that are propagated and reinforced in Western schooling don't go away after a student grows up and begins thinking for himself. Here are some peculiarities:
  1. the perennially disappointing “Hindu rate of growth.” -- Does anybody still use this offensive phrase, even flippantly or in quotes? The author probably picked it out of some newspaper or the other. It's used in the Indian media sometimes, but only to sarcastically point out the way the West perceived India's religion. I'd like to provide an analogy using America's race conflicts, but it would be too crass.
  2. Traditional hierarchies—like caste—are supposed to be getting weaker. Why then was the nation’s capital suddenly in the grip of caste-based protests once again last week? -- This seems vaguely inaccurate. When you say "caste-based protests", one gets the sense that it has something to do with the way society treated them (recently), anger with their place in a hierarchy. These protests had nothing to do with this. It was simply a group with a sense of common identity demanding something. The Gujjars were a caste, but they were acting as any other group with a common interest would. This was not a caste conflict.
  3. This is closely related to what I feel is a difference in perception of caste between Indians and the West. The West tends to think of caste as a "system", a social arrangement created with a particular purpose. If you're a particular caste, other castes must have treated you this way, you're above these castes, below those. Indians tend to view caste as a means of explaining identity, a label that identifies history. If you're a particular caste, you might have been born in this area, your ancestors must have done this kind of work, these are your customs.
  4. what an Indian gets is still as much about who they are as what they have done. Caste members are eligible for certain government programs and jobs, as well as educational opportunities, based almost exclusively on their caste identity. -- This seems to be contrasting the Western work-reward notion (what you get depends on what you do, not who you are) with a hereditary reward notion. But that's not what's going on. The Gujjars are demanding affirmative action based on historical disadvantage. If a Gujjar shows acumen, he can still become a doctor or a businessman or a scientist.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hindutva is no longer a Category

Recent developments show that Hindutva is no longer a uniform ideology. Like in any other large group, there have always been differences in the Hindutva camp. But the Shiv Sena's recent call for Hindu terrorist cells is so far away from most Hindutva ideology that it doesn't deserved to be identified as such. It appears that there are many Hindutva parties that would not even imagine such nonsense. Perhaps this is no more than the rantings of an old man.

But there is no doubt that this will affect the reputation of all Hindutva parties, as well as provide cannon fodder against Hinduism and India.