Monthly Archives: February 2014

Fiscal Profligacy vs Identity

Politicians as a group are probably smarter than most other groups of people. And therefore what they say in campaign is interesting in itself. Extending that, the  kind of fiscal profligacy each uses is a good guide for multiple things: one’s own belief, the capacity of one’s administration if one is an incumbent and the aspirations of the electorate. A sampling of who did what and more importantly when is indicative all three.

The lowest hanging fruit appears to be cheap food grain — as the DMK demonstrated its use as far back as 1967. Many state assemblies have since been won and lost on this promise. Some states have a better PDS delivery system and can implement the promise. Many do not and therefore the promise can be reused by the opposition in the next cycle. This usually takes a few cycles to die; its longevity is strangely directly proportional to delivering capacity, not inversely as one’d expect. For it seems to take a good implementation for competitive populism to take effect. The ladder then seems to have successive steps: noon meal schemes, feudal entitlement schemes like marriage assistance, pregnant women being given cash assistance, free sheep/ cattle, medical insurance for the poor, free school supplies, consumer durables. The top step now, as Tamil Nadu has again shown the way, seems to be soup kitchens, subsidised movies and subsidised mineral water.

On the question of identity and and political philosophy however, the process rarely seems to evolve further up the value chain as in fiscal profligacy. If anything, the Indian experience has been disappointing on that count. Assertion of the erstwhile underclasses was speculated as one reason. But what’s even worse is the intellectual stagnation.

In 1905, for instance, the United States Supreme Court struck down laws that stipulated maximum working hours for bakers; the court held that the laws violated the 14th Amendment. A stunning co-option by the conservative establishment of what one’d consider an intended liberal project. In a dissent, Justice Holmes even wrote “the Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics.” While the nutty racist ideas of Spencer was dismissed by Talcott Parsons as ‘who now reads Spencer‘, the man found a strange admirer in Shyamji Krishna Varma. Varma established a lecture in Spencer’s memory at Oxford.

While Varma seems a reasonable man of his times, with a minor passion on the side for nuttiness, his protege made it his major one. Veer Savarkar was a member of the Indian Sociologist that Varma founded. Social Darwinism of Spencer and even Darwin himself, if his letters to Charles Lyell are considered, would have held Sarvarkar as belonging to an inferior race that needed to be outbred. But applying the same thought to his subset seems to have not bothered Sarvarkar much.

Chief Justice Roberts who may be thought of as the modern incarnate of the Lochner era by some, wrote thus is 2007: the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race. A chillingly close position to the far less nuanced and triumphalist core issue of the BJP that’s crudely called Nation First. To wonder whether the distance between Sarvarkar and Spencer is larger than that between Roberts and BJP is absurd though. The two white men at least had the benefit of a reasonably well fed and possibly less diverse society to deal with. Not to mention both their native lands being the respective lone super-power of their times.

Prime Minister as spandrel

Stephen Gould wrote a paper in 1979 that suggested many aspects of natural selection had no apparent reason. Except, he also used words its title that made many an Evolutionary Biologist scurry for a dictionary. A Prime Minister in a Westminster model with a coalition government in a multi-party system appears even closer to a spandrel than a chin does on humans.

The executive powers of the Prime Minister are almost non-existent. The reasonable dispensation that the position has — to hire and fire ministers — is what a coalition set-up takes away. And any other significant policy decision requires legislative backing that cannot really be achieved by the benefaction of the Office of the Prime Minister. So unless the person is also the political leader of the formation in government, a Prime Minister can do precious little domestically. As Manmohan Singh has. This possibly also explains in part why India’s general elections have rarely been Presidential.

If someone is obsessed with the Office of the Prime Minister as much as the principal challenger has shown himself to be in his campaign, does that exhibit the philosophical ineptitude of the candidate or the populace?  Or, more worryingly both willing to alter the status-quo of executive authority?

What does a Citizen do? II

The top three states in India in terms of most indices — Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh — are similar in that they haven’t re-elected an incumbent government for over two decades. So it’s tempting to conclude that citizens adopting a blind ‘always vote out’ strategy may be a simple and easy option to ensure good governance. However, as UP has shown in the past decade, it’s clearly not sufficient. Further, this game treats political parties as entities and tries to pick one among them as a winner. But what if the citizen wants to play the game against the entire system?

Between 1996 and 1999 there were five different Cabinets in office with three different Prime Ministers and three general elections[1]. Whether this was deliberate as a strategy by the voter or not, it resulted in the political system being “punished.” After all no politician wants to contest elections often. They are costly and uncertain for the politician in multiple ways. A combination no reasonable business would want. And in this, while the cost to the politician was quite high, the cost to the electorate wasn’t. The one obvious cost to the electorate is that long term vision was probably lacking which might have had an impact on investment. But most governments fail at this even when they have stable majorities. A simple look at the economic output in the said period shows that it’s not much worse compared to the average performance of governments in the previous and next stable Lok Sabhas.

If one was a student in the mid 90s in Madras, one also heard random middle aged professors tell one that frequent elections brought out black money better than any amnesty scheme[2]. Let’s assume that is true. The disadvantage of seeking to impose a very high cost on the corrupt would mean they’d be more corrupt the next time and therefore returning an unstable mandate to the Lok Sabha is a bad strategy if used too frequently.

On the other hand, if used once every 2 or 3 cycles, it may just bring out the ill-gotten wealth in a way that’s close to optimal. A strategy that’s close to this maybe TF3T — that is, cooperate unless partner played ‘defect’ in all of the last 3 rounds[3]. Except the tit in ‘tit-for-tat’ here for the system has to be over and top of the ‘tit’ for the political party/entity. That is, one cannot play a ‘tit’ after a regular Lok Sabha and has to wait for having cooperated with the same entity twice. So, one should vote to throw out every government unless it does well. And if it does well, re-elect it only to return an unstable verdict in the subsequent election if the previous unstable formation was more than 3 cycles ago.

Seen this way, unstable governments with short term vision and no point to their existence except their existence maybe a required ‘safety valve’ at least once every 15 years. Coincidentally, we are at one such moment now in the electoral cycle.

[1] – The last of which lasted the full term. Or the extent of fullness it thought was enough to call for early elections.

[2] – Amnesty schemes in the 90s were a thing, remember? One wonders if they too have a TF3T cycle for optimality.

[3] – I don’t know how to quantify and calculate here. If you have an idea, please let me know. Let’s do that and it may be far more interesting than hand-waving with words.

What does a Citizen do?

It’s easy to argue that the need for narrative precedes the understanding of abstraction. Or, more importantly, the learning of it. Anyone who’s sat in a class that involves anything beyond first order statistics will probably empathise with it more than a mathematical formalist’s longing for the reverse.

Now, a serious Cosmologist has addressed this in an oblique way that raises even more qualms for many of us who wish were better students than what we are. Max Tegmark makes the claim that all human discovery is after all an instance of a larger abstraction of some sort. One cannot disagree with that bit; after all the most basic aspects of thought evolved precisely that way. For example, only after humans learnt counting could they have possibly figured their system was of a base that was one among many. Quite easily this can be extended to most of what we now know. Thus, it seems only logical therefore to understand the narrative of an instance and then elevate it to abstraction.

But anyone who’s had a basic brush with the three approaches to numbers knows this isn’t easy. There is, firstly, Platonism. Which we all intuitively grasp as what numbers are — that is, associate meaning to the number itself — when we start counting. We assume here, to say 1+2 = 3 is to say 1 and 2 and 3 exist and we get 3 by adding 1 to 2. Then came the set of people most famously lead by that Bertrand Russell. They thought mathematics can be reduced to a set of non-deniable basic truths. Thus making every other result some derivation thereof. Kurt Godel, as we now know, disproved this possibility and that is left at that[1]. Finally, as all of us now are in some sense, we are left with being mathematical formalists — where we assume the internal dynamics of the symbols on a sheet of paper are self-contained.

An honest student has no option but to be a formalist with some apprehension. And from there where does one go on the need for narrative for any and all knowledge? Doesn’t the narrative sit squarely on Platonism? In a sense the agony of a student who does not understand the abstract without the instance in a theory class but does not want to do it otherwise is identical to a participant in a game called electoral Democracy.


[1] – That’s possibly the worst hand-waving ever. But for the purpose of this post it hopefully holds. Apologies to Russell, Wittgenstein, Godel and everyone else this author does not understand all that well.

Games of Delusion

Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes: The Way to the White House is probably still the best reference on American Presidential campaigns. The entire book is sort of encapsulated in the moment when Gary Hart quotes Warren Beatty thus ‘When forced to show all, people become all show.‘ The relevance of that is perhaps directly proportional to the centrality of personalities and thus more pertinent to Presidential systems than Westminster models[1]. That is, until Narendra Modi came along; or, maybe Indira Gandhi did it even earlier and many of us are too young to remember her style.

To covet anything absolutely, knowing that it entails uncertainties beyond one’s own control, must take megalomaniacs. Therefore, politicians, by definition are that. After all they can at best create environments which are not detrimental in known ways and are hence in the business of selling correlation as causation. In India, very rarely have people outside the INC made their Prime Minister-ship an issue. AB Vajpayee and LK Advani did it fleetingly but neither compares to the scope and scale their party’s current aspirant. We now know VP Singh, Chandrashekar, Charan Singh, Morarji Desai, and Devi Lal played this game far more cautiously[4].

The naked ambition that Cramer chronicled partly explains games and strategies candidates adopt. For example, in 2004 when John Kerry insinuated he might stop over in Colorado[2] or the enormous spending by Mitt Romney in Pennsylvania in 2012 are examples of ambition-blinded wagering. Both candidates knew quite well they had little or no chance of winning the two states — but they had to convince themselves of their own hype to indulge in their wager so that their opponent was forced to waste his resources in a state he was likely to win anyway. That the money each candidate raises in that country is reasonably well accounted helps make each campaign stop and spending decision a signalling mechanism as much as they are actual campaigning opportunities. In a multi-party system with far more opaque funding, the signalling and wager mechanisms are naturally very different.

Despite what the EC does, the only real monetary limit in India is how much ill-gotten wealth the candidate and party have and how much they are willing to expend. The other significant limit in the Indian system is: how many enemies a candidate is willing to make in the quest for power. This requires belief in one’s own hype in terms of the ability to win in hostile territory just as in the American sense; except the downside here is not wasted money but burnt bridges. For instance, if one were to go by the average of opinion polls thus far, Narendra Modi absolutely needs AIADMK and TMC to form a government. By campaigning against the two strong willed and equally megalomaniac women, the BJP is signalling that it’s willing to squander future gains for absolute belief in its own ability to rake in the numbers. Almost telling us that Narendra Modi’s need to believe his own hype is a necessary and sufficient condition for his brand of politics[3].

The one problem with the this strategy of course is that it’s a one-trick pony. Opponents now have a clear gauge of cards while they are not obligated to reveal theirs. For instance, even if the absurdly high vote share that the BJP is polling in TN were true, all the DMDK needed to do was wait, watch and raise its wager. Which works out quite well for the AIADMK as well. The other related issue in raising stakes in traditionally hostile territory is that by definition the transfer-ability is low. The same reason why it was predicted months ago that the AIADMK will ally with the Left, as it now has. The BJP’s double digit vote share, if it enters an alliance, has a very low likelihood of being transferred to its ally. After all the only reason someone wants an absolutely alien party is because they want none of what already exists — including any and all possible local allies. Which is probably one of the reasons the DMDK is playing the high stakes game — for its own upside is limited. A similar situation may be true in Andhra Pradesh as well.

Or, what a neutral observer of games may ask Narendra Modi is: why aren’t you campaigning more in Bihar and UP instead of shooting your own foot in Madras and Calcutta? If those states need a breather, why not try Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, where your return on hubris may be a lot better? Or, even Orissa and non Bombay-Maharashtra?

[1] – It’s probably wrong to call India’s model as strictly Westminster. But for the purpose of this post, it holds.

[2] – That Obama won Colorado in 2008 and retained in 2012 is the story of recent Democratic gain westward that’s been under explored.

[3] – It’s a necessary condition for everyone else too. Just that Modi’s quirk is in adding the sufficiency.

[4] – And for valid reasons which despite what [3] may make those inside the bubble think, haven’t all vanished.