What do unintended consequences tell us?

I am always fascinated by unintended consequences because they remind us not to take ourselves, our feelings, opinions too seriously because we are utterly incapable of fathoming the long-run meaning and implications of what we see, hear and experience today. They are a reminder to us that excessive exuberance or despair at current events are uncalled for. We simply do not know how they would play out. Sample these two from the book, ’23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism’ by Ha-Joon Chang.

First Example 

When Korea wanted to develop a steel industry, the potential donors faced arguably the worst business proposal in human history – a state-owned company, run by a politically appointed soldier, making a product that all received economic theories said was not suitable to the country. The Korean government managed to persuade the Japanese government to channel a large chunk of the reparation payments it was paying for its colonial rule (1910-45) into the steel-mill project and to provide the machines and the technical advice necessary for the mill. By the mid-1980s, it was considered one of the most cost-efficient producers of low-grade steel in the world. By the 1990s, it was one of the world’s leading steel companies.

In the 1950s, the US government aid agency USAID had called Korea a ‘bottomless pit’!

When Japan invaded and occupied Korea, it would have been impossible to imagine that it would, one day, pave the way for Korea to become a world-leader in steel-making!

Second example:

After WW I, Soviet economy was in dire straits. Lenin had kept farming in private hands. Trotsky was opposed to it. Preobhrzhensky argued for rapid industrialisation which required transfer of farming surplus to the State.

Initially, Stalin was not in favour but upon becoming a sole dictator Stalin took Preobrazhensky’s ideas and implemented it. Of course, agricultural output collapsed. In the famine of 1932-33, millions perished.

The irony is that, without Stalin adopting Preobrazhensky’s strategy, the Soviet Union would not have been able to build the industrial base at such a speed that it was able to repel the Nazi invasion on the Eastern front in the Second World War. Without Nazi defeat on the Eastern front, Western Europe would not have been able to beat the Nazis. Thus, ironically, Western Europeans owe their freedom today to an ultra-left-wing Soviet economist called Preobrazhensky.

Policies recommended by a ultra-left wing Soviet economist and implemented by a dictator whose policies have led to the deaths of millions saved millions of lives in Western Europe and paved the way for a prosperous Western Europe since 1945!

What is your answer?

Professor Dani Rodrik, once at Harvard and now at Princeton, posed this moral dilemma in an article a while ago (in 2011!). It should be familiar to those of us who have ran into them in our personal lives and in Hindu epics. What is the answer to this dilemma? What is the guidance our scriptures give? I am very eager to know. Will be grateful for your comments.

APR 12, 2011

Saif Qaddafi and Me

CAMBRIDGE – Not long ago, a Harvard colleague wrote to me that Saif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, a son of Libya’s dictator, would be in town and wanted to meet me. He is an interesting fellow, my colleague said, with a doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE); I would enjoy talking to him, and I might be able to help his thinking on economic matters. The meeting, as it turned out, was a letdown. I was first briefed by a former Monitor Company employee, who gently intimated that I should not to expect too much. Saif himself held photocopies of pages from one of my books on which he had scribbled notes. He asked me several questions – about the role of international NGOs, as I recall – that seemed fairly distant from my areas of expertise. I don’t imagine he was much impressed by me; nor was I much taken by him. As the meeting ended, Saif invited me to Libya and I said – more out of politeness than anything else – that I would be happy to come. Saif never followed up; nor did I. But if a real invitation had come, would I have traveled to Libya, spent time with him, and possibly met his father and his cronies? Would I have been tempted by arguments such as: “We are trying to develop our economy, and you can really help us with your knowledge?” In other words, would I have followed in the footsteps of several of my Harvard colleagues who traveled to Libya to exchange views with and advise its dictator – and were paid for their services?

These scholars have been pilloried in the media in recent weeks for supposedly having cozied up to Qaddafi. Sir Howard Davies chose to resign as Director of the LSE, which awarded Saif his doctorate (which some allege was plagiarized) and took money for the school from the Libyan regime. There is a strong sentiment that academics and institutions that collaborated with such an odious regime – often with the encouragement of their governments, no doubt – suffered a grave lapse of judgment. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s murderous stance during the uprising has revealed his true colors, regardless of his more moderate posture in recent years. And Saif al-Islam’s recent support for his father suggests that he is not the liberal reformer many took him to be. But it is much easier to reach such judgments with hindsight. Were the moral overtones of dealing with the Qaddafis so obvious before the Arab revolutions spread to Libya? Or to pose the question more broadly, is it so clear that advisers should always steer clear of dictatorial regimes?

Universities all over the world are falling over each other trying to deepen their engagement with China. Most academics would jump at the chance to have a meeting with China’s President Hu Jintao. I haven’t heard much criticism of such contacts, which tend to be viewed as normal and unproblematic. And yet few would deny that China’s is a repressive regime that deals with its opponents harshly. Memories of Tiananmen are still fresh. Who is to say how the Chinese leadership would respond to a future pro-democracy uprising that threatened to undermine the regime? Or what about a country like Ethiopia? I have had intensive economic-policy discussions with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in Addis Ababa. I must confess to having enjoyed these talks more than most meetings I have in Washington, DC and other democratic capitals. I have no illusions about Meles’ commitment to democracy – or lack thereof. But I also believe that he is trying to develop his economy, and I offer policy advice because I believe it may benefit ordinary Ethiopians.

The conundrum that advisers to authoritarian regimes face is akin to a long-standing problem in moral philosophy known as the dilemma of “dirty hands.” A terrorist is holding several people hostage, and he asks you to deliver water and food to them. You may choose the moral high ground and say, “I will never deal with a terrorist.” But you will have passed up an opportunity to assist the hostages. Most moral philosophers would say that helping the hostages is the right thing to do in this instance, even if doing so also helps the terrorist. But choosing an action for the greater good does not absolve us from moral culpability. Our hands do become dirty when we help a terrorist or a dictator. The philosopher Michael Walzer puts it well: “It is easy to get one’s hands dirty in politics.” He immediately adds, however, that this getting one’s hands dirty in this way is “often the right thing to do.”

In the end, an adviser to authoritarian leaders cannot escape the dilemma. Often, leaders seek the engagement only to legitimize their rule, in which case the foreign adviser should simply stay away. But when the adviser believes his work will benefit those whom the leader effectively holds hostage, he has a duty not to withhold advice. Even then, he should be aware that there is a degree of moral complicity involved. If the adviser does not come out of the interaction feeling somewhat tainted and a bit guilty, he has probably not reflected enough about the nature of the relationship.

© 1995-2014 Project Syndicate

Discussions on ‘Shri. Aurobindo on Good, Evil and God’

(1) Email from me:

dear xxx,

This is a old email thread. As I was re-reading these paragraphs (I had not yet read the attachment that came with this email – an error that I hope to rectify soon), a thought/question/confusion struck me. May be, it is a naive and silly question too.

If, as Shri. Aurobindo says, 

To put away the responsibility for all that seems to us evil or terrible on the shoulders of a semi-omnipotent Devil, or to put it aside as part of Nature, making an unbridgeable opposition between world-nature and God-Nature, as if Nature were independent of God, or to throw the responsibility on man and his sins, as if he had a preponderant voice in the making of this world or could create anything against the will of God, are clumsily comfortable devices in which the religious thought of India has never taken refuge. We have to look courageously in the face of the reality and see that it is God and none else who has made this world in his being and that so he has made it. We have to see that Nature devouring her children, Time eating up the lives of creatures, Death universal and ineluctable and the violence of the Rudra forces in man and Nature are also the supreme Godhead in one of his cosmic figures.

violence, cruelty, evil and destruction are God’s creation, then why should we destroy them or fight against them? What gives us the right or what is that dharma that empowers us to act?

(2) Response from friend:

Not a silly but a huge question. For a proper answer I guess you would have to read Sri Aurobindo’s Life Divine. Note that the same statement is implied by Advaita Vedanta’s assertion that there is only Brahman and nothing else. In that case, despite attempts to wriggle out of the difficulty through the concept of Maya, all evil must also be Brahman. However classical Vedanta does not take us very far beyond this point, while I have found Sri Aurobindo’s view of an evolutionary world (and human being) much more satisfying as well as logical: we are all in transition, and transitions are necessarily imperfect. We cannot judge this creation by its present stage, but by its ultimate (if there is an ultimate) realization, which, in Sri Aurobindo’s view, can only be a full and therefore material manifestation of its latent divinity. In this perspective, evil is a powerful tool to speed up evolution towards this goal — and, in the human world, to compel us to call the divine forces down into this highly imperfect world. This is however a crude oversimplification and I can only point to Sri Aurobindo’s works if you wish to understand his “philosophy” (which he said was experience and not philosophy). I have often come across severe criticism of it by classical Vedantins or orthodox Hindus, but I have also found that they either could not understand the concept of an evolutionary, progressively manifested universe (the Puranic concept of endless cycles must be blamed here) or simply rejected his approach out of hand as being “confused” or worse. Of course it hardly matters in the end — what matters is where this creation is really going.

(3) Follow-up email from me:

 Thank you, XXX. Very, very helpful. I shall reflect on them.

A first thought/question:

If it is true that there is a transition to the ultimate realisation of the latent divinity and in the process, evil has to be confronted and destroyed, then it necessarily follows that there is free will?

Am I on the right track?


(4) Response from my friend:

 The question is too big, but I believe the answer is broadly yes. (Sri Aurobindo again wrote a good deal on fate and free will, some essays are brief and I could send them if you wish.) Of course every part of our being has a free will of its own, so it’s not as simple as we may think. Besides, karma as a cosmic mechanism (not the popular notion but a play of vibrations carried from the past) also has its say, which can limit the free will. There are also various non-human forces at work. And there is the divine grace beyond all determinisms which also acts of its own free will. Hence the cosmic mess we witness, or perhaps divine mess, clearly beyond our limited understanding. Even enlightened beings only glimpse a reflection of it through that part in them which received illumination, or only a moment of the manifestation. To understand it thoroughly, we need to grasp its full course in time and its play at all levels, all at the same time — which means becoming divine, I suppose.

(5) My response:

Thank you for this very enlightening message or ‘warning’. I fully grasp it. I did not want to convey the impression that I was using the term, ‘free will’ flippantly. I fully realise that it is loaded and hedged with the caveats such as the one you had expressed in your email below. Therefore, let me try to make my understanding and exposition of ‘free will’ clearer for the purpose of eliciting your feedback.

I quote a paragraph (few lines) from Shri. Aurobindo in an email you had sent two-three years ago:

War and destruction are not only a universal principle of our life here in its purely material aspects, but also of our mental and moral existence. It is self-evident that in the actual life of man intellectual, social, political, moral we can make no real step forward without a struggle, a battle between what exists and lives and what seeks to exist and live and between all that stands behind either.

What this paragraph suggests to me (and I would be grateful for your comments/criticism, etc.) is that ‘evil/war/destruction’ are also part of God’s creation but that they have been introduced to this world and they keep festering as ‘testing ground’ or obstacles for us to struggle and overcome (as Shri. Aurobindo notes above) and reach the plane of ‘what ideally should exist and live’ (paraphrasing the above).

So, that makes a few things clearer for me in my head:

(a) I accept them as God’s creation; so I do not question God for evil, unfairness or destruction and war and resent God for them. I see them as part of his ‘divine design’.

(b) I accept them as struggles to be overcome or milestones to cross to get to the other side (‘what seeks to exist and live’)

(c) So, to the extent that there is ‘free will’, it should b exercised and will work only in the pursuit of (b) with the mental acceptance of (a) above.

Any other thing that we consider as ‘free will’ is not exactly ‘free will’ and is merely a reflection of the Maya created by ego and false identities in our minds.

I shall also try to use a modern analogy here, to make my understanding clearer to you for you to tell me if I am on the right track or not.

As a plane flies through the sky, it can fly at an altitude where there could be turbulence (relatively more) or it could fly at a higher altitude where it is only blue skies and nothing else.

Both the turbulent sky and the blue sky are divine expression. The plane has the instrument and the pilot has the skill to fly amidst turbulent clouds or to take the plane to a higher altitude where the flying is smoother.

In that narrow sense, he has that ‘free will’. Of course, he cannot do other things with his ‘free will’. He can use his ‘free will’ and skills only to ‘elevate’ himself, his passengers and his plane. That is the circumscription of his ‘free will’.

So, I understand ‘free will’ in that sense here. If we exercise our ‘free will’ in that sense, with the humility that one is just a chosen instrument and hence engage with the moral purpose of overcoming war, destruction and ordinary or big evil to reach, what Shir. Aurobindo writes in that same paragraph, ‘the highest and best law of conduct based on the principle of harmlessness‘, then the ‘divine will’ will be with us.

Then, in such an activity, there is no conflation between ‘free will’ and ‘divine will’. In fact, both merge into one.

Does this make sense?

Shri Aurobindo on Good, Evil and God

Some three years ago, a learned person sent me these paragraphs from Shri. Aurobindo’s ‘Essays on the Gita’ in a different context. This March, I picked up the thread of email exchange with him and had a few email exchanges on the following paragraphs. I shall post them separately. First, Shri. Aurobindo (Emphasis mine):


…This is certain that there is not only no construction here without destruction, no harmony except by a poise of contending forces won out of many actual and potential discords, but also no continued existence of life except by a constant self-feeding and devouring of other life. Our very bodily life is a constant dying and being reborn, the body itself a beleaguered city attacked by assailing, protected by defending forces whose business is to devour each other….


It is good that we should be reminded of [this truth]; first, because to see it has for every strong soul a tonic effect which saves us from the flabbiness and relaxation encouraged by a too mellifluous philosophic, religious or ethical sentimentalism, that which loves to look upon Nature as love and life and beauty and good, but turns away from her grim mask of death, adoring God as Shiva but refusing to adore him as Rudra; secondly, because unless we have the honesty and courage to look existence straight in the face, we shall never arrive at any effective solution of its discords and oppositions. We must see first what life and the world are; afterwards, we can all the better set about finding the right way to transform them into what they should be. If this repellent aspect of existence holds in itself some secret of the final harmony, we shall by ignoring or belittling it miss that secret and all our efforts at a solution will fail by fault of our self-indulgent ignoring of the true elements of the problem….


War and destruction are not only a universal principle of our life here in its purely material aspects, but also of our mental and moral existence. It is self-evident that in the actual life of man intellectual, social, political, moral we can make no real step forward without a struggle, a battle between what exists and lives and what seeks to exist and live and between all that stands behind either. It is impossible, at least as men and things are, to advance, to grow, to fulfil and still to observe really and utterly that principle of harmlessness which is yet placed before us as the highest and best law of conduct.  We will use only soul-force and never destroy by war or any even defensive employment of physical violence? Good, though until soul-force is effective, the Asuric force in men and nations tramples down, breaks, slaughters, burns, pollutes, as we see it doing today, but then at its ease and unhindered, and you have perhaps caused as much destruction of life by your abstinence as others by resort to violence…. Evil cannot perish without the destruction of much that lives by the evil….


It is not enough that our own hands should remain clean and our souls unstained for the law of strife and destruction to die out of the world; that which is its root must first disappear out of humanity. Much less will mere immobility and inertia unwilling to use or incapable of using any kind of resistance to evil, abrogate the law; inertia, Tamas, indeed, injures much more than can the rajasic principle of strife which at least creates more than it destroys. Therefore, so far as the problem of the individual’s action goes, his abstention from strife and its inevitable concomitant destruction in their more gross and physical form may help his own moral being, but it leaves the Slayer of creatures unabolished.


… It is only a few religions which have had the courage to say without any reserve, like the Indian, that this enigmatic World-Power is one Deity, one Trinity, to lift up the image of the Force that acts in the world in the figure not only of the beneficent Durga, but of the terrible Kali in her blood-stained dance of destruction and to say, “This too is the Mother; this also know to be God; this too, if thou hast the strength, adore.” And it is significant that the religion which has had this unflinching honesty and tremendous courage, has succeeded in creating a profound and widespread spirituality such as no other can parallel. For truth is the foundation of real spirituality and courage is its soul.


.. This world of our battle and labour is a fierce dangerous destructive devouring world in which life exists precariously and the soul and body of man move among enormous perils, a world in which by every step forward, whether we will it or no, something is crushed and broken, in which every breath of life is a breath too of death. To put away the responsibility for all that seems to us evil or terrible on the shoulders of a semi-omnipotent Devil, or to put it aside as part of Nature, making an unbridgeable opposition between world-nature and God-Nature, as if Nature were independent of God, or to throw the responsibility on man and his sins, as if he had a preponderant voice in the making of this world or could create anything against the will of God, are clumsily comfortable devices in which the religious thought of India has never taken refuge. We have to look courageously in the face of the reality and see that it is God and none else who has made this world in his being and that so he has made it. We have to see that Nature devouring her children, Time eating up the lives of creatures, Death universal and ineluctable and the violence of the Rudra forces in man and Nature are also the supreme Godhead in one of his cosmic figures.



The learning sequence

Swami Dayananda Saraswati (Arsha Vidya Gurukulam) has a message for teachers and students of Hindu philosophy. He had given this message to the fourth long-term course students at  Anaikatti on how the students should live  their life and share the Vedanta knowledge in October 2013. You can find it here. He has a sequence in mind for teaching/learning Hindu texts:

Forming a study group for Gita Home  Study Programme could be otherwise a  starting point.  After second chapter one can start  Tattva Bodha. After that, Gita third chapter  can be continued. After completion of Gita,  Upanisad class can be commenced.

We can learn about the Gita ‘Home Study’ programme here.

Anand Mahindra and Charles Dickens

The brief but nice convocation address by Anand Mahindra to the graduating class at IIM-A in 2014 is available here. Worth a read.

Must highlight this part of his speech:

I believe that this psychological legacy of colonialism was at least as pernicious as the memories of physical humiliation. Why on earth did we allow this residue to remain for so long? We were in a state of mind best summed up by this Urdu Sher:

Ajab ye zindagi ki
Kaid hai har insaan
Rihayi maangta hai aur
Riha hone se darta hai

Which essentially means that even though we long for our freedom, we are mortally afraid of being released.

He has questioned the need for us to allow the residue to remain for long. But, worse, we continue to read and extol those who wished to exterminate us from the face of this earth.

Until I read this piece (published in 2007) in ‘Guardian’, I did not know that the famous author Charles Dickens had such a mighty contempt for ‘races’:

According to an article by Dr. Gideon Polya, this is what Charles Dickens wrote to businessman Emile de la Rue in October 1857:

Thus Charles Dickens in a letter to Emile de la Rue on 23 October 1857 about the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857 :  “I wish I were Commander in Chief over there [ India ]! I would address that Oriental character which must be powerfully spoken to, in something like the following placard, which should be vigorously translated into all native dialects, “I, The Inimitable, holding this office of mine, and firmly believing that I hold it by the permission of Heaven and not by the appointment of Satan, have the honor to inform you Hindoo gentry that it is my intention, with all possible avoidance of unnecessary cruelty and with all merciful swiftness of execution, to exterminate the Race from the face of the earth, which disfigured the earth with the late abominable atrocities [2,000 British killed in the 1857 Indian War of Independence aka the 1857 Indian Mutiny]

Gideon Polya cites this from the book by Grace Moore titled, ‘Dickens and the Empire. Discourses of class, race, and colonialism in the works of Charles Dickens”, published in 2004.

The Wiki page on Charles Dickens and racism is interesting but it mentions that the above intent of extermination was expressed in a letter that Dickens wrote to Baroness Burdett-Coutts. I do not know who is correct. But, it is important to note that he expressed that sentiment. The discrepancy is in the name of the addressee. This discrepancy apart, the Wiki page is worth reading.

Lest I forget to mention, the article in ‘Guardian’ mentions the work of historian Amaresh Misra who claims that Britain’s deacde-long ‘holocaust’ in India claimed about 10 million lives:

A controversial new history of the Indian Mutiny, which broke out 150 years ago and is acknowledged to have been the greatest challenge to any European power in the 19th century, claims that the British pursued a murderous decade-long campaign to wipe out millions of people who dared rise up against them.

In War of Civilisations: India AD 1857, Amaresh Misra, a writer and historian based in Mumbai, argues that there was an “untold holocaust” which caused the deaths of almost 10 million people over 10 years beginning in 1857.

How many such speeches do the Mahindras of India have to make before Indians shed their colonial hangover?

(Cross-posted here)

Fox-like thinking

About a little over two weeks ago, I came across this lovely quote by Robert Solow in the website of Arnold Kling:

I remember reading once tha t it is still not understood how the giraffe manages to pump an adequate blood supply all the way up to its head; but it is hard to imagine that anyone would therefore conclude that giraffes do not have long necks. At least not anyone who had ever been to a zoo. – Robert Solow [Link]

Then, I read a paper by Arnold Kling titled, ‘Macroeconomics: the science of hubris’ (Link). The paper is an easy read. It is easy to follow his arguments on the impossibility of macro-economic modeling. Here is a sample:

An almost limitless number of factors could affect key macroeconomic variables from quarter to quarter. For each factor, moreover, there are several potential specifications for the variable representing that factor. The variable might be entered into the equations as linear or nonlinear, de-trended or not, current or lagged, and so forth. Perhaps the effect of the level of average house prices is different from the effect of the rate of change of house prices. Ceteris paribus, a higher level might reduce demand, but a higher rate of increase might increase demand. The number of factors to be controlled for is further enlarged by ‘‘special factors,’’ such as the steel strikes or wage/price controls alluded to earlier. All things considered, there are thousands of plausible specifications of equations.

In conclusion, he compares macro-econometric models to the wrong map used by Swiss mountaineers lost in the Swiss Alps. They had the map of Pyrenees, a mountain range that borders France and Spain (I think).  But, there is a big, big difference. They made it down safely from the mountain using the wrong map. The same cannot be said of macro-econometric modelers. They give wrong prescriptions, policymakers follow them and the consequences remain with   societies for a very long time with no one being able to account for the costs of  the wrong ideas. It is humanely impossible and for the most important reason that no counterfactual is possible to construct, in hindsight.

What the map of Pyrenees meant to the mountaineers is a different thing. That should be discussed separately. That indicates the power (or the susceptibility) of the mind to accept ‘placebos’.

Staying with maps, I must mention here the delightful review of Greenspan’s ‘The Map and the Territory’ by John Kay:

No economic model can describe “the world as it really is”; there are only provisional approximations that can be pragmatically applied in particular situations.

Many economists struggle to accept this. They suffer physics envy, believing (I think wrongly) that physicists employ models that do describe “the world as it really is”. If economics is to be a science, these economists think, those who practice the subject must identify truths that are similarly independent of time, place or context.

I would be even more circumspect of economic models. I would not venture to say that they are provisional approximations that can be pragmatically applied to certain situations. I would say that they are first approximations that are points of departure in our quest to understand economic reality.

His final blow on Greenspan is brilliant: underlying superficiality of thought concealed by the complexity of expression. WoW!

Staying with modelling, Dani Rodrik (ht: Kevin Gallagher tweet) has written a piece saying that academics requires more fox-like thinking than hedgehog-like thinking:

The fox, by contrast, lacks a grand vision and holds many different views about the world – some of them even contradictory…..  Foxes carry competing, possibly incompatible theories in their heads. They are not attached to a particular ideology and find it easier to think contextually. [Link]

This approach to problems comes naturally to many Indians who have not crossed over to the Western mode of linear thinking. To appreciate many tenets and philosophies of Hinduism, one needs this fox-like thinking hat.

At this stage, it makes sense to link here  - to put them all in one place – Emanuel Derman’s manifesto and Hippocratic Oath for economic modellers.

[Cross posted at 'The Gold Standard' blog here]