Surgical writing

Ashley Tellis’ piece in MINT on India’s options with Pakistan. He points to the United States’ failure to rein in Pakistan.

Supporting insurgencies within Pakistan, engaging in economic warfare, pursuing focused retaliation to punish Rawalpindi, or threatening major military action to induce external pressure on Pakistan then remain the only means left for neutralizing Pakistani terrorism. (Here he is talking about options for India).”

“It is indeed frustrating that even after suffering Pakistani duplicity on terrorism for over a decade now, successive US administrations have been unable to threaten Pakistan with anything more persuasive than the suspension of petty carrots.”

“That the US, the world’s greatest power and Islamabad’s biggest benefactor, seems unable to do much about these perils darkens the prospects for hope in South Asia—not Narendra Modi’s token slap against Pakistani terrorism. [Link]

His piece appeared in MINT even as there has been one more terrorist attack on a civilian building (a government building of the Enterprise Development Institute) in Pampore.

Brahma Chellaney too points the finger at the United States:

US President Barack Obama’s administration also opposes a move in Congress that would officially brand Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism.

The US has a lot of leverage: Pakistan has one of the world’s lowest tax-to-GDP ratios, and is highly dependent on American and other foreign aid. It should use that leverage to ensure that the Pakistani military is brought to heel – and held to account. [Link]

Brahma’s piece has several interesting references. Worth checking out some of them.

Dr. Sashi Tharoor has praised the Indian government’s surgical strikes. See, for example,

Still, a country that refuses to suffer repeated body blows earns more respect than one whose restraint can be interpreted as weakness. [Link]

That was exactly the point that some of the columns written before India undertook its surgical strikes (in the week of September 26) missed. The most notable and disappointing example was that of Praveen Swami.

In contrast, Raja Mohan had a more thoughtful piece and Pratap Bhanu Mehta was more restrained than usual in his scepticism of government’s intentions and capabilities.

I reiterate that these three pieces were in the week before the strikes.


Trump may just lose an election; what about America?

(As you would notice below, this was first written on October 7, 2016, before revelations of Donald J. Trump (DJT)’s remarks on women, his apology, his press conference with some of the women Bill Clinton has had relationship with, the second Presidential debate and the so-called distancing of Paul Ryan from DJT. None of the analysis below and the conclusions are altered by them.)

As I write this on October 7, 2016, at some level, the momentum that Ms. Clinton (HRC) wrested from DJT after the first Presidential debate seems to be staying with her. This is notwithstanding the supposedly better performance of his VP running mate over hers. From here on, it appears that it is her election to lose.

(1) The tax returns of DJT are not the real issue. Most of the serious corporate backers of HRC – Google and Apple, etc., – have their own tax issues to deal with. Tax avoidance within the scope provided by the law is staple practice for many individuals and institutions.

(2) Peggy Noonan writes:

The first was Mr. Trump’s 3 a.m. tweet on Alicia Machado. Actually, that happened a week and a half ago, but this week the thought really settled in: He’s going to do that as president. Once he tweeted crazy things a lot and then he sort of slowed and then he was sort of winning and then the mad 3 a.m. tweet told you: No, it will happen as president, only it will be more serious then. This is the week his friends, staff and supporters realized it will never stop.

We do seem to have a clownish and loutish candidate with little self-discipline. Never mind that the other candidate is too disciplined in her own undisciplined ways.

(3) This article mentions how the FBI handled HRC and all her witnesses (immunising all of them) in contrast to how it handled Bob McDonnell.

(4) Check out this piece in ‘Washington Times’ here on the treatment she had meted out to the ‘Clinton ladies’ and, more importantly, the coverage of the media of her.

In addition to the other issues raised in the article, these statements stand out for me:

People cut a lot of corners when covering the Clintons, eh Carl?

I guess having a porn queen representing Hillary’s campaign is just one more sign of the Clintons’ debasement of America. Apparently, the MSM does not mind being part of this debasement.

(5) Read what Peggy Noonan wrote on the Bill Clinton critique of Obamacare:

The second was Bill Clinton’s admission that ObamaCare is a mess, “the craziest thing in the world.” At a rally in Michigan he said “you’ve got this crazy system” in which millions more people have insurance, but “the people who are out there busting it, sometimes 60 hours a week, wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half.” Later he tried to walk it back but you can never walk back an obvious truth….

… In another world, what he said would be front-page news every day.

 (6) Dorothy Rabinowitz, a member of the WSJ Editorial Board, wrote on Sept. 29 that only HRC stood between the American nation and the reign of the most unstable, proudly uninformed, psychologically unfit President ever to enter the White House.

(7) 17 of the top 100 newspapers in the United States have publicly endorsed HRC. None for Trump yet.

(8) Jack Hellner wrote in ‘The American Thinker’ on October 8, the day after Trump tapes were revealed:

I have never seen a media so in the tank.  The media show every day their bias by what they report, how they report, and especially what they choose not to report.  Our freedoms are in danger, and since they have no actual accomplishments to tout for their chosen candidate, they have to destroy the other.

Under normal circumstances, there is scope and room for discussion on the good (few) and bad traits (surfeit) of both the candidates and their bearing on governance in the country in the world. On policy issues, it could be easily divided into domestic – security, social, economic and foreign – trade, diplomacy and geopolitics – categories and their positions analysed threadbare. If choices were made consequently, then they would be understandable even if not agreeable.

I am not naïve enough to think that all commentators, all outlets and journalists would engage in such an exercise. Some revel in polemics, trivia and some like personality weaknesses. Some like them all. But, never has there been an overwhelming outpouring of commentary on the weakness of the other than on the strengths of the favoured. In that sense, both the objects of and the analyses reflect the decay in America.

(9) New York University development expert William Easterly had analysed coverage in The New York Times between 1960 and 2008 and found that the paper ran some 63,000 stories on autocratic governments, a staggering 40,000 on their successes, and just 6,000 on their failures. Ruchir Sharma has recorded this in his book, ‘Rise and fall of Nations’

Now, think of the above from the systemic risk perspective:

If DJT won the election, almost all of the so-called intelligentsia and the media would be ranged against him and not just in the United States of America. Media in most of the rest of the advanced economies and in the English language press in the developing world would also be against him. That is a natural check-and-balance.

On the other hand, if HRC won the election, what would be the ‘check-and-balance’ on her? After all, they have painted her the saviour of the world from the menace of DJT.

The extraordinary Presidential impunity that she would wield because of the immunity that large sections of the intelligentsia and almost all of the media have pre-emptively granted her bode ill for the Republic.

The staff at Daily Bell summarised the situation well:

This is part of a larger destruction of Western culture and values and it is ongoing. What’s taking place is not happenstance, not in Europe, nor in the US. Freedom is being destroyed, but in a deliberate manner, to send a message and increase polarization. Many currents are swirling beneath the surface that make this presidential campaign an epochal one. [Link]

The world is chugging along somewhat thoughtlessly into deep waters or unchartered territory, depending on one’s preference for metaphors.

Whoever wins, the law of unintended consequences will play out. To reiterate, it appears that it is Hillary Clinton’s election to lose. But, the manner in which she is ascending the throne would haunt the world and America for a long time to come. The elites who are engineering this outcome will ensure that all of us are extinguished by their egregious conduct.

It is in this world that my children would be growing up into full-blown adulthood. God bless them!

(This was published in Swarajya)

Story of Walter Pitts

My good friend Srinivas Varadarajan had sent this story to me in December 2015. I read it in April 2016. Today, as I was reading the third chapter of the book, ‘The rise of robots’, the name Norbert Wiener came up and that somehow made me recall this story. The story of Walter Pitts is associated with Norbert Wiener. I located it and I think it is a great read. It is a story of genius and unsurprisingly, it is a tragedy involving a woman and some skinny-dipping too!

Just savour this:

In other words, Pitts was struggling with the very logic he had sought in life. Pitts wrote that his depression might be “common to all people with an excessively logical education who work in applied mathematics: It is a kind of pessimism resulting from an inability to believe in what people call the Principle of Induction, or the principle of the Uniformity of Nature. Since one cannot prove, or even render probable a priori, that the sun should rise tomorrow, we cannot really believe it shall.”

It is a story brilliantly told by Amanda Gefter. This story underscores my conviction that most people are grossly overestimating the difference that new technologies (robotic, paper-less, fintech, etc., ) to our ‘lives’ in entirety. They are extensions of the material comforts including improved physical health that technology has already provided us.

Will they leave us feeling even more empty? My personal answer is YES.

Suppose they find technologies that will alter the neural networks in the business and also the chemical balance that would keep us all living long and happy, I doubt if the world can support all of us living longer and consuming longer.

But, let us not forget one thing. This story of people who believed that there is a logic to how the brain works and that such logic can be replicated and mimicked and how they fell victim to jealousy, misplaced anger and depression is as much a story of the limits of logic, science and human ingenuity as it is a story of human brilliance too.

A response to ‘Trumpism: a new era in world politics’

I visited Andrew Batson’s blog after a long time and was browsing through his posts of several months. Read this one fully.

I read the original article in ‘Project Syndicate’ he is citing approvingly. It is not quite, ‘It is not the economy, stupid’, as Andrew Batson notes. In fact, it is very much ‘It is the economy, stupid’.

Seems like a summary of various thoughts that would help the author and the reader, eventually, to arrive at a sensible and cogent narrative of events. Perhaps. That is the optimistic conclusion. It is not a criticism.

It appears that the author leans towards the explanation offered by Joschka Fischer that it is the ‘white man’s angst’. A recent article in Wall Street Journal, part of its series on the ‘Great Unravelling’ (of the American economy and society) seems to agree with Fischer. It is an important read.

If it is the ‘white man’s rage’, then the author seems to think that the causes are socioeconomic and that simply defeating Trump or Le Pen would not suffice. See his sentence here:

“if the social and economic forces that led to their rise persist, an increasingly angry populace will simply look for a new tribune.”

Also, he seems to be sceptical of Bradford de Long’s optimism. He is not confident that the political systems would implement desirable socio-economic policies in the future since it has failed to do so in the past (last thirty years?).

So, if one wants to fix accountability for the rise of Le Pen, Trump and Geert Wilders, what would the author recommend?

He does not go there.

His conclusion seems to be one of resignation. I am inclined to agree with that. It would have to play out just as the indifference of the political, policy and educated elites to the ‘insecurities and inequalities of our hyper-globalised age’ played out for thirty-five years or so. There was mere lip service to the concerns of the losers even as politically correct pursuit of ‘gender parity, and the legal and social emancipation of sexual minorities’ searched for and reached new heights and methods. The pursuit shows no signs of abating. The pronouns at Vanderbilt University may not be its most recent nor the most egregious illustration but it qualifies as a good exhibit.

The author concludes that liberal democracy is at peril. May be, he is right and may be he is not. But, assuming that he is right, one reason it could be at peril is that, like many others he has cited in his article, he is in no hurry nor does he show any inclination to name and shame the real culprits responsible for imperilling liberal democracy.

Where there is no accountability, there will only be disenchantment, cynicism and bitterness of the mobs with their own brand of justice that would be dispensed.

Since the crime has been committed and no one seems inclined to affix or accept responsibility, the process of retribution will follow its own logic and momentum now.

There is not much purpose served in wringing hands nor blaming Trump, Le Pen and Geert Wilders. They are mere cogs in the wheel of evolution whose law is that where there is cause, there will be effect. Now, it is the turn of ‘effect’.

Just sit back and watch and survive, with luck and prayer.


Read an interesting article by Lucy Kellaway in FT on Professor Robert Cialdini’s forthcoming book, pre-suasion. Some of the things he describes defy imagination but they are real:

Another brilliant piece of pre-suasion was in a recent letter in which he addressed the ticklish matter of succession. Mr Buffett introduced the subject by saying: “I will tell you what I would say to my family today if they asked me about Berkshire’s future.” By gratuitously dragging his family into it, he ensures that every reader would take what followed as gospel.

Mr Cialdini’s favourite study was conducted on 18-month old infants who were variously shown images of a single person and pairs of people. After looking at the pictures, the infants were asked to pick up things that had been dropped on the floor. The babies who had been shown pictures of a single person were three times less likely to cooperate than those who had been shown pictures of groups. “I’m glad I was sitting down when I read that,” he says. “It proved that if we drew background attention to an idea it is more important to us.”

It is an open secret that he is helping the campaign of Ms. Clinton. The fact that the campaign team has hired him is proof itself that these things exist and work. Scott Adams of Dilbert cartoons fame calls him the ‘Godzilla’ and credits him with the idea of ‘dark’ being used as an epithet associated with Donald Trump. Scott Adams’ latest blog post on ‘Why Trump does not scare me?’. Those who want to follow the U.S. Presidential campaign using the frame of psychology and persuasion can do worse than follow his blog.

The funny thing about Lucy Kellaway’s article is the following:

People read these stuff, nod their heads and later, in a different setting, if we suggest that such tactics are adopted, their reactions are a combination of the following:

(1) They are dismissive
(2) They think they are exempt from it (how much more stupid can one get?)
(3) They think these are conspiracy theories
(4) They think that people do not deploy them.

This strange combination of ego and naivety is astounding!

Luck and asymmetry

Read this nice, short piece by one Mr. Robert Frank in ‘The Atlantic’ magazine on how he was lucky to be saved by the unlikely presence of an ambulance in the neighbourhood, after a sudden cardiac arrest on a Tennis Court. He is a professor of economics at Cornell University.

The piece goes on to argue that humans seldom give credit to ‘luck’ for their successes while ‘bad luck’ is somewhat easily blamed for failures. He is right. But, many other behavioural scientists have made this point repeatedly in recent years. That is why it is often said that success has many parents while failure is an orphan. Our eagerness to associate ourselves with success is driven by ego which is also needed to sustain self-belief, which is a positive thing. But, as with everything else, it is important not to confuse between pride and delusion.

What struck me in his piece was his reference to this asymmetry in human behaviour:

When you’re running or bicycling into the wind, you’re very aware of it. You just can’t wait till the course turns around and you’ve got the wind at your back. When that happens, you feel great. But then you forget about it very quickly—you’re just not aware of the wind at your back. And that’s just a fundamental feature of how our minds, and how the world, works. We’re just going to be more aware of those barriers than of the things that boost us along.

The asymmetry again: headwind is blamed for failure to make progress but tailwind is ignored or forgotten. Life is full of asymmetries and our  response to most things is asymmetric.

That is why I found fault with economists who were trying to look for a symmetrical relationship between interest rates and inflation. It is becoming clear now to many that, due to the behavioural messaging of pessimism embedded in ultra-low (zero or negative) interest rates, it induces excess saving and hence, disinflationary or deflationary tendencies. Quite the opposite of what the policy intends to achieve.

However, that does not mean that higher interest rates would induce inflation. That is what some economists like John Cochrane are trying to establish theoretically. That strikes me as somewhat silly for it fails to acknowledge the essential asymmetry that is all pervasive in human lives.

I had referred to this in my column in MINT  recently.

(Of course, on a different note, religious scholars could and would have something to say on why and how ‘luck’ finds some and does not find some others)


Wolfgang Streeck on the seduction of power

The Régulation Review. Capitalism, Institutions, Power is an international, peer-reviewed, JEL-refereed, econlit-listed journal.

That is what I found from its website. It published an interview with Wolfgang Streeck in July. You can find the interview here.

Some of his interesting remarks:

All of this came relatively late, due to a peculiar “habit” of mine, which is that I can appropriate theory only with a concrete empirical problem before my eyes, or confronting a puzzling image of the real world. I am hungry for facts, not for concepts; concepts I access through facts and through the questions they raise, including the need to organize them into a coherent picture.

I could see myself in that answer.

In a very crude way, one could say: a socioeconomic formation that combined high manufacturing performance with relatively high social egalitarianism has given way to a configuration that combines high manufacturing performance in a shrinking manufacturing sector with rapidly increasing inequality.

That is a good summary of how the global economy has evolved in recent decades.

In fact, what TTIP and similar arrangements are about is replacing public, political and at least potentially democratic institutions with private, commercial, contractual ones, or one could also say: replacing sovereign authority with liberal markets, or state power with market power. After all that is what liberalization is all about.

Behavioral economics means laboratory experiments designed to test assumed general, ahistorical, essentially biologically anchored human dispositions to act. Behind it is a stimulus response model of action that is so general that it can be discovered by testing no more than twenty or thirty graduate students who are paid euros for their participation. To me this kind of research may fit other animals but it certainly does not fit humans – who are, according to Darwin (!), moral animals that can and must distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong. At the human level, differences matter. Also, I detest the biologistic rehabilitation of rational choice that is behind most of behavioral economics: people are “shown” to act “non-rationally”, which for behavioral economists is the same as “altruistically”, but it is assumed that this is genetically programmed, which means that it must functional for the survival of the species and the selection of the fittest, and therefore is rational after all. This is so primitive that one need not comment about it.

What matters at the level of human action, of human society and of human history is precisely the vastly different ways in which our common biological endowment, whatever it may be and highly plastic as it is, is shaped and expressed in different historical cultures and social contexts. Nelson Mandela and Heinrich Himmler both were humans and had the same genetic endowment; but this is obviously much less important than what they and their environment made out of it and what their social context enabled, allowed and encouraged them to do or failed to prevent them from doing.

I think he is being too harsh on behavioural economics. I am not sure that behavioural economics tries to deny the role of the interaction of humans with their society and how the history of the societal evolution and the current context shape them. I do not think that behavioural economics contradicts that.

As far as I have understood behavioural scientists like Dan Ariely or Daniel Kahneman, they are not trying to ‘rationalise’ human behaviour as much as they point out the fallacies of the assumptions of the neo-classical economic growth model. But, the danger in going too far with it is that if people do not know what their preferences are, let somebody else (the government) choose them for the people! That would overlook the fact that those making the preferences for others are also humans! The whole thing gets circular and I am not sure if the answer is anarchy or something close to that. Or, perhaps, is that what we have today?

There is, as I said, no way around telling a good story, like a good historian but with the ambition of uncovering a “logic” underlying what you believe you are seeing, whatever it may be. In some ways this is similar to how an evolutionary biologist would tell the natural history of a habitat or of a species: you assemble all the facts you can find, bring to bear on them what you have learned from similar cases, help yourself from the toolkit of “ideal types” assembled during the history of your discipline, apply the general principles you believe are pertinent, and then do what scientists do: identify a pattern that gives meaning to what you see at the surface.

Pattern recognition is a matter of intelligence, intuition, and experience. Can you ever be sure the pattern you find is really there and is the “relevant” one? Never. But if and when you are sufficiently confident that what you have found can stand, at least for a while, you can release it for others to inspect it and wait what they have to say and, more importantly, if it helps them get ahead in their efforts. Scientific progress is a collective product, not an individual one, and it depends on people taking a risk with their work treating it as an investment in their own reputation and in collective cognitive progress at the same time.

Science has an entrepreneurial element to it: I throw something into the open and hope that it will make a splash. If not, try again. Intuition, responsible and enlightened guesswork, well nuanced verbal interpretation, and not least personal risk-taking are at the heart of the scientific enterprise; tacit skills and experience and “character” top methodological sophistication – social science is a human activity, not a truth-producing machine.

That is one of the best responses I have seen on how knowledge in a society evolves and progresses. He turns the notions of argument and  debate on their heads by calling scientific progress a collective product, an entrepreneurial  venture. Brilliant.

Fundamentally, I believe that a social scientist or economist who is asked by the elected government of his or her country to help with the making of policy should not on principle refuse. If what is expected appears ethically and politically supportable one may even have a duty not to say no. Of course, if emerging results turn out to be incompatible with your convictions you must step back or let yourself be fired.

Power is of course always seductive for someone who is, or was, a homo politicus; but one should give in to the seduction only if there is a real possibility to get something worthwhile done. Today, of course, nobody would ask someone like me to get involved, for the very reasons you mention.

There is much to discuss and think about his answer here. He says it is ok to succumb to the seduction of power if one could get something worthwhile done. That is almost ‘Nishkaamya Karma’. Does it stop there or can it?