We Should Regulate the Government, Not the Other Way Around

This is the sixth installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

From the way this government behaves, you would think that the people of India are a great danger. A few days ago, the government floated a tender asking for vendors who would build for it a “comprehensive analytics system to monitor and analyse various aspects of social media communication and World Wide Web.” Put simply, a surveillance system that will track all your online activity, and know everything about you, so that you behave. This tender came on the heels of an earlier proposal mooted by Smriti Irani, then the I&B Minister, to regulate online media.

These specific proposals were par for the course. Any government looks for ways to expand its power over its citizens. As much as we should protest these attempts, we should also consider that the real problem lies elsewhere. The biggest danger to our democracy is not one set of people lusting for power, but the mindset that all of us have.

The Indian people still behave as if we are subjects of an empire. We have no rights except those that our rulers are kind enough to grant us, and they are our mai-baap. Yes, since the British left we have a procedure to elect our own rulers – but we remain the ruled.

In a democratic republic, the people should be in charge, and the government should serve. The only legitimate role of the state is to protect the rights of its citizens – that’s what laws are for. And yet, in this inversion of roles that we have accepted, laws become the tool by which our rulers keep us in check. The mere rule of law is never enough for this, and the state always seeks to expand its power with that magic word, ‘regulation’. We accept and encourage this: whenever we see a social or economic problem of any kind, we assume that the solution must lie with government, and demand ‘regulation.’

We need to reverse our thinking. We should regulate the government, and not the other way around.

You should always be suspicious of any sentence with the phrase ‘government regulation’. Most of the time when someone proposes any kind of government regulation, it is something that will harm the common citizen, help a special interest group and expand the power of an oppressive state. Let me explain.

First of all, let’s take for granted that the fundamental role of the state is to protect the rights of its citizens. It has to maintain the rule of law. In any marketplace, whether of goods, services or ideas, this is all it needs to do. Punish cheats and thieves. Enforce contracts. Ensure that all interactions are voluntary and there is no coercion. It needs to do no more than this.

Now, consider what happens when the government decides to ‘regulate’ something in the ‘public interest’. The state is not a benevolent godlike force that works in society’s best interests. Politics is an interplay of power and money, and those in power have always been captured by special interests. There is already a power imbalance in favour of these special interests. To grant the government more power is to increase that imbalance.

Usually, in any market, competition is the best regulation. A common form of government regulation is to increase entry barriers in a marketplace, thus reducing competition. This hurts the consumers – or us common citizens. It helps entrenched special interests.

This is as true of the marketplace of ideas as it is of the marketplace for goods and services. Social and online media are already subject to laws that fight criminal activity—including many laws against free speech that should not exist. Further regulation is an attempt to protect one set of ideas and intimidate another. This reduces the possibility of dissent. This is bad for democracy.

The issue here is not which party happens to be in power at a given time. Whenever you concede a certain set of powers to a government, imagine the worst possible person in charge. It could be Yogi Adityanath or Sonia Gandhi or Arvind Kejriwal—whoever you dislike most. The state should have so little power, and such strong checks and balances, that the worst person imaginable being in charge will not be a threat to the nation.

So the next time someone proposes government regulation of any kind, with the most noble rhetoric behind it, raise your voice. It is the natural tendency of the state to try to grab as much power as possible. It is the duty of the citizen to resist.

The Fall Guy (and the Stampede)

This is the 51st installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

FALL GUY

Yashwant-bhai told me, quite sedately,
“Amit, have you seen the news lately?
Our nation has been shamed.
Modiji can’t be blamed,
So I will blame it all on Jaitley.”

ELPHINSTONE

There is more to Mumbai than the rain.
Human life keeps going down the drain.
Just another stampede
That will never impede
Our rush towards a grand bullet train.

Mentally Deranged

This is the 50th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

I WAS THERE!

There’s a TV anchor with much flair.
He was caught lying. There was fanfare.
What’s the point of this rage?
This is the post-truth age.
Super Arnab can be everywhere.

MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR

Kim said Trump is mentally deranged.
Expect more insults to be exchanged.
I suggest, to stop doom,
Those two should get a room.
They sound like lovers who are estranged.

The Wheel Turns

This is the 47th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

THE WHEEL TURNS

Sikka is great, everyone chanted.
They hailed Mistry, and then recanted.
Whoever is to blame,
The lesson is the same:
Never take anything for granted.

EK PREM KATHA

I said to my love, “How do you do?
I will build a toilet just for you.”
She gave me one tight slap,
And said, “Bro, cut the crap.
First get swachh yourself. Until then, boo!”

Immortal Mishtake

This is the 45th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

NO AADHAAR

A friend told me, “You need Aadhaar, mate,
If you want a death certificate.
You just can’t get away.”
I jumped and said, “Hurray!
I will live forever at this rate.”

MISHTAKE

Sushmaji told Modi, “What a scam!
How could you gift away our Doklam?”
Modi said, “Galti se,
I just gave it away.
I thought they wanted dhokla. Goddamn!”

Embrace the Technology!

This is the 36th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

At the very moment you read this, there is a Test match going on and two batsmen consulting out in the middle about whether they should use the DRS.

“Was I really lbw? Should I refer? Do you think it was missing?”

“I don’t know. But whatever you do, don’t look at the pavilion. Control your neck. Control it. Hold it if you have to. Here, I’ll hold it for you. Control!”

Crack.

The big cricket story of last week, somehow, was not India’s excellent comeback in the Test series against Australia, but the DRS controversy. Batsmen are not supposed to look at the pavilion for advice when deciding whether or not to go for a decision review. Those are the rules, Steve Smith broke the rule, and it was fair enough that he was asked to leave the field of play. But the rules themselves are ridiculous.

I’ve been ranting about this for years, and still these people don’t learn. You would think no one reads me. Gah. Anyway, because I care about you, here, once again, are my thoughts on technology in cricket. And in life, which, by the way, is futile. (I don’t shy away from the big questions.)

First up, a question: why do umpires exist in cricket? After all, cricket is about batsmen batting, bowlers bowling and fielders fielding. No one goes to a ground to watch an umpire umpire. Well, umpires exist purely as a means to an end. They have to take decisions about whether a batsman is out or not, and lubricate the action in the game by communicating to scorers exactly what is going on. A secondary function is to step in if there is physical conflict, and to maintain decorum. Their job is not to be the action, but to keep the action flowing smoothly.

In other words, umpires are a technology.

Think of anything that is a means to an end as a technology. Umpires are a conventional technology for arriving at the right decisions on a cricket field. Now, the last couple of decades have seen rapid upgradations to pretty much every other technology there is. And so it is in the case of cricket. The decision-making mechanisms in cricket have been enhanced with new technologies meant to supplement (and not replace) the umpires.

The most significant of these is Hawk-Eye. Umpires, being human (as of now), are prone to all kinds of optical illusions, such as the parallax error, which impede their decision-making ability. Hawk-Eye, in every respect, makes better decisions than an umpire can. (And it makes them in real time – the time-consuming replays you see you on TV are only for the benefit of viewers.) But for the longest time, luddites fought the use of Hawkeye in decision-making, which led to the ridiculous situation that everyone watching a game had accurate information about whether a batsman was out or not – except the bloody umpire. It was ridiculous.

Cricket authorities have since become more open to the use of technology, but not enough. They almost seem to use it grudgingly. Consider DRS, for example. If the idea of the technology called umpires is to make correct decisions, and there is more technology that will lead to even better decisions, then why don’t we use it as much as possible? Why should DRS appeals be limited for a batting side? Why should every dismissal not be reviewed as a matter of course? Reviewing a dismissal would not take more time than a batsman walking back to the pavilion, so this should be a no-brainer.

Steve Smith wouldn’t be so embarrassed then, eh?

But really, the larger issue here is that the world is changing rapidly, and our minds are not adjusting fast enough. It’s not just cricket. As a species, we don’t have enough clarity about means and ends. For example, just as umpires are a technology for making correct decisions on a cricket field, consider that animals are a technology for growing food. And now that scientists have figured out a way to grow meat in labs without sentient animals being involved, they may soon be an outdated technology, at least for this use case. That might lead to goats going extinct. (Not puppies, though, because puppies can be hugged.)

Equally, hugs are a technology for oxytocin generation. Romance is a technology for the way it makes us feel and the chemicals it releases. If we could pop a pill and feel the same way, would we bother to fall in love, or hug or cuddle or caress, or even woo? Are we so arrogant enough to believe that the love we feel for anyone is truly transcendent, and not mere technology? And also, is humanity any loftier than just a carrier for the trillions of bacteria that inhabit us? What suckers we are, that we behave as if we’re the rulers of the universe?

Okay, excuse the digression, your life has meaning. Happy now? Get back to watching the cricket, but do think about how it makes you feel, and the purpose of it all.

Narendra Modi Makes Some New Year Resolutions

This is a guest column published today in the Sunday Times of India edit page.

Every December, I like to meet the high and mighty of the world and ask them about their New Year Resolutions. Last year I met Donald Trump. “I’m going to control my foot in 2016,” he told me. “It keeps going into my mouth. It’s like my foot has a mind of its own. What to do?”

“You could try building a wall between your foot and your mouth,” I suggested. “A really yuge wall, like, I know you’ve seen a lot of walls, and this will be the best.”

He rubbed his minuscule hands together, deep in thought, and offered me an orange.

This year, I decided to go closer to home. I dropped in to meet my old friend Narendra Modi. “Wassup, Vallabhai?” I said. It’s an old joke between us.

Modiji gave me a warm hug. “It’s so good to see you after so long,” he said. “I mean, it’s good that it’s been so long since I last saw you. What brings you here?”

“An Uber,” I said. “Listen, I just dropped in to ask what your New Year Resolutions for 2017 are. What new things are you going to do?”

Modiji sat back, and a grim look came over his face. “I have made many resolutions,” he said. “First of all, I need to finish my war against black money. I thought demonetisation would do it, but my own damn IT department did a study that showed that only 6% of black money was kept in the form of cash. Even that was converted from old black money into new black money through new black markets. So phussss.”

“So what are you going to do then?”

“Well, I was told that a lot of black money is kept in the form of gold and real estate. So I will tackle them both. First, I will demonetise gold. I will declare that from now on, gold is aluminium. And boom, in one blow there will be no more gold in the country. Until I declare something else to be gold.”

“Er, this is not how it works,” I said. “You are not God. You can’t just pass a law and change the world like that.”

“You know nothing,” he said. “I am the Badshah of Jumla, and the Emperor of Spin. I am the King of Narrative, and I always win. Did you notice that I just rhymed? That’s what happens when you read Rhyme & Reason every week in the Times of India.”

“You can read?”

“No, a babu summarises it for me. Not Bajrangi. Anyway, so after gold, I will tackle real estate. I will demonetise real estate, Mitron, I mean, Amit. All land holdings of more than 100 square feet will no longer be legal. I will kill black money, I’m telling you.”

“No, you won’t, Modiji, you’ll devastate the poor people of this country all over again. How will you win elections like that?”

“I have a plan for that. All this land that will now belong to the government, I will redistribute it among the people of India. I will deposit one acre of land into every Jan Dhan account.”

“Modiji, oh my god, who has been advising you? You can’t deposit land into Jan Dhan bank accounts.”

“Yes, you can. Only, it won’t be actual physical land. It will be digital land. India needs to move beyond real estate into a landless economy. Everyone will be a homeowner.”

“But how will they withdraw this land?”

“We won’t let them withdraw it. Can you imagine the chaos if people start withdrawing land from Jan Dhan accounts? Amit, you also na, what all you say!”

I sighed, and offered him the orange I’d saved up for a year. “It is vegetarian, isn’t it?” he asked. “I mean, it’s not a steak or something?” To be fair it did look kind of weird.

“So what are your resolutions besides killing poor people, I mean, black money? Any plans of exercise, diet etc?”

“I have already started an exercise regime,” he said proudly. “Look!” He pointed outside the window, where three babus in safari suits were doing on-the-spot jogging. “I have delegated my exercising.”

“Er, ok,” I said. “And any plans to diet? You’re so full of yourself, you must surely be overweight.”

“I will go on a Vedic diet that made our ancients extremely healthy.”

“What do you mean, healthy?” I said. “They’re all dead.”

Modiji glared at me. “Amit,” he said, “your humour is terrible. I must save India from the likes of you. I am going to send all Amits to Pakistan.”

He threw the orange at me, and I lost consciousness. When I came to, I was on a flight to Islamabad. Amit Shah sat besides me, squirming in his middle seat.

“What the hell did you just do?” he barked at me. “Why couldn’t your name have been Arun, dammit?”

Strong Woman; Bad Men

This is the 24th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

AMMA
 
They warned her about misogyny.
She said as she shaped her destiny,
“It’s a man’s world, indeed,
But I will not pay heed.
I will make those men bow before me.”
 
DAMAGE
 
Sanjay Gandhi came back from the dead.
He went to meet NaMo, and he said,
“I loved to hurt the weak,
But nasbandi seems meek.
I wish I’d done notebandi instead.”

Narendra Modi takes a Great Leap Backwards

This is a guest column published today in the Sunday Times of India edit page.

In 1958, Chairman Mao ordered that that all sparrows over China should be put to death. It was hailed as a necessary step by a strong leader. Farmers were suffering because sparrows tended to eat their grain seeds. For the good of the nation, they had to be protected. Thus began The Great Sparrow Campaign. A countless number of sparrows were indeed wiped out—but there were unintended consequences.

Sparrows ate locusts, and once the balance in the ecosystem changed, locusts proliferated and destroyed China’s crops. There was famine, hunger, starvation: no less than 45 million people died in the three years following Mao’s orders. At the start, Mao exhorted them to bear with the inconvenience. But then the pain piled up.

Mao’s infamous Great Leap Forward included plenty of edicts besides the death warrant to sparrows. They all stemmed from the delusion that the leader of a country, as if he was God, could redesign an entire society to conform to a master plan. The 20th century is full of cautionary tales that warn against such delusion, such as the communism of Mao and Stalin, and the fascism of Hitler. Yet, we do not learn.

Narendra Modi’s demonetisation of old 1000 and 500 rupee notes is one such monstrous folly. It is a blunder in every imaginable way. It doesn’t achieve its intended purpose. And its unintended consequences could devastate the lives of the poor, and cripple our economy.

Modi claims that this move is an attack against black money and corruption. This is not true, and here are four reasons why. One, as per a recent estimate, only 6% of black money is kept in the form of cash. Two, new 2000 and 500 rupee notes are on the way, and a black market for conversion from old to new is already thriving. Three, as various economists have pointed out, this attacks the stock and not the flow of black money. To strike at black money and corruption, you need to strike at their root causes.

Corruption and black money are a consequence of big government, of one set of individuals having discretionary powers over the actions of others. If Modi was serious about tackling black money, he’d bring about institutional changes that would take us towards the minimum government he had promised in his 2014 campaign. Instead, government keeps getting bigger, controlling more and more of our lives. More government = more corruption.

The fourth and most compelling reason is this: these aren’t really high-denomination notes. Modi has probably not bought anything from a store in 15 years, so he imagines that the poor do not use these notes. Well, consider that the last time a demonetisation took place in 1978, a 1000 rupee note, in terms of purchasing power, could buy goods worth Rs 12,000 today. Rich people did hoard their black money with it, but the poor did not use them. (The move failed nevertheless.)

A Rs 500 note today, by contrast, is the equivalent of a Rs 50 note in 1978. These notes constitute 85% of the money in circulation, as opposed to 0.6 in 1978. Over 90% of the transactions in India are cash transactions, and more than 90% of the cash in India is not black money. This is everyday currency.

This is why the consequences of Modi’s move are so severe. According to an RBI note from March this year—and contrary to the government’s PR—only 53% of Indians have bank accounts. How do you think the other 600 million store their savings? Over 300 million people have no government ID, and there are crores of people stuck without a way to convert their hard-earned cash. Even if they did have accounts, there are reports that the government will take six months to print enough replacement notes. Every day the death toll goes up, but rural suffering and anger cannot be captured by bare numbers.

Apart from all the individual suffering, our economy is being eviscerated. Cash is integral to most of the economy. Farmers are being unable to sell perishable produce, to buy grains for the new harvest or to pay labourers. Transporters are unable to transport goods across distances. Commerce has shut down in many places, with small businesses going bust. In some places, the barter system is back, as if we’ve gone centuries back in time.

This is not an issue of implementation. Even if implementation was perfect, this would be a historic blunder because social engineering never works, and carries moral costs because of its unintended consequences. When people have to queue up to withdraw their own money, on which limits are placed, it is an attack on property rights that is more out of the Communist handbook than any right-wing philosophy. Indeed, Burkean conservatives and Hayekian libertarians alike would be aghast at Modi’s actions, as he propels India towards the Soviet Union so admired by Nehru, with its state oppression, artificial shortages and infamous queues. But Chairman Mao would approve.

*

Also read:

1. My earlier piece on the subject, ‘Modi Goes to Daulatabad’.

2. Devangshu Datta’s piece in Scroll providing some useful facts and figures, ‘In one stroke, demonetisation has shaken the trust our monetary system is based on’.

3. Ajay Shah’s lucid analysis in Business Standard: ‘A monetary economics view of the de-monetisation’.

4. Swaminathan Aiyar in Times of India: ‘Why small finance faces a big wipeout’.

5. Salil Tripathi in Mint: ‘No, the poor aren’t sleeping peacefully’.

6. Ajaz Ashraf’s excellent piece in Scroll illustrating the impact of demonetisation on small businesses: ‘Informal credit systems: Modi has crippled a very Indian way of doing business’.

7. TN Ninan in Business Standard: ‘Our post-truths’.

8. Pratap Bhanu Mehta in Indian Express: ‘You have been warned’.

A Week of Upheaval

This is the 22nd installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

ORANGE MAN

Misogynists of the world, unite.
Racists and bigots, you won the fight.
You’ve got your president.
Now begin your descent
Into hatred, your sacred birthright.

CURRENCY

On Tuesday, India underwent
Surgical strikes that were meant to dent
All unaccounted gains.
Still the question remains,
Who will account for the government?