Cricketers Focus on Process, Not Results. So Should Fans

This is the third installment of my cricket column for Cricket Next., and was published on September 15, 2018.

Every time India loses a Test series abroad, the doomed relationship between the Indian Cricket Fan and the Indian Cricket Player comes into focus. The Player usually disappoints the Fan; and when the Fan is delighted, it is often for the wrong reason. This is because the Player and the Fan look at the game in completely different ways. So different, in fact, that we might be talking about different sports here.

The crux of this difference: the Indian Cricket Fan is results-oriented.

There have been many loud judgements made by Fans in the course of this series against England, all expressed with great passion and conviction. Hardik Pandya should not have played the first two Tests. Virat Kohli was right to pick Hardik for the third Test; redemption! Kohli was wrong to pick Hardik for the fourth, and he must be dropped. (I have heard these three come from the same person, though they are absurd together.) KL Rahul should be not be in the side. After the fifth Test, wait, oops.

What these judgements, and so many others through the series, have in common is that they are based on results. Consider the different types of judgements Fans tend to pass.

Judgements around selection. So-and-so should not be picked instead of you-and-yo. Example: picking Rohit Sharma instead of Ajinkya Rahane at the start of the Test series in South Africa.

Judgements around events. What a horrible shot Rishabh Pant played to get out in the fifth Test. Bad boy!

Judgements around a side’s approach. Why were Rahul and Pant so aggressive after tea on the fifth day in the fifth Test? Maybe we could have gotten a draw if they had tried to play the day out.

Judgements around, well, results. We lost 4-1. We are a horrible side!

I’m not taking a position on these specific judgements, but on the basis on which they are made. At this point, you would be justified in asking me, WTF columnist bro, if we don’t make judgements based on results, what do we base them on? Don’t players look at the game the same way? Shouldn’t they?

Well, no. All elite sportspeople think about the game probabilistically, and aren’t results-oriented. They value process more than results. That is the only route to success in anything – and I learnt it, viscerally, when I shifted from being a Fan to a Player.

Not a cricket player, don’t worry. After about a decade in cricket journalism, I chucked it around eight years ago, and spent five years as a professional poker player. Poker is a game of skill, but has a higher quantum of luck than other sports – in fact, it has been said that the key skill in poker is the management of luck. This might well be true to any other sport, and of life itself.

One of the early lessons I learnt in poker was that one cannot be results-oriented. I won’t bore you with poker talk, so let me give my favourite illustration of this. (I promise this is relevant to cricket and Kohli and 4-1, so bear with me!)

Let’s say you have an evenly weighted coin, that will fall heads or tails 50% of the time each – over the long run. A friend offers you a deal. You will flip that coin an unspecified number of times. Every time it hands on heads, he will give you Rs 51. Every time it lands on tails, you give him Rs 49.

It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out why this is profitable. You calculate the Expected Value (EV) of a single flip to be Rs 1. (If you flip it 100 times, you get 51×50 and lose 49×50 to gain 100 rupees. Divide by 100.) The more you flip, the more money you make. It is clearly right to accept the bet and start spinning that coin.

But here’s the thing: thinking probabilistically tells you that the decision to flip the coin is always profitable (to the tune of one rupee), but the actual result is always a harsh binary. You either win 51 bucks or lose 49. Let’s say you flip the coin once, it lands on tails, and your friend takes the money and walks off. Does that make it a bad decision?

Maybe he sees your downcast face and spins it again. Tails again. Now? Hell, he could even get ten tails in a row – unlikely as that seems, ten tails in a row is actually inevitable at some point if you spin the coin enough, and you just got unlucky here. (To get a sense of this, do read my old piece, ‘Unlikely is Inevitable’.) So you end up as a big loser – but does this mean your decision-making was flawed?

The key to winning in poker is to keep making the best decision you can, and not worry about the short-term variance of results. This is also the key to winning in life – but I won’t bore you any more on this. (For a deeper explanation involving football and parallel universes, do read my old essay, ‘What Cricket Can Learn From Poker’.) My point is that all actions in all sports carry probabilities with them, and have an inherent EV.

For example, when Lionel Messi find the ball at his feet three feet outside the box with two defenders converging to get in his way, he knows the probabilities of a) trying to weave his way through them to score directly, b) drawing them away from the goal and passing into the space his run would have created for his colleague Luis Suarez, c) Suarez scoring from there, d) Messi just going for a direct shot on goal now, e) Messi sprinting into the box and falling, hoping for a penalty. These numbers would be internalised by Messi’s coaches, and the optimal behaviour in such a spot would be second nature to Messi.

The thing is, he could make the optimal move, with a 15% chance of success, and miss. He could do something sub-optimal, with a 5% chance, and succeed, as he will one-twentieth of the time in that situation. The first decision would not be wrong just because he did not score. The second would not be right just because he did. We have no way of knowing – though Messi is in the best position to judge – and we can only tell how good a player’s decision-making is over an extremely long term, when we have good enough sample sizes to draw reliable conclusions.

In cricket, that long term is not possible. Now, consider the many kinds of EV a captain like Virat Kohli has to calculate when he takes the field.

One is of the strategic value of aggression. Should batsmen be aggressive and show ‘intent’ in Test matches? The merit in this: you don’t let bowlers get into a rhythm; you could take the game away in one good session; if it works, the confidence can create a decisive virtuous cycle. The danger: you could lose too many wickets too quickly when it doesn’t work, and lose the game in a session; the players who fail thus could lose confidence; this could create a vicious cycle.

This is a tough decision. Every Test match has uniquely different conditions, and it is impossible to get a large enough sample size to come to any conclusion. I’d need data from tens of thousands of games with and without this approach to have confidence in a judgement. In the absence of such a sample, a captain like Kohli has to go with his gut to form a philosophy around this.

He has chosen aggression, and prefers free-scoring batsmen like KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan and Hardik Pandya to plodders like Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. (He is no doubt biased by the good results of his own aggression, ignoring the fact that the risk-reward ratio is different for him because he is a superior player to all the guys named above.)

From the EV of a strategy, let’s move to the EV of a specific decision: picking Hardik Pandya in a Test XI in England. I am a fan of Pandya, and I think Kohli’s rationale for playing him would be the same as mine. He is an under-rated batsman, whose aggression can swing a game in a session. Even if he averages five-runs-an-innings lower than a specialist No. 6 batsman, the ten useful overs he can provide in a day, giving rest to the specialist bowlers, is worth those five runs. Playing him instead of a specialist No 6, in my opinion, carries a positive EV.

Now, he was our matchwinner in the third Test, and Kohli’s faith in him seemed vindicated. He flopped in the fourth, and had to be dropped following the public outcry from Fans. But this is indisputable: his EV in the third and fourth Test was identical. The results, though, were very different.

What is that EV? Should he play Tests for us? We can make our own judgements on that. But those two results, which drew such acclaim and derision respectively, are, for all practical purposes, random noise.

At the moment, the results indicate that Kohli is a bad captain, and made mistakes in this series. But are five Tests in England enough to judge, in a season where this batch of the Duke’s ball swung more than normal, tosses were decisive, and England won all the tosses? Could the probabilities have been on his side, but not luck? Are Fans being harsh by judging Kohli on the results of the series? What are the possible counterfactuals?

I don’t want to defend Kohli or take a specific stance here. Nor am I arguing that we should suspend all judgement entirely. But we should be aware that what happens on a cricket field is an inadequate way to evaluate a game, because it is a tiny fraction of what the sport is about. The real drama of cricket, the ebb and flow that matters, lies in the possibilities and probabilities of what can happen, not in the boring binaries of what does. Watching the game would be a richer experience for us if we focussed, as the players do, on the journey and not the destination.

What Virat Kohli Should Consider About the Machinery of His Brain

This is the second installment of my cricket column for Cricket Next., and was published on September 5, 2018.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote a play called Man and Superman. You could steal that title and use it for a film on Virat Kohli’s life right now. As a batsman, he is in superhero territory: he plays every match on a different, easier pitch than his colleagues do, and has established himself as an all-time great. English conditions were once held to be his Kryptonyte, but he’s put that to rest with his sublime batting in this series. Leaving aside costume requirements—he still wears his underwear inside his pants—he is every bit a batting superhero.

Kohli is also the captain of his side, though, and in that avatar is just a frail human. India was walloped in South Africa earlier this year, and just lost the fourth Test in England to go 3-1 down. Both these opponents were themselves far from at their best, and the decisions Kohli made as captain have gotten much of the flak for these defeats. Especially selectorial decisions: Why Rohit over Rahane at the start of the SA series? Why drop Cheteshwar Pujara in the first Test in England? Why persist with Hardik Pandya when he doesn’t seem to bring enough value with either bat or ball?;

I agree with some of those criticisms, but not others, and I feel the critics may be making a mistake by being too results-oriented—I’ll elaborate on that in my next column. It is certainly true, though, that while Kohli has transcended his human limitations when it comes to the skill of batting, he hasn’t done so when it comes to decision-making as a captain. Like all of us, he has a flawed machine inside his skull, with modules that evolved as features in prehistoric times, but which are bugs now. There are cognitive biases and flawed heuristic that can lead us astray in our decision-making, and I’ll try to address some of them in this piece.

Note that while I will cite examples of specific decisions, I am not taking a position on any of them here. Maybe they were good decisions unfairly criticized; maybe they were bad ones; maybe we will never know. I am just going to lay out some of the traps that anyone who selects a cricket team can fall into—and these apply to all of us, in everything we do. Do they apply to Kohli? That is something for you—and him—to think about.

First up, there is the Availability Heuristic, which is defined as “a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision.” There are various ways this can play out. Number one, when a captain speaks up in selection meetings, he is likely to favour players he has actually seen up close, as opposed to those who have performed as well but he hasn’t seen so much of them.

This could lead Kohli, for example, to be more likely to bat for players who qualities he knows personally from teams he has played for, like RCB. Or it could lead to the Status Quo Bias, where he opts to stick with players he is familiar with, rather than take a risk on the relatively unknown. This can also come from the Ambiguity Effect, “a cognitive bias where decision making is affected by a lack of information.”

Kohli is not the sole selector, of course, and you could argue that they often pick fresh talent from the IPL more than from domestic cricket because the IPL is much more in the spotlight. Domestic first-class cricket is supposed to be the feeder system for Test cricket, and by that logic, you’d imagine Mayank Agarwal, with his prolific performances in the Ranji Trophy, would be in the Indian squad. Could his absence be because he had a mediocre IPL, and the Availability Heuristic kicked in?

All humans give in to the Narrative Bias, “our tendency to make sense of the world through stories.” This is actually a necessity, for how else can we navigate a complex world, but we must beware of getting wedded to a false narrative. For example, let’s say that Kohli decides that Rohit Sharma has too much talent to be left out of the Test side, plays with the correct intent, and must be persisted with. (I’m not expressing a view on the merit of this particular narrative, just using it as an example, since it’s a common criticism of Kohli.)

Once Kohli has picked this narrative, he is wired to ignore all evidence against it, and consider only all evidence that supports it. This is called the Confirmation Bias, defined as “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.” You see this all the time among political and ideological tribes on Twitter. In the context of our example narrative, it could mean that every time Rohit (derisively and unfairly called ‘NoHit’ by his detractors) does well, Kohli says, Ah, I knew it all along, and every time he fails, Kohli shrugs it off as an aberration. It becomes easy to do Post-Purchase Rationalisation, and explain Rohit’s failures by citing small sample sizes – which is a reasonable argument in its own right.

A related tendency is the Backfire Effect, which is “the finding that, given evidence against their beliefs, people can reject the evidence and believe even more strongly.” So if Rohit makes a quick cameo and gets out, that could actually strengthen Kohli’s belief rather than weaken it. The Endowment Effect may have something to do with it. This is “the hypothesis that people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them.” In this case, Kohli would own the decision to persist with Rohit, and it would seem better to him than it actually is.

Here are some other biases that could apply to this narrative. The Ben Franklin Effect: “a proposed psychological phenomenon [that] a person who has already performed a favor for another is more likely to do another favor for the other than if they had received a favor from that person.” The Semmelweis Reflex: “a metaphor for the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms.” Do consider also the Optimism Bias and the Ostrich Effect, which I hardly need to define.

Another factor that comes into play when sticking with a bad decision is the Sunk Cost Fallacy, which can also be described as Escalation of Commitment. This is “a human behavior pattern in which an individual or group facing increasingly negative outcomes from some decision, action, or investment nevertheless continues the same behavior rather than alter course.” An everyday example of this: we buy a ticket to watch a movie, hate the first half, but don’t walk out at the interval because hey, the money we spent on the ticket will be wasted. The correct approach is to view the ticket money as a sunk cost, and optimise our enjoyment in the time to come. But no, there is this fallacy.

This might also lead to The Gambler’s Fallacy: “The mistaken belief that, if something happens more frequently than normal during a given period, it will happen less frequently in the future.” An example: you flip an evenly weighted coin three times, and each time, it lands on ‘tails.’ So you feel that ‘heads’ is ‘due’, and the next one will surely be ‘heads’. (The probability remains 50% for any individual spin of the coin because coins don’t have a memory.) Similarly, a batsman’s chances of succeeding in the next innings are what they are: past failures does not mean that a success is ‘due’.

Kohli might also suffer from the Curse of Knowledge: “A cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, communicating with other individuals, unknowingly assumes that the others have the background to understand.” Is it possible, for example, that he unfairly expects less talented players like Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane to bat at a similar strike rate to him because he himself knows how to bat at a healthy momentum, and has the skill to do so?

Even if he does, his teammates are unlikely to dissent too much, which might lead to the False Consensus Effect: “The tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others agree with them.” This would ensure that he gets no negative feedback from within the team. What about from outside? Well, Indian captains have a tradition of ignoring the media, which a smart thing to do these days given the quality of it. But could Kohli also be giving in to the Hostile Attribution Effect: “The tendency to interpret others’ behaviors as having hostile intent, even when the behavior is ambiguous or benign.”

I could go on forever, but you get the drift. The purpose of this piece is not to criticize Kohli, or even the individuals mentioned in the example, such as poor Rohit/NoHit, who was finally removed from the Test side when it all got too much. We are all hardwired with these cognitive biases. We would all improve our decision-making if we were aware of them. Our quest as humans, always, is to transcend ourselves. Kohli has done this as a batsman, and I hope he manages to do it as a captain.

Consent Won a Battle This Week. The War Remains

This is the 11th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

Remember, remember, the sixth of September. In many ways, this date in 2018 is as momentous as August 15, 1947 was. On that day, India gained freedom from a foreign ruler, but Indians remained unfree, subjects of an oppressive Indian state instead of an oppressive colonial one. We were denied so many types of freedom, and took that condition for granted. This week, though, an important sliver of liberty was finally handed to us. This is also Independence Day.

The repeal of Section 377 is an emotional victory, but the tears are bittersweet. The fact remains that it took five unelected men to set this right. In this great democracy of ours, where the voice of the people is supposed to find expression in its politics, not one political party in the last 71 years tried to repeal 377. Parties don’t have principles, only incentives, and all of them behaved this way because they feared that voters would not approve. That tells you what every gay person in this country already knows from lived experience: our society is homophobic. Not just that, our society and the state do not give a damn about Consent.

The central principle of this 377 judgement was Consent: no one has the right to come between two consenting adults. Consent is the foundation of all human rights, and should be the foundation of our Republic. And yet, despite this one historic judgement on one domain of Consent, we remain a land that does not care for this principle.

Consider the arts. We are a country where films made for adults by adults are routinely censored. Books are banned. ‘Objectionable’ art exhibitions are shut down or vandalised. Artists and patrons, consenting adults all, are prevented from enriching each other.

Consider free speech. As in any other marketplace, all of us benefit when there is competition in the marketplace of ideas. And yet, we have laws in the Indian Penal Code, like 295(a) and 153(a), which allow anyone to claim offence and shut free speech down. Like 377, these laws are colonial artefacts. But they are actually validated by the most illiberal part of our Constitution, Article 19(2), which allows caveats to free speech on grounds like ‘public order’ and ‘decency and morality.’ Those are open to interpretation, and anything goes.

Consider food. The government regulates what you may or may not eat. Consider health. You cannot take cannabis for medical use, or any other medicine not approved by a government body. Consider education. You could get arrested for home-schooling your children if you find government schools inadequate, and there are so many restrictions placed on private schools that come between consenting parents and consenting teachers.

Indeed, markets are as big a battleground for Consent as bedrooms or kitchens. If we don’t interfere between consenting adults in a bedroom or kitchen, what moral justification is there for doing so in the marketplace? Every time a voluntary exchange happens between two people, it does so because both people benefit. Life and markets are a positive-sum game. And yet, governments ‘regulate’ and stop voluntary exchanges between consenting adults all the time. Often acting on behalf of entrenched interests, they restrict competition, harming consumers aka citizens, and benefiting cronies.

The most poignant victims of this are our farmers. Our entire agricultural crisis is a result of our farmers having their autonomy snatched away from them. They are the least free of Indians, and are trapped in a cycle of dependency. But this is a subject for another column, perhaps.

71 years after the British left is, we have the mentality of the colonised. We behave as if we are subjects of a mai-baap state, and not its masters. The state should exist to serve us, not the other way around. We give the state a monopoly on violence so that it can protect our rights, not so that it takes them away with the threat of violence. It is not a safeguard for our liberty, but the biggest threat to it.

We got lucky this time with the Supreme Court ruling, but we cannot rely on the court every time. There are too many freedoms to fight for, and unless the parties that run this country see political capital in it, they will not grant us those freedoms. But I have hope.

The outpouring of joy at the repeal of 377 may indicate that things are changing. Have we started caring about each other, and about freedom, a little bit more? Are we beginning to recognise that a nation cannot truly be free until all its citizens are free? Are we going to bring about more trysts with destiny?

What the Kerala Floods Tell Us About the Two Ideas of India

This is the 10th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

A debate has been conducted in India since the Kerala floods broke, not through words, but through actions. Two different Ideas of India are being debated. They are opposite ideas, and we will soon be called upon to choose one of them.

To get a sense of the first idea, consider the countless heroes who stepped up in Kerala to help the countless victims. As the water levels rose, as homes were submerged and livelihoods destroyed, fisherfolk from across the state turned their boats inwards to help. The most enduring image: Jaisal KP, a fisherman from Mallapuram, bending and offering his back as a ramp for rescued people getting on a boat.

Thousands of volunteers from across the country, even as far away as Kashmir, turned up to volunteer at relief camps. Those locals who escaped the worst of it stopped their Onam shopping to buy relief materials instead. Thousands donated to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund, including an eight-year-girl who had been saving for four years to buy a bicycle. She donated every rupee. In the town of Suntikoppa, the local church, temple and madarsa turned into relief camps, coordinating with each other, as if to say, Our religion is humanity.

What is this Idea of India? It is the idea that we are one people. We celebrate our differences, but we recognise that what holds us together is stronger than anything that pulls us apart. In this India, when the water level rises, no one will ask what your religion, caste, language, state, cuisine or ideology is. They will offer you their hand – or their boat, or their bicycle.

The other Idea of India is filled with hate and anger. One man claimed this was God’s punishment on Kerala because menstruating women had been allowed into the Sabarimala temple. Another claimed that it was God’s punishment on Kerala’s Muslims and Christians for, well, not being Hindu. Another appeal went out for donations only to go to Hindu organisations, which would help only Hindus.

There were those who wanted not only to gloat on Kerala’s misfortune, but to prevent it from getting help. A gentleman, who was later revealed to be a member of the BJP IT Cell, put out a viral video saying that since Kerala did not have too many poor people, there was no need to donate. Another man in an army uniform gave a similar message, only for the army to then declare that the fellow was an imposter.

In all this, the Hindutva Whatsapp factories were active. They circulated images supposedly of RSS people distributing relief, though some of them turned out to be of non-RSS people – including from the communist parties – and the others were old, recycled pictures. Will not help, will not allow others to help, will take credit anyway: this was also the story of the central government.

When the Kerala government asked for aid, the Narendra Modi government gave a pittance, a fraction of what had been asked for and what they had given other states for smaller tragedies. When speculation spread that the UAE government had offered Rs 700 crores as relief, the Modi government said it would not allow the money to go from willing donor to needy recipient. Yes, really.

This is the second Idea of India. Here, we are divided by religion, caste, region, language. We feel schadenfreude, not sympathy, at the pain of others. Here, it is a zero-sum game, and we like to see others fall, as only their falling will help us rise.

I call this the Tukde-Tukde Vision of India. People who think in terms of divisions, who foment hate among their own people—what else can one call them but anti-national? They are betraying both the inclusive entities they claim to speak for: Hinduism and India. I consider them a greater threat to our nation than any terrorism from across the border.

It is true that all Indian politics is identity politics. Every government we have ever had, every party that exists today, has let this nation down. But this ruling party, and the entire Hindutva movement, has hit new lows with the way they actively tried to prevent aid from reaching Kerala. Such malice? Why?

The people they let down were not just the people of Kerala, but the citizens of India. From across the country, the rest of us were watching, and deciding which of these two Ideas of India is dear to us. And just as this debate unfolded through actions, we can make our choice clear through action. Vote wisely next year.

Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

This is the first installment of Politics Without Romance, my monthly column with Bloomberg Quint. As the name indicates, this column will look at Indian politics through the lens of Public Choice Theory.

One more Independence Day comes up, and it’s time to ask that annual question again: Where have all the leaders gone?

It’s a common lament that the politicians of today are the opposite of the freedom fighters who got us this Independence. We had giants then. We have pygmies now. Our leaders then were driven by principle. Our leaders now are driven by the lust for power. Why?

If you look at politics through the lens of economics, which I will do in this column over the new few months, the answer lies in incentives. Why do people get into politics? What do they want from it? What can they realistically expect? What do they need to do to get to the top? What trade-offs do they need to make? What do they need to do to stay on top?

Right from the 19th century, our freedom fighters had little personal upside to their battles. We were ruled by the British Empire, and these men had no chance of coming to power and enjoying its rewards. The downside was significant, though. If you were in a position of influence, you could lose it. If you were not, and fought too vigorously, you could land up in jail or worse.

The generations of men and women who rose up to fight against the British empire did so because they were animated by a higher cause. There was no personal upside to it. There was a principle at stake. For example: Freedom is my birthright, and I shall have it. And they cared about that principle so much that some of them were willing to die for it.

Once Independence was achieved, the incentives changed. Firstly, getting the British to leave was so miraculous, coming after a decades-long struggle, that our leaders did not notice what we did not achieve. Yes, we got political independence, but we still weren’t guaranteed the personal and economic freedoms that we had fought for.

One of the seminal moments of our Independence struggle was Mahatma Gandhi’s protest against the tyranny of the salt tax. Well, consider that the tax on salt is far higher today, not to mention other taxes or other tyrannies.

Here’s what we did on August 15, 1947. We replaced one set of rulers with another. Only the colour of their skin changed. And those who had fought against those in power were now in power themselves. Their incentives changed. Would they change?

In the early years of our independence, our politics was ruled by those who had come into the freedom struggle for the sake of principles, not power. I’m willing to give them the benefit of doubt. Their mistakes were honest mistakes – such as the embrace of the Fabian socialism that kept India poor for decades longer than it should have. That flawed thinking was the fashion of the times, and was not driven by bad incentives. The drive towards Big Government did, however, change incentives further.

Henceforth, it was natural that those who would be drawn to politics would be driven by the lust for power. Now that it was possible for Indians to join the ruling class, people were bound to want to do so. Now that we had achieved Independence, there no longer seemed a burning need to fight for higher principles. Principles would become a rationalisation, a way to position a political brand to differentiate it from others. 

Those who did enter politics for reasons of principle would soon find themselves having to compromise on those principles for pragmatic reasons. So much so that by the time they actually achieved power, there could be no trace of those original principles. There is an old truism that power corrupts. It is equally true that the quest for power corrodes character. There may be politicians who start off idealistic—but they cannot remain that way, no matter what their public positioning.

Why is this? Incentives. Achieving power requires two things: Money and Votes. (As you can only get Votes by spending Money, this is arguably one thing, but I’ll speak of them as two to illustrate the different directions that politicians are pulled in.)

First, money. Over the decades, it has gotten more and more prohibitive to fight an election. One needs crores to contest even a local election. Where does this money come from? Who can afford such large sums?

The money always comes from interest groups who expect a Return on Investment. There’s always a quid pro quo involved. I give you money, but when you come to power, you do XYZ for me. First, money leads to power. Then, power must lead to money. This is the chakravyuh of politics.

For example, if a big industrialist gives a political party money, what could he want out of it? One, he may want regulation that protects his industry or company from competition. Place tariffs on foreign goods, deny a license to a competitor, and so on. (All these can be done citing seemingly noble principles.)

Two, he may want special privileges that the government, using its monopoly on violence, can get him. For example, if he wants land for a factory, the government can use eminent domain to get it cheaply from villagers and hand it to him. Three, he may want soft loans from a Public Sector Bank, which he otherwise may not get from a private sector bank that has different incentives and does due diligence.

Contemporary examples of this abound. Consider the interest groups that benefit from any government policy, and you can follow the trail. You may oppose FDI in retail, for example, because small traders form a large chunk of your donor base, as is the case with AAP (and the BJP, until recently). You may allocate natural resources to favoured cronies, as the UPA was alleged to have done with coal and spectrum.

All of these, you will note, amount to a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, from us citizens to moneybag interest groups. This is how Power provides RoI to Money.

Needless to say, you don’t make money only for those who fund you, but also for yourself. (This might even be the prime personal incentive for wannabe politicians.) Our system of big government is especially lucrative. Wherever there is power, there is discretion, and there will be corruption. And our government is designed to give enormous amounts of power to those in charge, which makes immense corruption inevitable. This is not a function of the party in power, but of the incentives in play.

And now, to votes. In our democracy, elections are the process by which we decide which of the competing mafias will get to rule us for five years. There is just one way for these mafias to win our votes: by bribing us. The party in power may hand out immediate sops. The parties in opposition will promise them.

In the political marketplace, just as in any other marketplace, every brand does not try to woo every customer. (Unlike in a regular marketplace, of course, there is usually only one winner.) Parties will have vote banks that they will nurture over time, and reward when they are in power. The immense power of the state makes patronage politics lucrative.

For example, you can promise reservations in government jobs to a group of your choice. Or, even without explicit promises, you can make sure the state favours the groups you are wooing, either by giving them jobs or contracts or looking after them in other ways. (This is analogous to how a mafia rewards and protects those who give them hafta, except here it is legal.)

Or you can just bribe them directly, with free biryani or pressure cookers. This can become a vicious circle. For example, everyone wants farmers’ votes, and once one party promises farm loan waivers, every other party has to follow suit. Loan waivers are a temporary anaesthetic that perpetuate the problem, but politicians do not have the incentives to make the deep structural changes that are required in agriculture. Those will take years to play out, much beyond an election cycle – and parties need votes now.

The great tragedy of Indian politics is that all our politics is identity politics that centres around state patronage. All parties are guilty of this. Smaller regional parties nurture their own caste vote banks. The Congress pandered to minorities for decades. The BJP caters to the worst bigots among us – and there are enough of them now to make the party a force. They also manipulated the caste politics of UP masterfully in 2014 and 2017. As for AAP, they have pandered to Khalistanis and Kanwariyas alike, and a prominent supporter of theirs was made to apologize to a Jain Muni for the reason that Jains were a powerful vote bank for AAP.

All this is inevitable. What can a party do without votes? What can a party do without money? The imperatives of our democracy make politics morally corrosive. To get to power, you must privilege the means over the ends. And even if your ends were noble to begin with, by the time you are done, your only goal is power. You become the monster you might have tried to fight.

What could change this? Well, if the state had less power, it would offer less RoI to investors. There would be less money and less patronage for parties to bribe voters with. Imagine a limited government that existed just to protect our rights and nothing else. The incentives would change. It would have so little power that those who lust for power would be forced to look elsewhere for career options. (Maybe they’d join the mafia.) Interest groups would stop funding politicians because politicians would not have power to do something in return for them. Voters could not be induced with short-term sops or goodies.

Can that change in the design of our government ever take place? Who will have the incentives to make that change? Not the moneybags and the interest groups, that’s for sure. But what about the voters? If enough citizens demanded reform, the government would have to listen. Supply has to obey Demand.

Andrew Brietbart once said, ‘Politics is downstream of culture.’ This is exactly right. Before we change our politics, we must change our culture. This is as noble a battle to fight as the one our great freedom fighters fought against the British empire decades ago. Will new leaders emerge to fight it?

Test Cricket Is Dying, but Cricket Is Not

This is the first installment on a cricket column I have started for Cricket Next, in which I will write about cricket from the lens of other disciplines, such as economics, psychology, game theory etc.

During his second innings in the Lord’s Test, Virat Kohli could be seen grimacing, and a nation grimaced with him. Kohli has a chronic back problem. The rest of the country has a chronic cricket problem. Why can’t our batsmen play the swinging ball in Test matches in England? Why did this particular lot look so incapable? Why are they worse at this than previous generations? Can an asteroid please give us deliverance by hitting Earth, wiping humanity out and ending this pain?

I am both a Cricket Tragic and an India Tragic, and I will make three tragic arguments in this piece. One, Indian batsmen of the future will be even worse against the swinging ball in England. Two, it doesn’t matter because Test cricket is dying, and there won’t be any Test matches in England 20 years from now. Three, that also doesn’t matter, because cricket will flourish nevertheless, and other forms of the game have as much drama and nuance as Test cricket does, if in different ways.

This may sound dismal to you, so its apt that I make my argument through the lens of the allegedly ‘dismal science’ of economics. In particular, I want to look at Incentives: what are the incentives of those who view the game, play the game, and run the game? How is their behaviour moulded by these incentives? What are the implications of this?

First up, consider the concept of Opportunity Cost, which, put simply, refers to what alternative uses you could have made of the time or money you spent on something. The opportunity cost of watching a Test match, for example, is what else you could have done with the five days you spent watching it. This boils down to the options available for your time.

For most of cricket’s existence, there haven’t been that many alternatives. There is a cliché about cricket and Bollywood being the two great 20th century passions of India, but think about it, what else did you have for entertainment? Not much television, and no internet, Facebook, Whatsapp, Youtube, Netflix or easily available porn. That has changed today.

We’re inundated with options of what to do with our time. That means that the opportunity cost of watching a Test match has shot up, and our incentive for doing so has declined. Most cricket purists I know don’t actually spend much time watching Test cricket. (Look up another concept from economics, ‘Revealed Preferences’.) The TV ratings of Test cricket have been plummeting, and if not for the subsidy from other forms of the game, there would already be no commercial reason for the game to exist.

What is remarkable about Test cricket is that it exists at all. Most other popular sports can be viewed in easy-to-digest nuggets. Football lasts 90 minutes, not nine hours. Tennis matches, hockey games, badminton encounters can all be done with within an evening. And because there is no longer form of the game to compare these sports to, no one complains about how they lack drama or depth.

I believe that we complain about Twenty20 cricket because Test matches came first, so we put that on a pedestal, and consider that the basis of comparison. (Another economic concept to look up: the ‘Anchoring Effect’.) Had T20s come first, we might have viewed Test cricket through a different prism of values – and found it wanting.

Use the tools of economics on a T20 game. Each team is given as many resources (11 players) as in a Test or a one-day match, but far less overs (only 20) to play an innings in. This relative scarcity of overs changes the value of all the resources. A dot ball becomes more expensive for the batting side, as every ball carries more value. A wicket has less value than in an ODI, as your batting resources need to be spread out over only 20 overs rather than 50. The risk-reward ratio changes, and the value of aggression goes up.

This changes the incentives for batting sides. Aggression is rewarded, the value of ‘building an innings’ goes down, and to finish an innings with batsmen still waiting in the pavilion counts as a waste of resources. (Opportunity cost, again.) Batsmen, thus, have to innovate far more, and find new ways of playing the game.

Consider the much-touted 360-degree game of AB de Villiers. There, invention came out of necessity, the new format making demands on batsmen to expand their repertoire. ABD is just the most spectacular player around. Many other batsmen started practising new strokes, playing them reflexively, expanding not just their repertoire but also the orthodoxy. Who is to say that the reverse-sweep and the ramp shot don’t now belong in batting textbooks?

Contrary to a popular canard, bowlers did not turn into bowling machines. Their response to more aggressive batsmen was more deception, and not just by bowling more slower balls and wide yorkers. Spinners actually began flighting the ball more, inviting batsmen to hit them, like back in the romanticized days of yore. Think back on the bowling of the spinners like Rashid Khan, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal in the last IPL: the flight, the loop, the aggressive intent. Bowlers figured out that one way to counter the momentum of a batting side was to take wickets. Attack became the best defence.

This might seem contradictory. On one hand, the value of a wicket goes down for a batsmen because runs are more important. On the other hand, the value of a wicket goes up for a bowler because it can slow a batting side’s momentum. So how much do wickets matter?

Questions like this make it a fascinating time to be a cricket lover. There is an ongoing conversation between batsmen and bowlers, with both innovating new skills as they test this hypothesis or that. This is why watching the IPL is so eye-opening and mind-boggling. A game is evolving in front of our eyes: its grammar and structure, its mores and norms, through a conversation between batsmen and bowlers and captains that we get to see in real time.

If you love cricket, how can you not be enthralled? 

Now consider how the incentives change for everyone concerned. Viewers prefer T20s to Tests because the opportunity cost of watching a T20 game is far less. (Besides, it is an incredibly rich experience, having that added dramatic element of urgency that Tests do not have.) Because of this, there is more money to be made excelling in this shorter form of the game. So players are incentivised to optimise for it. Every minute that a batsman spends expanding his repertoire of aggressive strokes, though, carries the opportunity cost of not practising for Test match skills, such as how to leave a swinging ball.

The inevitable outcome of this is that batsmen will always train to play T20s, and will be unequipped for those specialised skills that Test matches demand.  (Especially Test matches in England.) India tours England once every few years. Why should KL Rahul, who I consider a batting genius, spend much time preparing for conditions he will encounter so infrequently?

Another indication of how these incentives play out: only Cheteshwar Pujara bothered to go to England early and prepare for this tour. He did so only because he has been discarded in the other forms of the game. Incentives. Contrast this with the fact that the Indian batsmen of the generation immediately preceding the IPL era, the Dravid-Tendulkar-Ganguly generation, all played county cricket. But why should KL Rahul or Rishabh Pant bother with that?

It is not fair to make a value judgement about this. All these players have made rational choices, responding to incentives. Who is to say that one specific ‘balance between bat and ball’ is better than some other balance? Who is to say that Test cricket is superior to one-day cricket? Even many who do state that as a personal preference don’t actually put their eyeballs where their mouths are.

People who love Test cricket, as I do, can take succour in the fact that the cricket boards will keep the form alive even when it is no longer commercially viable, by subsidising it from income that comes from shorter formats. But for how long will this posturing be necessary? When the 15-year-old of today is 35 years old, who will care for Test cricket? Especially if that kid is an Indian viewer who watched this Lord’s Test and thought to himself, “Ya whatever. Why even bother?”

Every Act of Government Is an Act of Violence

This is the 9th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

There was outrage on Twitter this week when it was revealed that the union government had spent Rs 4880 crores since 2014 on government advertising. The outrage is justified—but it is not enough. It is not just this amount or this use of government money that we should question, but the whole concept of government spending. And indeed, government action.

We in India seem to think of Government as the solution to all our problems. (I often argue that India’s biggest religion is not Hinduism but the Religion of Government.) We behave as if the State is a benevolent entity with unlimited resources of its own with which it should fulfil all our wishes: ban what we don’t like, build what we want built, spend on what we think are good causes. Statues, loan waivers, awards for sportspeople, ministries for cow protection, and so on.

In all this, we ignore one essential truth: Every act of government is an act of violence.

Think about what the state needs in order to exist: our taxes. Money taken from us by force. No one pays taxes willingly. Without the threat of imprisonment—basically, abduction by the one entity that has a monopoly on violence—there would be no taxpayers. There are two words that mean the act of taking someone’s property without their consent: no wonder people say that Taxation is Theft.

Indeed, it is more than that. Assume that you pay 25% of your income in taxes. That amounts to one-fourth of your time and labour. It means that, for all practical purposes, from January to March every year, you are a slave to the state. Taxation is not just theft, it is part-time slavery.

Contrary to a common canard, everybody pays taxes. Taxes are not just income tax. Your domestic help is parted from her money when she buys a bar of soap. The beggar at the traffic signal near you loses money to the government every time he buys salt. Even inflation—usually caused by the government printing money—is basically a tax on the poor.

I am not arguing that we should pay no taxes and live in anarchy. The state is a necessary evil. We need it to protect our rights, and there is no way around the paradox that by allowing it to exist, we give away some of our rights. The state has to tax us to protect us, and the violence it thus commits is necessary to protect us from greater violence.

Regardless of what your ideology may be, none of what I have said above is contestable. It is plain fact that no one pays taxes willingly, and that the threat of coercion is involved. It is plain fact, thus, that every government action involves violence and coercion. Most people would also accept that some amount of this violence is necessary, for we need the state to protect our rights. The larger question then is, what actions of the state are justified, given the violence involved at every step?

This is where ideology begins. Person One (a libertarian like me) could argue for a minimal state that only protects our rights and nothing else. (If you feel the state should do other things, give me the moral justification for your preferences being funded by money coercively taken from others.) Person Two may advocate a state looking after its less fortunate members, proving free healthcare and education. Person Three may care about national glory, and want to build grand statues. Person Four could argue that building infrastructure is necessary, and has positive externalities.

(It is beside the point, of course, that political parties are driven by imperatives beyond ideology. They need money and votes to exist and win, and when in power, use the state as a tool to reward those who gave them money and votes—always at the expense of us citizens.)

The purpose of this column is not to argue for or against any of those ideologies. I just ask that every time you advocate government action of any kind, remember that the action comes at a cost. That cost is not just a financial cost, but a moral one. That cost involves violence committed on all of us—not just rich industrialists, but also the poorest of the poor.

Can you justify that violence?

Huggers and Thuggers

This is the 86th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

HUGGERS

In the last elections, Modi won.
Since that time, he has hugged everyone.
But now the tables turn.
Modiji feels the burn.
It’s now RaGa who is having fun.

THUGGERS

Putin was in the gym doing weights.
I asked him, “How do you like your mates?”
He said, “They must obey.
I like men made of clay,
Like my lad in the United States.”

Eminence, Preeminence

This is the 85th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.

EMINENCE

I told Jayant Sinha, high on grass,
“Bro, you have to garland Hima Das.”
He said, “I don’t agree.
She has lynched nobody.
So I will have to give this a pass.”

PREEMINENCE

The tycoon said to me, “Listen bro,
The wealth that I have is not for show.
I bought the UPA,
I own the NDA,
And I will buy the next guy also.”

I am a Feminist. You should be too

This is the 8th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

Would Aditi Mittal have become a stand-up comedian had she not studied in a girls’ college? Appearing as a guest in the latest episode of my weekly podcast, The Seen and the Unseen, she told me that studying at Sophia College enabled her to perform in front of others with confidence. Had there been boys in her class, she said, she would not have been able to claim the space of the class jester.

This came as a revelation to me, though it should not have. No male comedian would have experienced this; but every woman knows what it is like. Aditi’s point was that even though she was so privileged—born to English-speaking, liberal parents—she began her career facing obstacles her male peers never considered. At least she made it through: there are 235 million people who did not.

One reason for India being such a poor country is that we treat half of our greatest resource—our people—as inferior to the other half. This has a huge cost, which people have recently begun to quantify. Here are some numbers: only 26% of Indian women are in the workforce, next only to Saudi Arabia among G20 countries. A story in the latest issue of the Economist reveals that if female labour participation was as much as of that of men, there would be an additional 235 million women in the workforce. (Even many of those who do work now would be more skilled and productive if treated equally with their brothers in childhood.) According to a 2015 McKinsey study, our GDP could go up by 60% by 2025 if female participation in the workforce matched that of men. (For more, read Namita Bhandare’s outstanding series in IndiaSpend.)

India’s misogyny carries much more than just an economic cost. It is a humanitarian tragedy. No other term suffices when more than half a billion people are treated as subhuman and prevented from reaching their full potential. A recent study named India as the most dangerous country in the world for women, which is no surprise given that women are essentially treated as the property of men. (These cultural attitudes are reinforced by actual laws that take this approach.) Even though we live in the 21st century, our attitudes towards women belong in the 19th. We must fix this.

Let me declare it upfront: I am a feminist. And because that particular F-word has so many shades of meaning, let me define what I mean by it: Feminism is the belief that women deserve the same respect as individuals that men do. The same moral consideration. The same legal rights. My feminism arises out of my belief in the primacy of individual rights, with ‘Consent’ as an absolute value. Indeed, I tell my fellow libertarians that to be libertarian is, by default, to be feminist. A (male) friend of mine even says, “If you are not feminist, you are not a good human being.”

Why does feminism get a bad rap then? This is because just as there are all kinds of human beings, there are all kinds of feminists. Not all stop at the principle of equal rights, and offshoots of feminism can often contradict each other. (Google “gender feminism vs equity feminism.”) Many feminists feed into an identity politics in vogue today, which can be as toxic as the ills it purports to be fighting. Also, the tactics that some feminists employ can make some uncomfortable, such as the recent ‘list’ of alleged sexual offenders in academia, who were to be deemed guilty until proven innocent.

But even that list had an important function, which is the same one that the #MeToo movement highlights: women are angry, and won’t put up with this shit any more. Men seem to be oblivious to the extent and ubiquity of this anger, as well as to the fact that it is justified. Indeed, one central cultural disconnect of our times can be summed up like this: Women are angry. Men are clueless.

This is made worse by the fact that many men who declare themselves to be feminists are just being performative. (Basically, virtue signalling to get laid, as men are hardwired to do.) I find this irritating, but I won’t turn away from declaring my feminism either because of this or because of my discomfort with the tactics of some feminists. The reason for this is twofold: One, women being treated as second-class citizens hurts us all, and diminishes us as human beings. Two, it is a sad truth that because of the power dynamics around us, men can actually make more of a difference than women can, especially when outspoken women are being constantly minimised and mocked.

Therefore, it is imperative for us men to also fight this good fight. Not because of what our ancestors did or how our fellow men behave, but because it is the right thing to do.

*  *  *

Also check out:

‘Claiming Your Space’—Episode 76 of The Seen and the Unseen

‘These Funny Times’—Episode 75 of The Seen and the Unseen