Thursday 31 July 2008

Extreme nonsense

An article titled Dump theory, act on facts, the Mumbai Mirror (July 31, 08) reports the counsel for the ICSE board arguing in court that the percentile system of evaluating students marks (introduced this year for admissions to colleges in Maharashtra) is not justifiable because 'this year the ICSE topper got 98.29 percent and the SSC topper 97.84 percent. The difference is hardly 0.4 percent.” 

Was he deliberately misleading the judges or is devoid of commonsense, not to speak of the preliminaries of statistics? Either has to be true. Or why would one quote the maximum marks? 

To do so here is no different than arguing that the Dutch (average height 6' 0.8" for men) are no different from the Chinese (men's average height 5' 4.9") because the tallest Dutch (7' 7.33") is shorter than the tallest Chinese (9' 5.39"). 

The idea, as far as I know, is never to look at the extremes but the middle measures (mean, median, mode) while comparing two groups, and then ask if they are dissimilar enough, and if they are, which one is exceeds the other on average.  

(I got the heights from the Net, and they are probably as wrong as the lawyer's logic.) 

Thursday 24 July 2008

Highly suspicious

During the recent Vote of Confidence in the Lok Sabha, quite a few members' (54?) votes couldn't be counted electronically, and they had to be issued paper slips. 

TV commentators found this very funny. One remarked on the irony that while 60 million people voted without a glitch using electronic voting machines during the general elections, their representatives were having trouble with the (relatively) few machines in parliament. He suggested that Infosys be brought in to better the situation.

Just a thought: How can we be so sure that all those machines worked perfectly during the general elections? What if many of them malfunctioned? Who'd know? The illiterate voter? Or the literate voter who couldn't care less? Or the callous election official? 

The fraction of eligible voters who vote was always low, and is becoming abysmally low (I have never voted, for anything). Can malfunctioning voting machines have something to do with this (not everything; something)? 

While we're on the confidence vote, there's another, completely different, matter: representatives' educational qualifications.

A few days before the vote, I was eavesdropping on a debate at my office. The unanimous conclusion seemed to be that all legislators should be, at least, graduates. 

Today morning paper gave a list of cross-voters, members who had disregarded their parties' whips, and abstainers. Conventional opinion maintains that these are the worst of the lot (I wish one could say that these were the most moral, and they followed their consciences). 

Of the 28 (including 6 absentees and abstainers), only 5 hadn't gone to college. There were, incidentally, 6 lawyers, 2 doctors, and an engineer. 

More to the point, which us understands anything about the nuclear deal? 

The interpretation that comes out in the popular press and TV channels is so simplistic, it's bound to be misdirecting. 

And Frontline, the Communist mouthpiece, writes Latin. Even if its argument is right, it's so badly written that it's impossible to decode. I wonder if even the authors of these pieces understand them. 

The best one can hope for is, probably, to have a multiparty team of experts in international law go into the intricacies of the various documents involved and reach a consensus.  

An alternative would be to give law students the task of translating the public documents into everyday language as an exercise, have an all-party panel of lawyers evaluate their work, and release the documents on the parliament's website, perhaps with dissenting arguments and counter-arguments.

That way the interested layman would be able to make out more or less what the ruckus is all about.  

But then who's an 'interested layman'? We're either indifferent, illiterate or ideologues.  

Monday 21 July 2008

Not inferior, murderous

In The Armchair Economist (1993) Stephen Landsburg, while explaining 'why he isn't an environmentalist', writes, “In the current political climate, it is frequently taken as an axiom that the U.S. government should concern itself with the welfare of Americans first; it is also frequently taken as an axiom that air pollution is always and everywhere a bad thing. You might, then, have expected a general chorus of approval when the chief economist of the World Bank suggested that it might be good thing to relocate high-pollution industries to Third World countries. To most economists, this is a self-evident opportunity to make not just Americans but everybody better off. People in wealthy countries can afford to sacrifice some income for the luxury of cleaner air; people in poorer countries are happy to breath inferior air for the opportunity to improve their incomes. But when the bank economist's observation was leaked to the media, parts of the environmental community went ballistic. To them, pollution is a form of sin. They seek not to improve our welfare, but save our souls.”

While Dr Landsburg has taught me many things through this book and its successor, More Sex is Better Sex, I do think he does need a few pointers on basic biology on this one.

Many of the industries exported to Third World countries like India are not just polluting: They are banned in the West. One prominent example is certain types of shipwrecking; another is asbestos. 

All pollution kills, but some kill very quickly and cruelly, more so when the victim is a dirt poor worker with no protection while working and no medicines when ill. Such a person is employed for a couple of years or so, becomes an unemployable and infirm dependent on his family for the next decade, and is dead thereafter. It's not 'inferior air'; it's 'murderous air'.

And there is no trade-off. The Third World labourer doesn't take up a killing job knowing full well that he's going to die. The employer doesn't tell him; the media has better things to do; and NGOs have their head blown off if they open their mouths. He is not even choosing between immediate death, from starvation, and death a few years later, from work-related disease and with a great deal of pain.  

Also, from the Americans' point of view, clean air shouldn't be a luxury but a right. Just as clean water or edible food is. Polluted air kills. So how is clean air a luxury? I suppose a degree of severity matters, even in economics. (Taking your money via trade is not the same as taking it via theft.) 

The environmentalist, at least here, is trying to save lives, not souls.  

While accusing environmentalists of hysteria, our economist needn't be cynical, need he?.

Thursday 17 July 2008

Why we should pay bribes

I have a car. You are a pedestrian, and poor.

I knock you down.

The policeman runs in as fast as his pot-belly will allow. He offers to let me be if I give him a bribe. As a mark of his esteem for me, he’ll threaten you so that you don’t bother me about your broken kneecap. 

It doesn’t matter whose fault it was. I have the money. You don’t.

Bad? No, good.

By paying the bribe, I avoid journeys to the police station and the courts. And keep doing productive work. 

By being threatened, you admit that the game is not worth the compensation. You get neither money nor the satisfaction of seeing me punished for the harm you suffered (You’re sure it’s my fault). Had you cared enough, you’d have disregarded the policeman’s threats and allowed him to crack your other kneecap. Obviously, you’ve better things to do.

The policeman gave us a closure at a far lower cost, in terms of both time and money, than any utopian judicial process could have. 

Yes, lawyers and judges get less work, my competitors get more competition from me (because I’m at my desk rather than in a courtroom), and you stay as careless as ever (because you never realise that it was all your fault all along and just feel sorry for yourself). Many other things, that would have happened had the policeman and I been honest, don’t happen. 

On the other hand, think of the payment the policeman will make to the whore, and the whore to the grocer, and the grocer to the wholesaler, and the wholesaler to the farmer, and the farmer to the temple collection box… 

But let’s not complicate matters.

You’re horrible; I’m relieved; he’s happy.  

The existence of laws and morals is merely an excuse for the world to turn this little crisis into an economically productive activity. 

Multiply this a million times and you have the Third World.

So why do Westerners complain about corruption, especially when every bribe one pays keeps the cost of doing business in and with the Third World low? 

Just imagine how much it’d cost to run an efficient and fair show here, that values all users, including pitiable Third World blokes, in the same way. And where would that money come from other than more taxes, costlier raw materials and higher salaries? The entire benefit of our breeding like rabbits would disappear if we become honest.  

And I’m not being cynical. We need some recompense. 

I’m sure though that I’m being stupid. So what loss am I not counting?

Tuesday 15 July 2008

Why we should pay taxes

We often hear this argument: “Why should we pay taxes when the government does nothing for us? The roads are all dug up; the hospitals kill you; the schools teach you nothing; we get nothing that compares remotely with the social services that the West takes for granted, blah blah”

Fair enough.

But why should the same yardsticks apply? The West may pay taxes as payment for services rendered by the government; we don't. 

Our taxes are protection money, paid to politicians to keep the poor from revolting and slitting out throats. The quality and quantity of services provided by the government just don't matter.

Think of your neighbourhood market. The police is obviously inadequate to provide security. 

And if the shopkeepers were to pay the legal price for all the electricity, water and space they use, they'd go out of business. Because they'll need to pass on the price to you. And you won't buy. You'll switch to some totally illegal vendor selling off the pavement somewhere else. So the shopkeepers break laws all the time. 

Enter the neighbourhood goon and his henchmen. They offer you protection from the law and themselves, in return of protection money. That is passed on to you, but it is lower than what you'd have to pay if (a) the shopkeepers paid legal rates and (b) hired adequate security, either from private contractors or from the state (by paying higher taxes so that the state has a police force worth its name).

The henchmen are unemployable, because (a) they are stupid and illiterate and (b) they are too many of them. 

Any attempt to resist is bloodily dealt with. No leader can co-exsist with the don.

Do notice that the very rich shopkeepers probably don't pay 'in proportion', that is, the protection money is a flat rate, not indexed to each shop's income. He gets away with this because he pays for his own security. And has his own 'connections'. He can make his own rules, at any rate, some of them.

Now, expand this to the power N, and you have a corrupt politicians, an under-taxed super-rich class , and millions of idle hands ready to strangle you. 

The politician control those hands, and extracts his protection by having you give him free rein over how he uses the taxes you pay. He pay keep mistresses, start business, stash away ill-gotten wealth in numbered accounts, or do whatever else meets his fancy. 

From time to time, he gets those idle hands to cut off some necks in riots, sending the unsubtle signal: “Next time it can be yours.”

The bottom line is that we should shut up and pay our taxes. Or we'd pay with our lives.

Keep Bombay Clean

Last evening my wife and I walked all the way from our home near Siddivinayak to Shivaji Park and once around the park – a distance of over 2 km - without seeing a single garbage bin. She had a banana peel and I had the core of an eaten apple. Finally, we found a make-do bin near a road-side stall. Man, we'd love to keep Bombay clean. But how? 

Wednesday 9 July 2008

Forgotten Sins

In Forgotten Armies, Bayly and Harper write: “…Mountbatten was… apprehensive that if the Burmese revolt went ahead early and succeeded in liberating a large area of the country, the incoming Allies would be faced with a fully fledged, and probably communist, Burmese provincial government which they would then have to unseat. In fact, this is exactly the scenario which the British were to face in French Indo-China and in Indonesia.” So the Supremo let the Burmese rot for some more time under Japanese occupation.

Strangely, when Stalin did the same thing to General Bór-Komorowski and the Poles, he became the devil incarnate. I wonder if any historian has drawn the parallel.

Taylor certainly drew the one between the Germans getting Yugoslavia into the War and the British getting Egypt in: Both surrounded the royal palace with tanks.

Thursday 3 July 2008

Guns and butter

A favourite comparison of pacifists like me the amounts governments spend on arms and armed forces and what they allocate to bettering lives, that is, education, health, R&D, the arts. 

The juxtaposition is unsporting.

Arms are far more inefficient than bread. It takes just a loaf to feed a famished man, a dozen or so bullets may not be enough to dispatch him, as long as he can run and hide. In fact, save the atom bomb and chemical weapons, all weapons are horribly wasteful.  

Besides, there is the demand-and-supply problem. Everyone wants to eat; very few want to kill. Arms-makers have to charge high prices to stay in business, what with bribes and commissions eating into their profits all the time.

I suggest a gun-to-bun (30 AK47 $ = 1 hunger $, etc) index make these comparisons more sensible.