Regional Variations in Rent Seeking

March 25, 2010

In my post about lollipops and backup dancers, I made an offhand comment about the MNS trying to ensure that the Marathi manoos wasn’t done out of a fuckall low-paying job. But then I remembered Ravikiran’s point about the opportunities for graft in otherwise fuckall jobs; and how these are actually awesome gifts to give out. This then made me think about the different approaches our political parties take to economic development and corruption.

The MNS/ Shiv Sena: Demand low-skilled, low-wage jobs with scope for lots of black money for its votebank. Beat up North Indians who try to get in on the racket. They never even talk about opportunities to make really big money.

The BSP: Never talks about how its votebank will get money. Does not necessarily care. Never talks about how businesses will make money. Again, does not necessarily care. Makes sure that the party fund and Mayawati get money.

The Congress and BJP: The national parties have multiple approaches. First, they talk about and/ or implement fee cut in IITs and IIMs, reservation in central universities, or employment guarantee schemes that supposedly give the great unwashed masses access to the joys of yuppiedom. However given the incredibly small number of education seats, and the challenges in actually making it to Class 12 if you’re not above a certain wealth-level already, this basically works out to a lottery for the well-off-but-not-filthy-rich. Given the level of corruption in the NREGA, that’s a lottery for the poor as well. Meanwhile the finance minister will keep talking about reform without actually implementing any of the reports he commissioned. I’m talking Mistry, Rajan, and Kelkar here. In this atmosphere of talking reform but doing nothing, businesses bribe at the ministerial level and carry on. As a result, prosperity slowly trickles down.

The Akali Dal: It’s been a while since I was in Punjab, but ten years ago they were doing with water what America has only now started doing with finance: privatising gains and socialising losses. They announce free electricity for farmers, which basically means that the biggest and most politically well-connected farmers pump massive amounts of water, and get massive crops in the short-term. The water table drops and everyone gets fucked in the long-term. Industry dies because of power shortage. Instead of doing anything about this, sardars migrate to Canada and Australia.

The Janata Dal (Gowda version): Talk about farmers. Meanwhile, get your party members to buy up all their land. Get industrialists or real estate developers interested in said land. When they’ve committed to buying it, unleash a farmer’s agitation. Continue until said industrialists/ developers cough up the amount that will avoid breaking them. Simultaneously, give away iron ore mines in return for truckloads of money.

The DMK: Announce free bicycles, TV sets, stoves, and suchlike for everyone. Make sure everyone actually gets it. Collect a kickback on every such bicycle, TV set, stove, etc. Make your bureaucracy an efficient machine for acquiring land, developing industrial parks, and getting big ticket manufacturers and all their suppliers down south. Live off the the VAT generated by these people, while simultaneously ensuring that they buy their construction material, boiler fuel, and so on only from your party members at high prices. Bask in the manufacturing boom and the wealth and employment this generates.

Amazingly the DMK has managed to come up with rent-seeking behaviour that actually benefits both the people who vote for it and the people who finance it. It has become a perfect stationary bandit. Things are so good now that Tamland has high employment, and guest workers from North India have to be hired to to build Tamizh monuments, as long as they keep Hindi only for film songs and not to dominate other languages.

The implication is that Chennai is not, as writers of puff pieces would have it, the Detroit of India – after all Detroit is depopulating and its neighbourhoods are being taken over by wilderness – but the Dubai. Soon remittances shall flow out from Chennai. Soon, it will have a really big tower. The difference is, Chennai’s tower will have a cut-out on top of it.

The NED Open 2010

March 25, 2010

An important announcement: The NED Open Quiz will be held this Sunday (that is, March 28) in three different cities. Questions have been prepared by me, Kodhi, and Wimpy with inputs from Baada, Aisha, and Gaurav. We’ve prepared this with loads of louw, and it will show in the quality of questions. So please do come.

Times and Venues below.

Chennai: 10.00 a.m., at 30, 1st Cross Street, R A Puram. Teams of three. We will do prelims+finals. Will be conducted by Kodhi and me. Conducted under the auspices of the QFI. You need to be a QFI member to participate, but you can enrol over there.

Mumbai: 2.45 p.m, at the Pinstorm office in Santa Cruz (W) (Directions here). Conducted as a Bombay Quiz Club ranking quiz. You show up, and get assigned to a random team. No prelims here, so we’ll make the prelims a written round. Monkee will conduct.

Bangalore: 4 pm, at the Institute of Agricultural Technology, Queens Road. This will count as a KQA Ranking Open, I believe. Teams of 4 members. Prelims+Finals, to be conducted by Wimpy.

We hope to see you there, and that you’ll enjoy the quiz when you come.

Saxon Engineering

March 22, 2010

I had mentioned in the post about my February reading that Tom Holland’s Millennium addressed the issue of how Christianity and monarchy spread throughout Europe after 800 AD. While it addresses the issue of how Scandinavia and the Vikings became Christian, Germania was converted before 800 AD, so the book doesn’t deal with that. I had to rely on Wikipedia to inform me that Germany became Christian thanks to the work of Theodosius, who outlawed paganism altogether. Constantine merely made Christianity official without actually persecuting the traditional religions.

The whole thing makes me very wistful. On Twitter, I have often said that anything will sound more badass if it is said in German; and the badassery of German Engineering is also widely acknowledged. If only the Germans had retained their Pagan religion, the sheer coolness of the cultural context would have made their engineering even more badass. I for one would delight in driving a Polo even more if I knew that Volkswagen had invoked Wotan and Donar while designing it. And if the resolution of quality defects or poor after-sales service involved battle-axes, even better. And I am quite sure that in such an ideal world, advertising would include Valkyries.

The other thing is that according to Millennium, the Scandinavians were persuaded to convert to Christianity by the Germans. So if the Germans themselves had never converted, the Norsemen (and women) would today be raising flagons of mead to Baldur and Thor.

Extend the implications of this a little further. Back in the 1950s, Jawaharlal Nehru and King Gustav of Sweden signed an economic co-operation treaty, as a result of which Pune is the India (and even Asia) headquarters for a bunch of Swedish companies. It has the offices and manufacturing facilities for Atlas Copco, Sandvik, ABB, BASF, and probably even more companies I can’t recall right now. Now imagine that Scandinavia remained pagan, but everything else stayed the same, including the economic cooperation agreement. Pune would still be a Swedish centre, except now the Swedes would now not be Protestant Christians but Vikings.

It would be awesome, especially if they joined in with the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations. Picture a host of fur-clad berserkers escorting their Ganesh idol to the local lake; all the while chanting invocations to Vinayak… but with umlauts! And think how awesome the cheers and waves would be during the home matches for the new IPL team. Boat Club Quiz Club sessions would be even more entertaining, because every so often they would get to see a longboat bursting into flame as it carried the soul of a recently deceased expat manager to Valhalla. And assorted Marathi Manoos Senas would probably be far more circumspect about beating up immigrants if the immigrant was inclined to suddenly turn around and use the Marathi Manoos to make a Blood Eagle.

Unfortunately, it is not to be. India’s power cuts will never be addressed by a Mjollnir AB, labour organisers will not start industrial disputes in the name of Loki, and Ajay Shah will never get to campaign for full convertibility of the rupee against the gold ring. The Maytag repairman will not occupy his free time by stringing up Roman legionaries with their own insides; Krupp will not forge steel using their knowledge of Nibelung-lore, and Bayer will not patent pharmaceuticals using the knowledge of their druids.

It’s a cruel, harsh, dispiriting world; and it’s all Theodosius’ fault.

Candy Shop Jokes Will Not Be Tolerated

March 21, 2010

In its latest attempt to ensure that the Marathi Manoos is provided a fuckall low-skill low-wage job, the MNS is now demanding that Bollywood producers stop using foreigners as backup dancers (or, you know, just sitting around in a nightclub) in song shoots and instead only employ local junior artists. If the producers cave, we will probably see a return to the days of the 80s or early 90s. It will be glorious, as the video below shoes:

Of far more interest was Rakhi Sawant’s reaction. She said that white girls are like lollipops that last only two days.

The mind boggles. I’ve never had a lollipop last more than ten minutes. Even in the glamorous west, lollipops have never gone beyond all-day suckers (which, as William pointed out, did not actually last all day). Where on earth does Rakhi Sawant buy her confectionery?

The whole affair forms one of the bizarre circular connects that eventually lead up to APJ Abdul Kalam that Pune Quizzing is so fond of. That is;

  • Rakhi Sawant was once assaulted by bhangrapop singer Mika…
  • who shares his name with Freddy Mercury soundalike Mika…
  • who has performed a song called Lollipop
  • which is something that Rakhi Sawant has compared foreign girls to…
  • Foreign Girls are also cheerleaders in IPL Twenty20…
  • 2020 is the date for APJ Abdul Kalam’s vision

The whole affair is bewildering, but on the plus side, it’s left me with Mika’s Lollipop stuck in my head. I might as well pass it on. Enjoy:

February Reading

March 2, 2010

I am following in Aishwarya’s footsteps and keeping a month-by-month record of everything I’ve read. Unlike her, I’m including only stuff I’ve read for the first time.

The February list is quite limited. This is because February was tiny, and also filled with lots of work and travel; and I couldn’t read a whole lot. So I’m cheating, and including a book started in January and completed in February; and one started in February and completed on the first of March. Here we go.

Millennium by Tom Holland: was decent-ish; but not as fun to read as some of the other popular histories I’d read in the recent past. I think I like single topic histories best – John Keay’s book on the Spice Route was awesome, and there was another one I can’t remember now about the California Gold Rush and its consequences. Millennium is about Europe and the spread of Christianity and nationalism between 800 and 1100 AD to Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, so the scope was too broad for my tastes. Also, I realised while reading it that I was far more interested in how Christianity took root in France and Germany (though that’s a subject for a different blogpost).

Ludmila’s Broken English by DBC Pierre: It’s a piss-and-vinegar story where DBC Pierre lays into his characters and yells ‘You are all bastards!’ at them all through, which is fun to read; but other books have done it much much better – A Crate of Exploding Mangoes (which I read in October), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (which I read last January), and of course the gold standard – Vanity Fair.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: The problem with coming so late to a classic is that you already know the basic plot outline, and what’s going to happen. Even so, Ender’s Game was a mindfuck the way it lay the story out. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: I had a traumatic experience with Sense and Sensibility back in Class IX (or possibly Class X), and after reading fifteen pages gave up on Jane Austen. Finally I decided to give Pride and Prejudice a shot this year, thanks to the following reasons:

  • Persuasion (heh heh, see what I did there?) by darling girlfriend to read it
  • As a quizzer, it makes sense for me to go and read the original of something that has led to so much derivative work
  • Spunky agreed to buy it for me to make up for not getting chocolates from Singapore duty free

Anyway, it was much easier getting through Pride and Prejudice this year than it was getting through Sense and Sensibility back in 1997. The only problem I faced was Jane Austen’s legendary subtle wit – unfortunately it was so subtle that I was never quite sure when sarcasm was intended. So it goes.

I have also concluded that the book is all about Goldman Sachs. However that is again a subject for a separate blogpost.

The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering by Ramesh Menon: It was recommended to me by Skimpy, who (I vaguely recall) said that Beatzo recommended it to him. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to the recommendations. Ramesh Menon’s English was slightly overambitious in the first volume, and only the inherent awesomeness of the Mahabharata prevented me from giving up. Things got a little better in the second volume, where he switched the narrative to present tense, which was nicely suited to the grisly combat scenes. Tragically, I will now cherish the book not for the quality of Menon’s writing but for alerting me to the existence of KM Ganguli’s comprehensive translation (which is available online. Yay!)

Selfish Genes and Shafting Shareholders

March 2, 2010

Has anybody made the connection between genes and the principal-agent problem? Richard Dawkins wrote a whole book about how we are but machines to reproduce genes, and in Genome, Matt Ridley quotes Bill Hamilton saying that the genome is like “a company boardroom”. But I haven’t ever seen the analogy being made explicit, so I’ll go ahead and do it right now.

The way to think of your genes is as principals, and yourself as the agent. Their objective is to make copies of themselves. To accomplish this, they create you as a vehicle to make more of themselves. So far, the analogy is genes=shareholders, you=management, and genes increasing their presence=return on investment.

What’s missing? Incentive alignment! In the corporate world, this is done through executive compensation, and will theoretically work best with stock options. How do our genes make sure that we’re keen and eager to achieve their objectives? A whole bunch of things that make the process of gene propagation enjoyable – making sex fun, making babies look cute, so on and so forth.

So when Skimpy goes on and on about finding a long-term gene-propagating partner, he’s putting the cart before the horse. It is not the end-result of our genes getting propagated, but the actions we take to do so that make us happy1. The purpose of sex is not to have babies, but to have orgasms2. So when you have the orgasms without the babies, you get to act like the CEOs who give themselves executive jets while shafting the shareholders and driving down the share price. It’s an awesome life.

You might feel a sense of responsibility, and be tempted to propagate your genes keeping in mind all that they have done for you. Resist the temptation! Whatever they have done is for their selfish ends. The fact is, your genes are bastards. They don’t care about you. Some of them are actively trying to make you suffer a painful and agonising death. Yet others are trying to make other people suffer painful and agonising deaths, and as such are responsible for the ills of society. So if the selfish little buggers are too stupid to align incentives properly and they make it possible for you to get the benefits without delivering results – for example, by having sex with contraceptives, cooing over other peoples babies, or even puppies instead of babies – then they’re only getting what they deserve. Go ahead and behave like a 1980s American conglomerate vice-president – you know you want to.

1: This is remarkably Bhagavad-Gita-ish. Honestly, you could see the Bhagavad Gita too as an exploration of the principal-agent problem, with Krishna as the principal and Arjun as the agent. After trying to align incentives for seventeen chapters, Krishna finally reveals his vishwaroopam and tells Arjun clearly who the principal is, who the agent is, what the objective is, and that Arjun had better get cracking. You know, I should get down to reading Gurcharan Das’s The Difficulty of Being Good.

2: Or as Laurensolivius would put it: “Orgasms! Orgasms! We want orgasms!”