Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Intolerance: Coming to Britain

It's been about a week since the historic #Brexit vote, when British voters decided (by a small margin) to pull out of the European Union, thereby unsettling a lot of political calculus. It was a momentous decision, something that nobody was expecting (including pollsters who sounded mighty confident of 'Remain'). Perhaps the biggest victim of all was Prime Minister David Cameron, who used to be a fierce critic of the EU, making fun of it at every forum, and using the promise of a referendum to win a second term. And when the time came, he changed track, going as far as campaigning with London's Labor Mayor Sadiq Khan for 'Remain,' and now having no choice but to resign. That's right - he had no choice. BoJo might show outward loyalty to him, but it was just adding insult to injury. Cameron has smashed his own career.

But for the people of Britain who dared defy the liberal mafia, the torrent of intolerance is going to him them in full force. The shaming has already begun: newspapers are awash in reports of racist attacks, without any understanding of whether they're really related to Brexit, or even out of the ordinary for that matter. So-called experts who have never in their lives been held accountable for what they say, are demanding that the Brexit leaders immediately be held to account not just for what they said, but for how it was interpreted by the elite too. The financial market is once again being mistaken for the real economy, and inevitable economic changes that affect a small group of people are being described as an economic apocalypse that will consume all. British history before the EU is being re-written to better approximate the Dark Ages. People who are deeply concerned about their jobs are now racists, xenophobes, selfish pensioners who need to be stripped of their power to vote. And of course, Google trends about the EU are being used to caricature Brexit voters as ignorant fools who didn't realize what they were doing, even hoping to reverse the outcome.

But why is this a surprise? For those in India that supported Prime Minister Modi and his party in 2014, all this is extremely familiar. If ever there was evidence that the Global Left is real, the 21st century incarnation of the Communist International, it is this. And like its 20th century version it is led by a small elite whose actions deeply affect the masses and yet don't affect the elite themselves at all. When Michael Gove said that the British people were tired of experts (and was lampooned for it), he actually meant to say 'self-declared experts,' people who claim to know what's best for everyone, whose prescriptions have proven disastrous for people at large, and yet who are able to churn out more prescriptions with a holier than thou air. It is these experts that not just he British, but the entire world, are tired of.

Make no mistake: for daring to challenge the 21st Century Comintern, there is going to be hell to pay. Ordinary folk who are worried about their future will be shamed like never before, economics will be turned upside down to suit an agenda, there will be threats, there will be force. The elite that has taken over individual freedom, who think that a small group in Brussels is not just qualified to decide things for everyone, but is actually entitled to doing it, will use every trick in the book to take over what they have just lost. Brexit was a victory certainly, and Britain is now a beacon for Europe and freedom, but the battle has just begun. Best BoJo be on his guard. 

Tryst with crime

Well, today is my birthday, and I've turned 25. At this age, you're expected to have seen some of the "real" world. Could I have asked for a better birthday present than to see just that? I leave home in the morning as usual, and returned in the evening, pumped up and ready to go to the gym, only to found that my window had been broken in. I run in to my room, and lo and behold, it's a mess! But in an odd way. Obviously, I first checked for my passport, my most valuable thing there, and then the electronics. All there, untouched. So what was missing? My gym bag (good riddance), some old shirts, and $2 in laundry change. Huh! Even my library book was right where I had left it.

So that's my first recent memory of being robbed... or of burglary, as the kind police officer pointed out, as the correct term as per some bureaucrat in Springfield. I've been robbed a few times before (I'm from India, after all), and given how crime-ridden Illinois is, I'm surprised I spent three years without being subject to any crime at all. I was angry at first, but now that I think about it, it was probably some homeless person who needed some clothes. All my valuable things are just where I had left them.

So, I'm not angry. But I am a little scared, because if I was at home at the fateful hour, the guy would probably have been armed. It is in fact, almost guaranteed that he was, and the way he did his 'job,' this was not the first time. At this point, I can understand Republicans more than ever, and I myself wish I had a gun for self-defense. If I decide to stay in this country long-term, I certainly intend to arm myself. I am not going to leave my personal safety at home to the police department, which has very capable officers but is understaffed and underfunded in any case, and led by a political class (in Illinois at least) that has completely capitulated in front of the Chicago gangs, failing in their attempt to break them up through Hope VI, and spreading the poison to the rest of the state in the process.

I don't keep a bucket list, but if a break-in is parting of growing up, I can check that off. In any case, I have a job to do, and the show must go on. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Thrilling Background

GAME CHANGE (2012)

Produced By: HBO Films
Director: Jay Roach
Starring: Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Ed Harris, Sarah Paulson, and others
Pros: Riveting, strong acting, deep coverage
Cons: Black-and-white depiction, quite one-sided
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

For some reason, you don't see too many political films based on real events, certainly not events in the recent past. This may be because a lot of the main characters are still alive and politics, being the uncertain place that it is, can make it risky to air your dirty laundry in public. Indeed, perhaps director Jay Roach was waiting to see if Barack Obama would actually get a second term before he decided to bring out a side of his first campaign that a lot of people either forgot or would like to forget - the rise and rise of Sarah Palin. Of course, now as one of the early backers of Donald Trump, she has virtually resurrected herself.

Game Change follows the riveting summer and fall of 2008, when global cable TV was beaming the battle between Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain for the US Presidency... and Sarah Palin was somewhat of a side show, as the VP should be. The movie sheds some insight however, based on a book, that she didn't really consider herself a side show and, while McCain certainly did not blame her for his loss, the director presumably does. And that should tell you something - that while the film is supposed to be biographical, do not doubt some of the director's opinions flowing in. The coverage is expansive, going from the early days of the conventions and even a little bit of the primaries, all the way to the November election, but it is very one-sided.

If you believed the movie as gospel truth, Obama could make no mistake, and Sarah Palin was thoroughly uneducated beyond basic reading and writing (and even that was questionable). Of course, that is not the case, but movies are not for facts - the entire media is there for entertainment, and not information, as the movie ironically notes. Nonetheless, it was very entertaining, and the acting was very strong. If you're looking for facts, don't look here, but this certainly has entertainment value. (OTFS)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Balance of Power in Asia

It was quite an exciting night at the NSG plenary in Seoul, Korea, where a special late night session stretched on for three hours specifically to discuss India's application to join the nuclear cartel that was actually created in response to India's first nuclear test. Such exciting deliberation is the stuff of the UNFCCC or the TPP, and few imagined that the NSG would see something like this. Indeed, if not for the Modi government's firm commitment to get this through on the back of years of work to join various export control regimes, this whole affair would've died down long ago. At this stage, it is hard to say what will happen as negotiations will continue tomorrow and a final statement will be issued.

However, the result of this whole episode will resonate across Asia, specifically because of what China has done. It is no secret that China does not want a rising India to impinge its own rise in the world, and the China-Pakistan alliance has been as much about holding back India as it has been about gaining access to the Arabian Sea and thus getting over the US shield in the West Pacific. But so far, the Chinese have officially talked about a 'peaceful rise' while doing exactly the opposite in the shadows, through proxies (including Pakistan). Pakistan's NSG membership application itself came out of this process, because even China knows that there is no way the NSG would admit one of the world's biggest nuclear proliferating counties and the center of much of the world's terrorism, a fact that US President Obama himself has called his biggest headache.

The Seoul plenary changes all that - China has come out in the open in its opposition, trying initially to mask it behind technicalities (knowing full well that the burst of diplomatic energy from India and its backers, the US, France, and the UK, cannot be sustained forever), and then quite brazenly in the garb of maintaining the balance of power in South Asia. This is quite silly in fact, because without China's nudge, South Asia already has a massive power imbalance, with India enjoying hegemony. Without China, there is no balance of power in South Asia at all! And NSG membership will not change that. But in trying to maintain this fictitious balance, it seems China has forgotten the bigger picture - the balance of power in Asia itself.

In 1962, Nehru, always the anti-American, was forced to request President Kennedy for help in the face of imminent loss of territory in the Northeast (primarily on account of his own stupidity) Back then, it was China's aggression alone that could turn India's establishment towards the US. In 2016, while the world as a whole has changed greatly and India is not a poor backwater of Britain any more, there is still much angst towards joining any American military alliance. The broader public is uneasy about the prospect. But looking at this NSG plenary, when once again it is China that is leading the assault and the Americans who are backing us, the resistance would be greatly reduced.

Chinese diplomats have to ask themselves - do they want an Independent India in global forums that may or may not support China but is open to discussion; or do they want, with some other name, some other arrangement, a NATO at its doorstep. If there is anything that can push India towards a closer military alliance with the US, it is China. And such naked display of hostility is only going to catalyze that. China may succeed in maintaining the so-called balance of power in South Asia at the NSG, but in the process, it risks losing the balance of power in Asia.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The anti-Elite

There is a common thread running through many developments across the world today: the rise of Donald Trump, the threat of Brexit, the dog meat festival in China, even Raghuram Rajan's decision to return to academia in September. Oft-quoted and accepted logic is being turned on its head, dogged resistance to what used to be common sense is being felt, but most of all, people are pushing against what they are told is normal. There is a revolt against the narrative. But what does that mean?

Consider who decides what is normal, what is common sense, and what the narrative is. A very tiny elite, who have been telling everybody else how to live, what to eat, how to vote, what to worship... all without any accountability. The biggest example of all is the economic pundits in any central bank who think it fit to decide the very value of money. They have been proven wrong repeatedly, most spectacularly in 2008, and their economic prescriptions have not nearly achieved what they set out - and yet, not only do they keep making them, they seem entirely immune from the effects those decisions have on everybody else. On the other side are the inflationistas, who make it prohibitively expensive for businesses and consumers to borrow, in the hope that supply side inflation can somehow be tackled by killing off consumption!

Then there are the political pundits, most notably the liberal ones, who insist that people must vote in the way they think fit, and then proceed to spin a web of propaganda to 'prove' their point. So Islamophobia is evil, but Jewish/Hindu/Christian terrorism is a very real problem; religion is the opium of the masses except during Ramadan, when it is so cute; college must be free except the expensive private ones where they send their kids... the list goes on. It is these pundits who told us that India would erupt into violence if Narendra Modi becomes Prime Minister (it hasn't), it is the same people who once said that India's 1967 general election would be its last (there have been a dozen since). Those same people now want to legislate bathrooms, and warn us that Trump will be the 'last President of America'.

But what we're seeing now is a revolt against these people. Most economic studies cannot be reproduced, because people are doing what they feel is best for them, and not what some theory says they should do. People are voting as they think right, because they refuse to let the elite tell them what their morality should be. Most importantly, people have begun to see through the hypocrisy of the elite, who are able to sermonize without consequence, insulated from the world they seek to control. We are seeing nothing short of a renaissance of people who were hitherto told what to think. We are witnessing the birth of the anti-Elite.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Small dreams

THE DYNAMITER (2011)

Produced By: Fairtrade Films, and others
Director: Matthew Gordon
Starring: William Ruffin, John Alex Nunnery, Patrick Rutherford, Ciara McMillan, and others
Pros: Excellent acting, good story
Cons: Black and white characters
Rating: ***** of 5 (5 of 5)

Ah, Indie films! You watch a bunch and cringe at each one, only to eventually find a gem. I've seen a lot of them and wouldn't want to watch them twice, the only exceptions being OzLand and Early Light. To that list I can now add The Dyanmiter, a story that Hollywood is never going to cover, and one that I thought was just good fiction until I read a little more and realized that it is pretty much how rural Mississippi is! I suppose the accent, which can take sometime to get used to, should've pointed out the geographical setting to me though.

This one is also a coming of age film, and is probably the best Indie film I've seen in terms of quality. There is an excellent, well thought-out story that keeps the viewers engrossed. Add to that some splendid acting, especially from William Ruffin. It all sees very professionally made, and you'd hardly guess that it was an Indie. From the lighter moments to the tense ones, the Director captures them well, and the five-star rating is well-earned. There is even a bit of a moral, with the juxtaposition of two brothers who led very different lives, all by choice. And of course, the constant reminders of a mother who essentially abandoned her children, and how unfair that is. Really, if you can't take care of your kids, don't have them. They are not ready for you to play with their lives.

The only thing that I can criticize this film for is its monochromatic characters. Robbie is the good guy and always will be, Lewis is evil and always was, and grandma can't speak. The ending picks up for that though, and leave the audience with some thought. And the discussion about small dreams perfectly sums it up. The sad story of two brothers trying to make it in one of America's poorest places, with just about everything working against them, except each other. Brilliantly done. (OTFS)

A Teaching Philosophy

In a poster I recently saw regarding a faculty job search retreat - a workshop for soon-to-graduate PhD students and postdocs - at UIUC, I saw something called a 'teaching philosophy'. So I asked myself, armed with my too many years as a student and a semester as a TA for a major course, what was my teaching philosophy? And that is a really hard question to answer! What is a philosophy? A way of thinking? A set of ideals? Do professors actually know what their teaching philosophy is?

I can't say I have any of those answers. When I was a TA, I don't think I had a philosophy that varied from how I did anything else. Over the last few years, I've developed a principle of doing something well, or not doing it at all (which may be bad for research, actually). And when I was a TA, I applied the same principle. When my first lab bombed, I spent a lot of time thinking of ways to improve, and improve it did. The round of applause I got in my last lab was perhaps the most special moment for me in years, a deeply satisfying end. So does that count as my research philosophy - giving it my best? Is that even a philosophy? Why do I even bother, especially since I know that the kids have little choice?

One of my students told me that they had a CAD lab where the professor sent them videos from Lynda.com to watch and learn - and I remember being outraged. Not because they didn't learn anything - Lynda.com is great for learning stuff, and I use it often, most recently to learn Python - but because students paid for a real instructor. Lynda.com is already covered in their fees whether they took that class or not. When students pay for a real teacher, that money is meant for the teacher to prepare and deliver lectures, make homework and exams, and anything else needed to run the class. Plus, given that it is highly likely that most if not all of those students either had a student loan or a MAP grant, which means either they or somebody else is going to have to work off that money through what they learn. So they need to be taught well.

So is that my teaching philosophy? Cold-hearted, mathematical, utilitarian calculations that money deserves to get what it's worth? In any other country, I might have felt that to be appalling, to see teaching as a monetary transaction. But American philosophy has taught me that money represents value, and a monetary transaction is an exchange of work for work - somebody's work for my teaching. When the high castles of idealism fall, as they always do, money retains its value. Does that count as philosophy? You pay me, I'll teach you what I know, and do it well?

I'm not sure, but it sounds like a fair deal to me.

Goodbye and good luck

He always does things in style. No doubt, Raghuram Rajan - "R3" - had a degree of flamboyance, and an air of self-assured oblivion that made him the darling of those who knew next to nothing about what his real job was. To his credit, he did manage to halt - not reverse - the decline of the Rupee that UPA2's disastrous fiscal policies had induced. And today, when he decided not to accept a second term as RBI governor - of course, it was unknown whether he was even offered such a thing - he did it through a quiet message that has now taken Twitter by storm. That's R3, the man who makes ripples with a flick of his finger.

For the liberals who supported him for no particular reason (except maybe his sex appeal and impeccable English?), this is a day or mourning. All the hyperbole - monetary policy now being decided by havans and the likes - is to be accepted quietly, because people in grief tend to say stupid things. And His Holiness AK49 hasn't even spoken up yet, which means the show isn't over. On Monday, the markets may fall somewhat, more because of the uncertainty than anything else, and the FDI numbers will barely budge - real investors don't park their expectations on a Central Bank, less so its governor. That Rajan had to go was inevitable - the only reason he stayed so long was that Prime Minister Modi backed him, overruling everyone else. But the Prime Minister can only fend off opposition for so long.

Rajan has probably done the right thing - he deserves to be in academia. He is a thinker, a theorist, a man of ideas. Despite claims to the contradictory, the governor of the reserve bank of such a large country cannot control the economy, and their experiments will have little effect. That's not to say the the RBI Governor is not important - just not as important as people outside monetary policy would like to believe. The real turnaround in the economy has been about fiscal policy, as it always will be in any country in the world. Rajan was useful, sure, but real life has its limits. Academia is more forgiving for men of ideas. And teaching has a charm of its own.

His biggest project was cleaning up the banks from the UPA's mess, and that should be the primary goal of the next governor. Monetary policy is already being moved to a committee, which diminishes (rightly) the role of the governor. Therefore, bank regulation is the only major job left, aside from currency stabilization (which it rarely did anyway). With the biggest foreign reserves chest in India's history, Dr. Rajan has left the RBI with some big challenges but a lot of tools to deal with them as well. We wish him luck for his future endeavors.

Oh, and Subramaniam Swamy has lost a lot of fans. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

What to make of Brock Turner

Over the last few weeks, the Internet has been awash about the news of Stanford student Brock Turner and his six month conviction for the rape of a fellow student at a college party. There is quite a bit of (justified) outrage at the very light sentence he got, and his father's testimony in court about his son's "20 minutes of action". This case brings back the perverse nature of college campus parties, where anything seems to be OK in the name of peer pressure. There is something deeply wrong with the ethics that students are learning, where fitting in to the crowd seem to be more important that upholding individual self-righteousness.

The biggest mistake here is certainly that of the judge, with a very light sentence for a very serous crime. And it was a crime, committed by an adult, no matter how much the parents try to show him as a child. He is an adult who made a huge mistake and, like everything in life, has to face the consequences for it. While judicial discretion is in the books, it should not be arbitrary. Rape on college campuses is a very serious issue that made headlines last year, and Vice President Joe Biden has been talking about it for a long time. The University of Illinois has a student initiative to stop the violent culture that seems to be continue to exist despite everybody knowing that it is wrong. A lenient sentencing does not help.

However, even as we call for a more commensurate punishment, we must also stop and think about the limits of the lynch mob that Mr. Turner is being subject too. Certainly he deserves more punishment, but does he deserve, as many have suggested, to have his life ruined forever, or even to be killed? That betrays a deep misunderstanding of the law itself. Modern law outside of Islamic countries is not about eye-for-an-eye reactions, it is about protecting society from the perpetrator while simultaneously trying to make the perpetrator repent and hopefully come back as a responsible member of society. In this case, we are talking about a 19 year old young adult who can still do something for himself and society in the future - certainly not what he wanted to do, but something productive nonetheless. Of course, he must first stay in jail for a substantial period of time (more than he has been sentenced to right now) so that he understands the error he made and hopefully comes out with better wisdom for the world ahead. But locking him away forever, or killing him, again as some over-enthusiastic people have called for, defies the very purpose for having a civilized rule of law.

The most shameful part of the whole affair has been the testimonies of the parents, particularly the father. While nobody expects them to simply fall in line, there seems to be a lack of acknowledgement of just how serious the crime was. And perhaps that explains why the young Mr. Turner's judgment was found so lacking that night - he never really seemed to get any sense of it while growing up from the people who were supposed to instill it to him. That is the biggest problem with the way kids are being raised today, and it is showing on college campuses.

On a side note, the people who saved the victim were graduate students. Maybe there is still some hope on college campuses!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

A Tale of Two Ruins

EARLY LIGHT (2014)

Produced By: Coldcut Productions, and others
Director: Geoffray Barbier
Starring: Ian Bouillion, Trager Galinsky, Shannon Hamm, Rob Morgan, and others
Pros: Strong storyline, well thought out screenplay, good speed
Cons: Bad acting
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

Another one from the Indie stable. I must say, this one is made by someone with actual training in the art of film-making, and it showed. Moreover, the director made a good attempt to mold a vague story into something concrete, and it was good, if not perfect (what is?). Early Light, very aptly named, tries to follow a true story from England of two boys who were sentenced at a young age for murder, as adults, and were released on parole with new identities.

What you read in newspapers is the story of how the bad guy get sent to jail. What you don't hear is what happens to them after that. In building the story, the director does not stick to black and white cliches - there are two stories, but they are not opposites, neither are they complementary, they are independent, and that makes the movie even more fascinating. The movie proceeds at a decent speed, not too fast to make you breathless, but not too slow as to bore you (as most Indies do). Character development if OK, and it largely depends on how much you want to know about the past of the two lead characters - in this case, a lack of that actually helped.

Unfortunately, the low point came with the bad acting. Now, given that the roles are difficult - to play people who have essentially scarred themselves for life is not easy - but a lot of was missing. The actors felt like placeholders, with the same expression on their faces. Iam Bouillion (Jon) did a little better than Trager Galinsky (Alex), but just barely, and that took the film down a notch, It's not in the same league as OzLand, but it is certainly worth a watch. (OTFS)

Oh, Paul Revere!

Last month, I had the pleasure of visiting Boston, MA, the city that is so closely related to the American Revolution and was the fountainhead of the ideological battle that today reverberates across the world - that of freedom and the courage to stand for it. There are few cities that I have seen that have so much history in them, from the Freedom Walk to the (now reclaimed) site of the Boston Tea Party, and of course the two iconic universities, MIT and Harvard.

One man whose legend is embossed onto the city's consciousness if Paul Revere, who I admit I knew little about until I decided to visit Boston, and about whom I spent some time reading. His race across the colony to warn the local militia of the impending British invasion is the stuff of legend, as it should be. With him is Sam Adams, one of the architects of the United States of America, whose legacy has unfortunately been reduced to a brand of beer names after him! But in Boston, these two stand proud.

Boston is a great place for all kids of tourists, even those that don't like history. It felt great to stand by the ocean again, what with living almost entirely in land-locked Illinois (Lake Michigan does not count). The metro and LRT systems are quite pathetic and aging, although they do as best as possible to serve the large city. I was surprised by the large number of universities in town, I probably got used to little Champaign-Urbana, where UIUC and Parkland College make up all of higher education! The place did seem a little empty, but it was a pleasure to be in a big city again.

'Go West, young man!' they say to aspiring young people. I disagree. I see the future in the East - in the great cities and states that once formed the nascent United States.

Rajan or No Rajan?

Over the last few weeks, an odd battle has begun in the higher echelons of monetary policy making in India - that over the reappointment or Raghuram Rajan as the governor of the RBI for a second term. Emotions are running high and there is plenty of drama on both sides, and everyone except the man himself and the man who will be making the final decision - Prime Minister Narendra Modi - seems to have a strong opinion. The loudest opinion certainly seems to be that of BJP Rajya Sabha MP and maverick, Subramanaim Swamy, who has shot off several letters to the PM about the matter.

From my perspective, I think Rajan may be reappointed, but it is not a do-or-die situation, on either side. He was OK, not great, but not bad either. His two major achievements are stabilization of the Rupee in the wake of the effects of Pranab Mukherjee's disastrous economic policies and global economic turmoil, and forcing banks to own up to their NPA problems. Of course, he has grown an alarming desire to make a comment a day about any and every issue under the sun - a clear sign that he takes himself too seriously, and that can be the first sign of trouble in someone who has some powers.

However, the current debate has become so melodramatic that it is almost ludicrous. On one side, Swamy is coming out with a stream of conspiracy theories. His assertion about Rajan's hawkishness on interest rates has some merit, but it is more nuanced than that, considering how the formal banking sector doesn't even reach small businesses in India (Modi's MUDRA bank is changing that through fiscal intervention). On top of that, his assertion of some time bomb that Rajan has placed is hilarious and unless he backs it up with some real facts, nobody is going to take him seriously. This is not a court case where facts need only be placed before a judge - it is a public debate where facts needs to be stated.

On the other side are Chicago economists who assert that the RBI is nothing without Rajan - a laughable thing to say and one that is quite insulting to economics in India as well as the institution of the RBI itself, which once handled monetary policy for several parts of the world. The RBI does not need Rajan, he might be good in it, but the organization will certainly do well without him. In fact, if indispensability is the case being made out, YV Reddy would be a suitable candidate over Rajan. Perhaps even Manmohan Singh! And then there are the bleeding-heart liberals who know nothing about monetary policy, who can barely solve an equation or read math, but who have made it a habit of seeing everything from a Left-versus-Right perspective, and are looking to do the same here (they are dead wrong if they believe that Rajan supports their tinpot economic fantasies). For this group, the only reason they support Rajan is because they don't want Modi to remove yet another UPA appointee, and thus deny a legitimately-elected governments its powers. This group makes a lot of noise but are not to be taken seriously - ever. They are not even paper tigers.

In the end, as Rajan rightly said, it will be Modi and perhaps Jaitley who will make the call. A well-reasoned public debate is always welcome, and maybe even the funny petitions going around are fine in a democracy. But if it is going to come down to assertions and emotions, then the Prime Minister has the mandate to enforce his own. 

Straight about endorsements

Last week, Hillary Clinton effectively declared herself the nominee of the Democratic Party's ticket for the November election (effectively because the nominee will only be decided at the Party convention next month), setting the stage for a mega fight with Republican nominee Donald Trump. This is certainly going to be an unconventional electoral battle, where most assumptions are going to be proven wrong. However, the response of the political system to the end of the primary season has been on expected lines: party bigwigs have come out with their endorsements, some enthusiastically (Obama), and some very, very reluctantly (Paul Ryan).

At this stage, you also have a number of sundry wannabe-celebrities trying to make their endorsements. And that's where it can get a bit comical. Hollywood has always has a larger-than-life image, and indeed, they did produce Ronald Reagan, but one has to wonder - if everyone is making endorsements, who is supposed to listen? In politics, celebrities may be an interesting group of people to have around, but an endorsement counts for little unless it can be followed up with an authority, instead of being forgotten in a few hours.

There are only two kinds of endorsements that matter: political endorsements, and endorsement from the mass media (newspapers, radio, and new media). The first is because the endorsement is also a contract to hand over a political network that has the power to raise funds and canvass for a candidate. That is why endorsements from governors are so valuable - because they bring in a network that covers an entire state (and similarly for senators). The media gives the power of authority - long after the politician leaves after the election, the media is there, and people repose faith in their newspapers and talk shows (for better or worse). Moreover, the power of the media to amplify a message, as Donald Trump has used to great advantage, is priceless.

Every other endorsement is like an ad on TV that plays just once - effective for sometime, but not much. It gives the endorser an ego boost, but little else, except for perhaps the small set of celebrities who enjoy a larger than life status that can actually influence votes. Mostly, though, it might inspire a few Facebook posts and tweets, but little else. 

Adventures of a different kind

KNOCKAROUND KIDS (2013)

Produced By: Breathe films and others
Director: John Adekoje
Starring: Ramona Alexander, Peter Doherty, Billy Leamey, Vianca Colocho, and others
Pros: Good story, does not preach
Cons: Little thought, no real ending
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

I've been trying to make use of the little extra time I've acquired this summer to watch some independent films. Of course, I like some (very little) of the mainstream stuff, but some independent films have turned out to be very good, so why not? Plus, it will help me understand a little more about Western society and how it works (I think). In this category, after Waterberry Tears, I've been looking around for some interesting coming-of-age films, and that's how Knockaround Kids happened.

Set in Massachusetts, where a group of kids are committed to the "protection" of the state, it follows the horrors of living under a bureaucracy for kids who need nothing more than love and attention, but whose parents can't provide it for various reasons. The movie has an excellent story and, most importantly, it does not try to preach. This is not a feel-good film, and it does not try to impose a story. It flows quite naturally, with each character having their own shades of emotion, and all of them are allowed to grow, and the audience to get to know them. That is very hard to achieve for any director!

But then, perhaps it was too easy for this one, because despite the natural flow, the story doesn't seem to have any thought put into it. Don't get me wrong, it is a good story, but it doesn't go anywhere. Not only does the director avoid a tailor-made ending, he actually seems to avoid any ending at all, making the ending quite abrupt. This was the real tragedy of an otherwise excellent movie that had great potential. Had. (OTFS)

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Over-cess-ed!

There has been a lot of talk of late on social media about the wide variety of indirect taxes that people in India are subject to. It can be traced back to a picture on social media from a restaurant bill showing the large number of taxes that people have to pay for all services - all people, not just the salaried middle class, but anybody who uses any service in the country. of course, it is a different matter that the 'service charge' shown was not a tax but a charge imposed by the restaurant, but the larger message is that with two layers of state-imposed VAT, the Krishi Kalyan cess, and the Swacch Bharat cess, Indians are paying a lot of taxes.

From one perspective, this should not be surprising. Income redistribution is something that the middle class has long supported, and it should not come as a surprise to them that it is their income that is going to be redistributed. Sure, politicians will make it sound as though they're being ripped off, but the fact is, statistically, they're better off than a vast majority of people, and they are the ones who will have to pay for socialism. While people crib on Facebook on their smartphones about the need to support farmers, they don't seem to see the irony of opposing a Krishi Kalyan cess! It takes money to help farmers - Facebook likes won't do it!

But from another perspective, there is a point. The socialist economy is so rigged against almost everybody - the middle class is heavily taxes, while farmers commit suicide - while a small group of vested interests make a lot of money. Every cess is an example of unimaginative policy making and desperate budgeting. India has a government that wants to provide first world benefits to everyone with third world funding, and people support such crazy policies through their vote. People should not be paying taxes on everything, for every little scheme that Delhi can cook up. Indeed, so much money has been spent already on so-called welfare with so little outcome, that one really wonders where all that money went, and whether doing the same thing again and again, hoping for different results in the face of decades of data saying otherwise, is not indication of national insanity.

Politically, Arun Jaitley clearly does not politics. Mixing the popular if ineffective Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan with the word 'cess' is a huge mistake that will alienate some of the BJP's core voters. If he has any sense, he will just play around with tax slabs and not introduce any cess in the future. After all, a cess is the closest thing to immortality on this planet (paraphrasing Reagan) - once introduced, it is next to impossible to get rid of it. 

Lessons from the NSG fiasco

In just two days time, the NSG will be meeting and, on its agenda, will be India's application for full membership of the nuclear cartel. And in all likelihood, it will not happen, despite the Obama administration's strong backing. Yesterday, Switzerland, one of the non-proliferation hardliners in the NSG, vowed to support India's membership, and this move can be expected to bring other hardliners in as well, given India's impressive track record in the area (which is better than a lot of NPT signatories).

But that's not enough - without a shade of a doubt, China is going to block the membership on the ridiculous assertion that Pakistan should be admitted too - a country that has not adopted any of the rigorous safeguards that India has, and which has played a prominent role in nuclear proliferation (AQ Khan, anybody?). Pakistan is a fig leaf of course, just as China's economic support to Pakistan is pure geopolitics. The aim is to stop the US from creating a geopolitical heavyweight in a region that China wants to dominate - 'not another Japan,' basically. Already, the Malabar Exercises have shaken China, as did the proposed Quadrilateral a few years back (dubbed a 'mini-NATO in the East').

So we're not going to get into the NSG because of China's political ambitions. But can we really blame anybody but ourselves? The Chinese have always looked out for their own goals (indeed, so has the US), but thanks to Nehru's naive foreign policy and the establishment it has spawned, we've lived in some philosophical wonderland, thinking about vague principles not rooted in either fact or national interest. Consider the one-sided 'help' we've given China in the past: recognizing the PRC, giving up a UNSC permanent seat for it, backing its inclusion in the WTO, ignoring its incursions in Aksai Chin until it was too late... at every juncture, while we've tried to play good neighbor, China has back-stabbed us, and the NSG fiasco is just another example of that.

And we have nobody else to blame but ourselves for this. While Modi and Vajpayee before him have tried to change India's foreign policy to one suited for a post-Cold War multipolar world, the mistakes of the past and the Panchsheel-hawks in the MEA have repeatedly come in the way. Slowly but steadily, the edifice of the Nehruvian foreign policy is breaking away, but not fast enough for the present needs. Right now, it's India - 0, Nehru - 1 as far as the NSG goes. 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

An unworthy end

Dictator
By Robert Harris

Surprise, surprise! After a very long time, I got back to reading Robert Harris, that master of ancient history. Of course, I didn't have much of a choice: only a few months ago did he finish his Rome trilogy and, having read everything else by him, I was excited to get a hold of Dictator. And I was not disappointed: I can't remember the last time I read so voraciously!

Cicero - statesman, orator, absolutely loathed by Leftists worldwide, his life is the story of the rise and fall of the Roman Republic, and Dictator completed the journey Harris set out to recreate the lost story of that great Roman in his final years. And in that process, we meet the powerful characters that shapes Europe for centuries to come - Julius Caesar, Octavian, Mark Antony, and others, each of whom ultimately picked the flesh of the Republic to the bone, with Octavian finally burying the corpse and declaring himself Emperor Augustus.

But this novel is also about the rise, fall, rise, and final fall of Cicero, who truly showed the power of ideas and how to harness it. His death may be described as unworthy of one who has been through so much, but this trilogy was indeed a worthy dedication to him.