Thursday, November 24, 2016

A personal history

Roots: The Saga of an American Family
By Alex Haley

I have always enjoyed historical fiction. In fact, to me, historical fiction has been even more fascinating than history itself, because of the way creativity melds with reality to produce something extraordinary. But I have never read something that I couldn't readily place into either bin - Roots, a classic work from the last century that I recently rediscovered, is my first experience with what may be called a personal history, based in large measure on fact but interceded with fiction and personal claims.

Centuries after it happened, the African slave trade is largely forgotten today, and the history of America that we read and know is largely written, as the book rightly says, by the victors, the perpetrators of a commercial enterprise that put an actual value on human life (although they considered it to be non-human). This book was unique in that stories from American history - the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War - were told through the eyes of slaves, a story you never hear.

If the book can be faulted on anything, it is that it ended rather quickly after the Civil War episode, thus making it more about the initial generations of the Kinte clan than the entire eight. To be fair though, this was also the best-researcher part, putting this book more in the history section than historical fiction. Strongly-recommended for all Americans. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

What a mess!

I have consciously been avoiding talking about the Narendra Modi government's radical move to demonetize high-denomination notes to fight the menace of black money and terrorist funding. In light of all the rumors and misinformation being willfully spread by the media and the Opposition alike, I thought it better to wait (arguably, I had the privilege of doing so in a far away land) and listen to both sides. And while there are a variety of opinions going around, most based largely on political leanings in absence of any real data (it's only been about two weeks, give or take, since the PM made the historic announcement), one fact is certain: the inconvenience is real, as is the suffering inflicted on the entire country.

From a philosophical perspective, what does one make of this move and the thinking behind it, as exemplified by the PM's announcement and subsequent speeches? It is clearly a leaf out of a Communist textbook: a massive invasion of the private property rights of citizens (on the fruits of their labor, as represented by money) by the state. The initial justification - of weeding out black money and ending terrorist funding - are laudable in a society that wants to be fair and safe. And, if reports from Kashmir are to be believed, the latter objective has been met almost instantly. However, the way new rules have subsequently been created to enable farmers to pay for implements, and families to pay for weddings, is reminiscent of a command economy where bureaucrats dictate every economic activity of the individual. If the country feels under siege, it is because the only situation where such a command economy would be permissible in a democratic society is in time of war.

But then, perhaps it is a war. Isn't that what we elected Modi to do - launch a war against black money and corruption? Isn't that what was promised by the anti-corruption movement that decimated UPA2, the most corrupt government in the history of the Republic? Did we really expect that a war would not take a toll on everyone (I am not referring to the dubious and at times laughable exaggerations about deaths during this episode)? The problem is, in a war, you know if you won, lost, or reached stalemate. In this situation, there is simply no reliable way to tell if black money has really been weeded out of the system - and the government and RBI have certainly not been forthcoming to explain such a system if they happen to have one in mind. And so, the only justification being given is of envy - the rich are suffering, which must be good for the poor. The closest equivalent to this that I can think of is Indira Gandhi's bank nationalization, which was celebrated by the poor despite them still having no access to formal banking for half a century afterwards, purely because it was packaged as the rich being put in their place. Mr. Modi's rather dramatic speech in Goa gave teeth to this justification, and it is a testimony to his massive popularity that so many people have bought it and support his move, despite the lack of even an indication that there is evidence that the goals may be met.

That the implementation was shoddy is a no-brainer that even the BJP cannot deny, and some conspiracy theorists blame it on the Finance Minister, who is anyway seen as a fifth column. Even if we believe that secrecy was necessary to meet the stated objectives (which, I repeat, the government and RBI have offered no way to demonstrate), why the new Rs. 2000 notes could not be made of the same size and shape as the old notes so as to not require recalibration seems to find no answer. That is the singular reason for massive queues outsides ATMs, even as banks have actually pulled up their socks and done a good job. And if, for some reason, that was not possible, why did the government not know that Indians inherently like to hoard things (an outcome of decades of state-imposed poverty, also called socialism) and thus not expect these long lines? Or did they - why do they not want to even talk about it?

And speaking of the new notes - why are they being issued? According to the original stated purpose, the old notes that constituted a huge 86% of the currency base were not used heavily in day to day transactions (which may be true), but were being hoarded as either black money or purely because people liked to keep money at home. What stops the new notes from meeting the same fate, short of some miraculous change in mindset? The only answer seems to be a vague promise of 'regulating' the circulation of the new notes, which I do not for a moment believe is possible. And even though this entire episode has woken up people to the existence of electronic money, will it last? I doubt it, but I hope to be wrong.

In summary, despite the good intentions and my continued admiration for PM Modi, he has proven to be a true socialist at heart (and a much better administrator of socialism than his predecessors). This was indicated before by many of his moves, but there was always some lingering doubt because of a few excellent, pro-market economic reforms as well as the generally poor state of the private sector globally after the Great Recession. With demonitization, there is no doubt left. Modi is no Thatcher or Reagan - he is pretty close to Nixon though. This will cause much heartburn to my fellow BJP supporters, but supporting free markets and free societies cannot be conditional or malleable to the wishes of a leader. And while we certainly believe that Modi will win another term in 2019 (in whatever manner), we can no longer believe that he has faith in free markets. May, 2014 is dead, long live May, 2014.  

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A New World

President-Elect Donald J Trump, who won a majority of electoral college votes and is all set to be elected the 45th President of the United States, will be much more that. As the old moniker goes, he will be the Leader of the Free World. A different world - a new world. For, by defeating the Democratic challenger and her massive war chest of hundreds of millions of dollars, a pliant media that refused to be fair and balanced, a Republican party that was dead-set against a change in the status quo, an army of data analysts who insisted that they were right, and anarchists in cities like Chicago who refused to let him so much as say anything, Trump has taken over the mantle of the wave of anti-establishment movements that have democratically toppled established politicians across the world - in India, in Indonesia, in Europe, and now in America.

From the perspective of those who supported and continue to support PM Modi in India, events following Trump's election are a throwback to the way the global socialist movement acts - violent protests, rumor mongering, and boycott or even outright lynching of pro-Trump members of the public. 'Manufactured intolerance' that was perfected in India has been successfully imported into America - for once, we seem to have taught the older democracy something!
The irony is that the anti-Trump protesters with their colorful slogans were the same people who were lecturing Trump (and indeed, the entire world) about the need to accept a democratic process. They forgot to read out their terms and conditions - 'as long as our candidate wins'. The hypocrisy of the Left is now out in the open - in the months after President Trump is sworn in next year, expect these rats to come out in the open, and for the media to go, as they say, 'full retard' in their highly biased reporting.

The problem with the Left is that they have so monopolized institutions, particularly academia and the media, that they have converted them into echo chambers, where they hear whatever they want from their fellow comrades, while being totally cut off from the vast masses outside. Not only did the Left miss the mood of America, they continue to do so, trying to rationalize the loss in the same template of racism and bigotry that they used to earlier assure themselves that they would win - with an 85% chance, according to the now-discredited New York Times forecast. They learned nothing before and seem determined to learn nothing now.

Which is just fine for Mr. Trump, who has made a long list of difficult promises that he will have to begin tackling from Day 1. There is not going to be any honeymoon period, and even the fact that his party (which largely hates him) has a majority in the both Houses will not help too much, except for probably the few common points (repealing Obamacare being on top). But Mr. Trump has now joined a select group of leaders - hitherto led by Narendra Modi of India and Theresa May of the UK - who will lead their countries away from the elite-controlled system of the last two decades towards a more organic of democracy, with all its shortcomings and failures. We wish him luck. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Self-Regulation Hoax

In light of the one day token ban on NDTV India for violating broadcasting norms and possibly enabling terrorists to kill our soldiers, the old media is once again busy conjuring up a fantasy of the entire institution being under siege by the government. We wrote about this before, but here we focus on one aspect of the argument: self-regulation. Even in the highly elitist media, there are few who are willing to say (publicly) that there should be no rules and accountability for journalists. Instead, the they point to self-regulation as the solution, through the Editors' Guild and the NBSA. Well, how did that go?
 The experience of self-regulation with the media has only taught us that it is a hoax: self-regulation is a euphemism for a quid pro quo - in exchange for favors, any transgression can be ignored, no matter how blatant. What else explains the way NDTV India merrily reported the location of armaments and residential areas in Pathankhot while it was under siege? The NBSA was there, the rules were there, and yet there was not even an indication of hesitation in violating them.

And consider NDTV's reply to the I&B Ministry: far from regretting their actions, they pointed out how newspapers did the same, which was rightly rebutted by the Ministry by stating that newspapers don't have the trans-national, 24x7 reach of a TV channel. If this were the NBSA, what would NDTV have said? The same reply would've essentially been a warning of letting skeletons out of the closet of the comfy gymkhana of Lutyen's journalists - and the matter would've been buried right there. This is what self-regulation amounts to. If you still don't believe me, remember what the supposed messiah of civil society - Arvind Kejriwal - did to his party's internal Lokpal.

What India needs is an independent media regulator for the already-existing rules and guidelines which, while not interfering with the free media, certainly reads the law out to the them. The UK has a media regulator, and so should we.

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Shenanigans of Ravish Kumar

With the I&B Ministry deciding to ban broadcast of NDTV India for a day, the old establishment is back to their hollow calls of 'Emergency' and 'Fascism,' clearly hoping to corner Prime Minister Narendra Modi once again. Obviously, the issue is being painted as a dictatorial ban without procedure, and freedom of expression is being brought up again. I am reminded of Dr. BR Ambedkar's speech in the Constituent Assembly, wherein he attacked the Communists, who wanted absolute freedom so that they could, unhindered, attack the state and destroy it from within.

In all the noise and false outrage, the primary issue is being forgotten - that NDTV India, in violation of broadcasting rules, provided live coverage of an anti-terrorist operation, and gave out operational details that could have helped the terrorists (and indeed, it may have). That was in Pathankhot, a major attack that took the nation by surprise. Back in 2008, during the siege on 26/11 in Mumbai, NDTV once again was giving out operational details, which were lapped up by handlers in Karachi. Knowingly or otherwise, NDTV has acted as an accomplice for terrorism - something for which its editors would deserve to be prosecuted, and not meekly banned for a single day. Indeed, the rules prescribe a ban of 30 days, but because it was the first transgression under the new rules, it was brought down to a token one day.

And yet, Ravish Kumar, the most pretentious anchor in the channel (beating even the likes of Barkha Dutt in the English language sister network), is trying his best to spin it as an attack on NDTV due to ideology. He has asked whether the media has no right to question, forgetting both that NDTV alone was found guilty of this violation among TV channels, and that the rules were already in place and well-known. More importantly, the token ban is not for any questions, views, or debates, but for the far more serious crime of aiding terrorists to kill our soldiers. The I&B Ministry has followed due process in the case (and has even shown mercy in the end), and in any democracy, punishment through due process is fully justified as long as the laws apply to everybody (and they do, in this case).

Pretentious Ravish Kumar is of course going to use this as an opportunity to become an even greater messiah for his JNU fans, even as his channel continues to report losses every quarter. In the market, where everyone has a vote through their remote control, he has no support and no popularity, and yet he is going to paint himself as some mass leader to cover up for his crime. It seems that for the Leftist media, freedom of expression is the ultimate fallback of a scoundrel. So great is the hate of Ravish Kumar for Narendra Modi that he is willing to destroy the country for it - willing to join hands with terrorists to gun down our soldiers for it.

And the tragedy is that those who take their security for granted are going to line up behind him. Fortunately, it is a very, very small number.

The other elections

The US Presidential elections are just a few days away - although early-voting has effectively started the process already - and all eyes are on the neck-and-neck competition between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. However, that race only constitutes the top of the ballot, and every voter will have a veritable laundry list of candidates to select for a variety of positions - including the all-important control of the US Senate that is crucial for any party to implement their agenda.

In Illinois, there are several races and referendums to look forward to. The most publicized of these is the US Senate race between Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D) and incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk (R), in what appears to be one of the weakest races for the Republican Party. The two have been attacking each other for some time, although Kirk's jab at Duckworth's Thai mother seems to have cost him support. Nonetheless, given the huge stakes over the Supreme Court in the next four years, control of the Senate is absolutely crucial for either party, and every elected official will count.

Separately, Illinois also has a rather bizarre constitutional amendment on the ballot, making it mandatory for funds obtained through taxation on transportation are pushed back into the transportation sector and not elsewhere. While this move seems perfectly logical at first sight, it is hugely counter-productive to put it into the state's constitution. Budgets need to be flexible - especially in times of crisis (of which the state has had no shortage). If necessary, funds need to be rerouted for more pressing purposes, even if they should not ordinarily be. Putting it into the constitution will be hugely counterproductive in such a situation - it may be better to just put it into a law of some sort that can be amended under exceptional circumstances without having to wait for a referendum.

Finally, the Champaign schools are holding a referendum (again) for expanding the local public schools through a bond issue and increase in property taxes. Now, ordinarily, I'd be against any raising of taxes, but secular, free public education is one of the most important functions of government, and if it needs funds for that, it should get it. The plans seem to work out, give or take, and I hope this referendum question passes. Quality education is important enough to be taxed for.

I may not be able to vote here, but watching the American democratic process from the front seat has been quite an enriching process. Despite the terrible candidates on the top of the ticket, it is still a vibrant, democratic country that stands as a model for the world.