1984, your uncle’s daughter and Sapir Whorf

In 1984, Orwell describes how the Party purges words of extraneous meanings leaving only one, thereby ensuring that some concepts are simply unthinkable. For example, someone reading “all men are created equal” would be unable to grasp its meaning because in the ideal world of Newspeak, the usage of the word in the sense of political and legal equality has been disappeared, so someone reading that phrase would only be able to think of equality in physical and mental attributes. A Newspeaker trying to read the American declaration of independence would be unable to understand it in any meaningful sense.

This idea that the structure of the language determines cognition is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I didn’t know the term at that time, but reading about Newspeak*,* I was reminded of the words we use for our uncles, aunts and cousins in Kannada.

Karnataka, like the rest of South India, practices cousin marriage, but strictly among cross-cousins and not among parallel cousins. This norm is reinforced through language. Kannada uses the same word “maternal uncle” and “father-in-law” – mAmA. It is not just this word, every word in Kannada for relationships reinforces this with utmost consistency. Your mama’s wife is atthe, as is your father’s sister and your mother-in-law. Your mama’s daughter, if she is older than you, would be “atthige” and “nAdini” if younger. These are the same words used for your spouse’s elder and younger sisters respectively. Male cross-cousins in Kannada are called “bhAva” and “maiduna” depending on whether they are older or younger than you, and these are the same terms used for your spouse’s older and younger brothers. The word for daughter-in-law, your sister’s daughter (if you are male) and your brother’s daughter (if you are female) is the same – sose. The corresponding male term is aLiya.

We call our father’s brothers “doDDappa” (big-father) or “chikkappa” (little-father) depending on whether they are older or younger than our father. Their wives are “doDDamma” and “chikkamma” respectively, and these are also the words for our mother’s elder and younger sisters. Any children of our doDDa/chikka appas or ammas are our brothers (aNNa/tamma) and sisters (akka/tangi). Like most other Indian languages, Kannada doesn’t have a word for cousin. If you are doDDa or chikka appa or amma to someone, their relation to you is maga (son) or magaLu (daughter).

This norm is maintained for second cousins and beyond as well. The son of my parallel cousin (who is simply aNNa to me) is an aNNa to my son as well. It is also a framework that can extended logically to anyone who is related to you. For example, when my maternal uncle got married, my eight year old self took great pride in working out that his wife’s brother would be a chikkappa to me (you’ll have to work this out, but the idea is that your father’s sister is your atthe, so any brother of anyone who is atthe to you becomes a doDDa/chikka appa to you) When I proudly explained this to my mom, I got a response to the effect of: “Look, you’re right, but just call him mAmA, ok?”

The reason Newspeak reminded me of Kannada cousin-marriage is that it occurred to me that one could argue that the structure of our language reinforces the norm of cousin-marriage in Kannada. So explaining the taboo around cousin marriage by saying “You shouldn’t marry your uncle’s daughter” would translate to “You shouldn’t marry your father-in-law’s daughter”, an absurdity. And if you had to argue for marriage with parallel cousins, you can’t avoid saying that you can marry your brother or sister, because those are the only words available for parallel cousins.

There are different forms of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the strong form arguing that the words available to you entirely determine thought, while the weaker forms claiming that language influences thought in some way without claiming determinism. These hypotheses are not accepted among linguists. When you think a little more carefully about the uncle’s daughter example, you’ll realize why.

I remember when I had to explain Kannada cousin-marriage and names for relationships to a North Indian. He was flabbergasted with the concept. In Hindi, your cousins are all brothers or sisters to you. How do South Indians distinguish between different categories of cousins, was the question he had. That got me thinking. The answer was culture, and the way we were socialized starting from childhood. If a Kannadiga boy, while playing house-house, decides that his mAmA’s daughter was going to be his wife, everyone around him will smile and say “so cute”, but if he did the same with his chikkappa’s daughter, he’d be immediately corrected with “She’s your sister! You can’t make her your wife!” This message is reinforced in every novel and movie involving love affairs between the hero and his mAmA’s daughter.

The incest taboo is quite strong and innate in human beings. There is something in our brain that tells us “If someone is your sister, then treat her as sisters should be treated” and this is something we are born with, and there is also another part of our brain where we put women we consider our our sisters. Our actual female siblings will be represented there, but who else resides there depends on cultural factors and life circumstances. In our culture there is the category of rakhi sisters, that puts women who aren’t even related to us by blood into that category. There is research that shows that women we’ve grown up with tend to get treated as sisters (for example, in Israeli Kibbutzim, it’s been shown that marriage within the Kibbutz is rare) The idea that your Guru’s daughter (whom you’ve presumably grown up with in a gurukula) is your sister brings together both the cultural and life-circumstances reasons.

So, obviously, the idea that it’s ok to marry your mAmA’s daughter comes from something similar, but is that something language or culture? The reason the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is not accepted among linguists is that it is impossible to disentangle language from culture, because after all, language is a part of culture. It is impossible to decide whether Kannadigas are ok with cross-cousin marriage but not parallel-cousin marriage because our language has a certain structure or because our culture reinforces this norm through every instrument available to it, including language.

Another example that is apparently provided in favour of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that apparently the Inuit have many more words for snow than English does, and because of this, they have a richer and more vivid experience of snow. This factual claim has apparently been discredited (I suspect that the factual dispute turns on what “word” means and what “having” a word means.) But even if it were true, so what? It is not surprising that the Inuit experience snow in many different ways – after all, they see much more of it and many different varieties of it. It is also, for the same reason, not surprising if they had many more words for snow in common use than English does. The stronger case for Sapir-Whorf would have been if the reverse were true – if English had many more words for snow, and therefore the English had a richer experience of snow than the Inuit did.

This post started off with 1984, then it explained Sapir-Whorf, then it went on to explain cross-cousin marriage in Kannada, and ended up with Inuit words of snow. If you are wondering what the real point is, I am not quite sure. Thank you for reading anyway.

(And oh, you can explain familial relationships in Kannada using a 2×3 matrix, which I will draw some day.)

The Khumrah treadmill of outrage

How do you combat bigotry? One way is through debate. You let the bigoted person speak and you counter his views. You point out that those views are morally abhorrent or scientifically incorrect, or both.

This approach has advantages. Very often, hearing the bigot speak is sufficient to convince others that those views are repugnant. If that is not sufficient, your counter to those bigoted views should do the job. In addition, by letting him speak, you avoid getting into ancillary debates about whether those bigoted views are covered under freedom of speech. You also do not give his allies the excuse of ambiguity over whether they are supporting his views or supporting his freedom to express those views.

The approach has disadvantages though. There is no winning the debate. It is not like the bigot will fall to your feet, ask for forgiveness, thank you for opening his eyes and change his views permanently. Bigots, not surprisingly, are irrational and illogical people with a lot of time on their hands, so debating them with the view to winning, whatever that means, is futile. It is important to remember that the point is to convince other people that the bigot is wrong, not to convince the bigot himself. We should walk away once the point has been made, which is not something humans find easy. Bigots will always be among us, and they will always express their views, so even countering their views without debating them is exhausting. Finally and most importantly, bigotry is hurtful to those it is targeted at. It may lead to discrimination and actual violence.

Given these disadvantages, it is tempting to shut down bigotry, either by making bigoted expression illegal, or through social pressure. When we do that, it is the beginning of the Khumrah treadmill, which I have tweeted about.

Bigoted people, finding that they are unable to express their views directly, resort to euphemisms, insinuations and pseudo-scientific jargon to hint at their views. Now, we need to build a wall around the Torah to prevent the original bigoted view from being expressed, so we make the euphemisms and holding of those pseudo-scientific views unacceptable. So you ban the use of “negro” because people who used the original n-word slur have started using it as a slur. Of course, this means that the bigots will find euphemisms to refer to those euphemisms, and they will begin to misrepresent legitimate scientific theories to hint at the second-order bigoted views, so you build another wall, and make even those euphemisms and discussion of those scientific views unacceptable.

This process continues, and more and more walls are added around the Torah. This results in a few things happening.

First, the original bigoted view you want to cancel may be so unacceptable that no one other than the bigot can reasonably hold them. But around the views located around the fourth or fifth wall may be ones that reasonable people may hold them – they could be even be correct views. So, the original idea is that biological sex is distinct from your gender identity, and you should be accepting of people who may be biologically female, but identify with the male gender, or vice versa; and that you should refer to people by their preferred gender. It is bigotry not to be accepting of this. After building multiple walls around this concept, it is apparently unacceptable to even believe that biological sex exists, or that there is a high degree of overlap between gender identity and biological sex, because breaching this wall is the first step that will inevitably breach the next one and the one after that.

Second, you have to start sounding like party apparatchiks to be non-bigoted, and because it is easy to “gum together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug” as Orwell famously said, you will attract a lot of humbugs.

Third, because humans are tribal beings, holding the right kind of views become the price of admission to the tribe, and the more absurd the belief, the better it is as an initiation ritual. Condemning anti-Muslim bigotry? That is easy, and lots of people will join in it. Outraging over someone who believes that Aurangzeb was a bad person? That takes commitment, and therefore once supporting Aurangzeb becomes the test of whether you are part of the non-bigoted tribe, you will get only the most committed adherents.

Fourth, when you outlaw reasonable views, only outlaws will have reasonable views. Many reasonable people who hold those cancellable views in private may just step away and do other things rather than express them. The people left to engage in debate will be the unrepentant bigots, and non-bigots who don’t care about political correctness, but who will express reasonable views in the worst possible ways. This will further power the Khumrah treadmill, because if only crazy people express a particular reasonable view, the view in question will sound crazy.

The final stage of the Khumrah treadmill is that someone will realize that if everyone is being cancelled anyway, they might as well express the most bigoted view possible, and outrage at this will be dampened by the fact that everything is outraged at anyway.

Sanskrit Appellations

(Attention North Indians: Do not swallow the schwa when you read the Devanagari in this post. If you do, many examples will not make sense. For example, अर्जुन is Arjuna, not Arjun)

Sanskrit has this system where you can be addressed by a name formed by your father’s name, mother’s name, the name of one of your prominent ancestors, or even the place where you are from. This name can be used along with your given name, or in place of it.  There are some characters from some of the Itihaasas we know only using their appellations, and we don’t know their given names at all.

For example, अर्जुन, the son of पाण्डु, is a पाण्डव, though the term is more commonly used as a collective term for the five brothers. He is also referred to as पार्थ and कोैन्तेय after his mother’s names पृथा and कुन्ती, and those two terms seem to be reserved for him, though there were three others who could be called  पार्थ and कोैन्तेय.  Krishna addressed him as भारत when he made the promise to reincarnate himself, acknowledging his descent from the emperor भरत. Of course, he could also have been called कौरव as he was a descendent of kuru, but that term was reserved for his cousins. There was another अर्जुन before this one. He was the one who made  Parashurama lose his shit and  go off on a Kshatriya killing spree. He was the son of कृतवीर्य and is known to us as कार्तवीर्यार्जुन. Likewise, कृष्ण, the son of वसुदेव, was known both as वासुदेव कृष्ण and just वासुदेव. He was also referred to as यादव, indicating his descent from यदु, though this term was used for the entire clan as well. 

Among women, we know सीता, the daughter of जनक as जानकी. We also know her as मैथिली because she came from मिथिला. Being addressed by the place of their origin seems to have been common for women, and there are many women we know of in no other way. For example, Dashratha’s wives कौशल्या and कैकेयी were from कोशल and केकय respectively. गांधारी and माद्री were from गांधार and मद्र respectively. We do not know of their given names. द्रौपदी was the daughter of द्रुपद who was from पांचाल and therefore also called पांचाली. I am not sure of her real name either (was it कृष्णा?).  Knowing women by their places of origin seems to have been more common than for men, presumably because women moved to their husbands’ place after marriage, and people at their new homes referred to their daughters in law by where they came from. Presumably that is why we know अंबिका and अंबालिका by their real names; काशेयी would have referred to both of them. Interestingly, I cannot think of any woman who was known by her mother’s name.

In referring to people by their father’s, mother’s, ancestor’s or place name, Sanskrit seems to be using a grammatical transformation that is common in other contexts as well. For example सुन्दर (beautiful) is transformed to साैन्दर्य (beauty). सैन्धव लवण is the mineral (लवण) that came from सिन्धु (sea), a term that survives in Hindi as सैन्धा नमक्. The term लावण्या is obviously related to लवण, telling us that the association of beauty with saltiness has carried into Hindi from Sanskrit. गौरव is that which is due to the गुरु (I will refrain from a fascinating digression into gru, gravity etc.)

This grammatical transformation must have held even when Sanskrit transformed into the Prakrits. Chandragupta मौर्य was so known because he sat on the peacock throne, but मौर्य looks like it must have come from मोर, not मयूर.

So, if you have read so far and are now curious about how to call your children after yourself or your spouse (or yourself after your ancestors) , here are the rules. I’ll add a disclaimer – I have worked out these rules myself, so if there are any errors, corrections or clarifications, please feel free to let me know.

To transform your name into your kids’ appellation, you need to take the first and the last vowel. (and remember that in Sanskrit, the name always ends with a vowel. My name, for example, is रविकिरण – Ravikirana, not रविकिरण्) The first vowel gets transformed into its longest form, while the longest form stays as it is.

  • अ -> आ (यदु -> यादव, पाण्डु -> पाण्डव)
  • इ, ई, ए ->ऐ (दिती -> दैत्य, केकय -> कैकेयी)
  • ऋ ->आर् (कृतवीर्य -> कार्तवीर्य)
  • उ ऊ, ओ, -> औ (कुरु -> कौरव)

The rules for the last vowel are not 100% consistent, but these are the rules:

  • अ stays as it is (वसुदेव -> वासुदेव)
  • आ -> एय (कृतिका -> कार्तिकेय) (Sometimes, it stays as is. पृथा ->पार्थ. In Sanskrit, a word ending with आ would be feminine, so you’d use this to name them after their mother)
  • इ, ई -> य or एय (दिती -> दैत्य, कुन्ती -> कौन्तेय)
  • उ, ऊ , ओ, -> अव (कुरु -> कौरव)
  • The above get adjusted for gender. So a daughter of कुन्ती -> कौन्तेयी

These rules cover almost all the cases. There may be some adjustments for euphony or some cases that I have not thought about, but using the above rules, you should be able to address your son or daughter easily, so go ahead and do that right now.

My sons are राविकिरण if I use my full name, or राव्य if I use my short one. As they are sons of my wife सौम्या as well, they are सौमेय too. One thing I am not sure of is what I will call my grandchildren from my first son. His name is संवाद, and I am not sure what the rules for अं are. I guess I have time to figure it out.

(P.S. According to the above rules, an Indian is either भारत or भारती. The term commonly used for us: भारतीय makes sense if we consider ourselves poetically as the children of mother भारती, but I guess even then, according to the rules, it should be भारतेय and भारतेयी, so I am not quite sure how to reconcile them.)

Using DLS to fix NRR

The net run rate has a few disadvantages as a method of comparing performance of teams. There are three that I’ve heard or thought of. 

  1. Team 1 gets bowled out in 33 overs having scored 230 runs. Team 2, while chasing, loses 9 wickets and reaches the target in 25 overs. Intuitively, we would think that this match was close. But because Team 1 got bowled out, its run rate calculation has 50 in the denominator, while Team  will have 25, which means that NRR exaggerates the gap between them. (I think I read of this example in the feed of Twitter user ZaltzCricket)
  2. The bind that Pakistan found itself in recently provides another example. A team that bats first, scores 350 and dismisses its opponent for 150 rightly gets a boost to its NRR. A team that fields first, bowls out the batting team for 150 and then reaches the target in 15 overs has arguably done better than the first team, and this shows up in the run rate difference for that match. But when its net run rate is calculated over the whole tournament, the team that wins by batting second gets a disadvantage in the NRR because only 151 and 15 get added to the numerator and denominator respectively, with the result that the impact of this win is smaller than that of the team that scored 350 in 50. 
  3. A team that scores 300 in 50 overs for the loss of 3 wickets and a team that scores 290 in 50 for 9 wickets will have nearly the same NRR, even though we intuitively feel that the number of wickets lost should also matter. 

Can the Duckworth-Lewis-Stern method help fix the deficiency in the NRR? Prima Facie, it appears that the DLS method, used in its current form, should help with the problems in examples 1 and 2, but not in example 3.  The idea behind DLS is that it considers the overs remaining to play and the wickets in hand as “resources” that are, statistically speaking, proportional to the runs that you can expect to score. To understand this, let’s use this table found in the Wikipedia page for DLS. It says that if your team has lost 9 wickets, unless you have fewer than 7 overs remaining, you have 4.7% of your resources left. This makes intuitive sense, because if you’ve lost 9 wickets at 40 overs, the number of overs left is not much of a constraint on how many runs you are statistically likely to score. If you have scored 200 runs at this point, DLS predicts that you are likely to score 200*100/95.3 = 210 runs. 

DLS Table – Standard Edition. Image Credit: Wikipedia User Chintan9, license: cc-by-sa3.0

To take another example, if, when the rain interrupts play, the team batting first has played for 25 overs without loss of wickets, DLS predicts that you still have 66.5%, or 2/3 of your resources left.  If the score at this point is 125, DLS predicts that the team is likely to have scored 125*100/33.5 had it been allowed to complete its full fifty overs. If the chasing team is also given only 25 overs, it is assumed to have lost the first 25 overs of its innings, which amounts to 100-66.5, or 33.5% of its resources. So the chasing team’s score must be scaled accordingly, which means that we must compare 125*100/33.5 with S*100/66.5, where S is the chasing team’s score, to determine the winner. This is equivalent to saying that the target to chase is 125*66.5/33.5, which is how the target is given. 

Going back to our three examples, it should be clear now why DLS won’t help with the third one.  By definition, a team runs out of resources when it has used up 50 overs or has lost all its wickets. In example 3, both teams are at the same position as far as DLS is concerned. In examples 1 and 2, the DLS method holds more promise. Both of the situations involve a team batting second not having to bat for the full 50 overs because it reached its target score. In the first case, because the team has lost 9 wickets, DLS will predict that it will score only 231*100/95.3 =242 runs, and adjust its run rate accordingly. In the second case, assuming that the chasing team loses 5 wickets in the process of scoring 151 in 15 overs, DLS will predict that it has 48.1% of its resources left and add approximately 300 runs and 50 overs to its run rate calculation. Both these results seem fairer than using NRR as it is. Does that mean that a DLS-enriched NRR is the right option. I will give the case against followed by the case for, and let you decide.

 The case against: In Oscar Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest”, there is a brilliant line that goes “I do not know whether there is anything peculiarly exciting in the air of this particular part of Hertfordshire, but the number of engagements that go on seems to me considerably above the proper average that statistics have laid down for our guidance.”  The line is funny because statistics are supposed to measure reality, not guide it. It is one thing to use statistical averages as guidance in exceptional situations like rain interruptions. If we start using them for NRR calculations, we will be using them routinely. To use them to predict the score of the chasing team is particularly inappropriate. The canonical team that forms the basis for DLS is a team that is trying to score as many runs as possible within constraints of the number of overs and wickets remaining. But a team that is batting second is not aiming to score as many runs as possible. It is trying to reach its target. A team that needs to reach just 150 runs doesn’t need to bat as if it has 50 overs and 10 wickets. It can adopt a T20 strategy and score them as fast as possible. Going back to our examples, the team in the first example can protest that it is being unfairly penalized for losing wickets, when that was the right strategy in the situation. The team in the second example may benefit from DLS (because more runs and overs are added to the numerator and denominator – I think this depends on how many other matches it has played and how many other runs it has scored)  but it can also argue that it is being unfairly penalized for losing 5 wickets. More pertinently, the introduction of DLS for NRR will make chasing teams completely change their strategy, which is not what  we should be aiming for. 

The case for: Yes, the introduction of DLS for NRR will make teams change their strategy, but that is a good thing, because now this is more of a like for like comparison. To do a perfectly fair comparison between two teams, we must put them in the exact same position. However, in a normal ODI, the team batting first does not know how much it must score; and the situation it is faced with is to score as many runs as possible within the 50 overs it has. The team batting second knows its target,and its strategy must adjust accordingly. For both teams to be in the same starting position, after the first 50 overs are done, we must inject both teams with a drug that induces amnesia and makes them forget the first 50 overs till the next 50 are completed. Unfortunately, anti-doping regulations do not allow that. Therefore, using the DLS to adjust the NRR seems like a good way to level the playing field between the two teams. Hence proved. 

The case against, once again: Using DLS for NRR will slow down the batting of the second team. Any innovation that results in slower batting will never be acceptable to the ICC. Quot Erat Demonstrandum. 

What went wrong with Game of Thrones

Long back, during Doordarshan’s golden era, I watched an episode of a TV series, one those where every episode was a short story. This particular episode told the story  of a novelist who was getting his novel serialized in a magazine. A fan of the novelist comes to meet him and begins discussions about turning this novel into a TV series (or movie, I don’t remember which). As the discussion progresses, it turns out that she is particularly interested in the fate of one particular character and is distraught to learn from the novelist that she was going to die. She pleads with the novelist, asking for the character’s life to be saved, but the novelist refuses, saying “It is not I who is killing her. It’s the logic of the story that is!” The fan and the novelist have more meetings where she continues to implore him to change the course of his story, till finally the novelist relents. He tells her that he had found a way to save his character’s life, but the story would have to be crafted in a particular way and that the producers of the show would have to promise not to deviate from the script. She gladly accedes to the request. The twist at the end was that it turned out that the TV series was just a ruse. In reality, the fan was so interested in the character arc because the character’s story was magically getting turned into the story of her own life, and she naturally did not want to die. 

I remember being fascinated by the idea that the story of a novel is not something that the novelist creates or controls, but something that has a life of its own. I remembered this story in the context of Game of Thrones because it struck me that the essential problem with the series was that there was really no way to end it in a  satisfactory way. 

Game of Thrones is the Mahabharata of Kali Yuga. It is said that the Mahabharata, unlike the Ramayana, prefers realism to idealism. Characters have grey areas, make and morally ambiguous choices. In the Ramayana, Good triumphs over Evil and the story ends in Rama Rajya. The Mahabharata culminates in a great war and the end of the epic marks the beginning of the Age of Kali. This denouement is logical, because unlike in a simple story where good triumphs over evil, in the real world, it is difficult to tie up all the loose ends and come to a tidy conclusion.  There are actually no endings in the real world. A victory in one battle leads to a reaction from someone somewhere. Kill one person and someone from his clan is out there plotting revenge. Get all people in a room and agree on something, and at least one person goes out from the room intending to break the agreement as soon soon as he is in a position to do so. 

Game of Thrones exceeds the Mahabharata in its realism, as befits an epic set in Kali Yuga. It is morally ambiguous. Good people die because of their goodness. Ned Stark got killed because he did the honourable thing. Rob Stark got killed because he married for love. These morally ambiguous events added to the complexity of the story, which branched off in many different directions, making it tougher and tougher to bring them all together. But if Game of Thrones is the Mahabharata of our age, the end of the story must also end Kali Yuga. After the cycle of four yugas is complete, Krta (or Satya) Yuga, the first yuga where righteousness prevails must begin again. The complete inability of the showrunners (and I suspect, Martin as well) to direct the arc of the story towards this ending where Kali Yuga ends and Truth and Righteousness prevails at the end leads me to suspect that the end of Kali Yuga is still far away. 

While the series had many themes and failed to bring any of them to a satisfactory conclusion, the one theme that was of most interest to me was Danerys’ desire to “break the wheel”.  I am not sure how many people noticed the parallel between her desire and Joffrey’s outburst back in season 2 or 3, where, in a conversation with his mother, he expressed frustration that he had to work on the painstaking task of building alliances with all the lords of Westeros if he wanted to assemble an army. It was all so primitive, he exclaimed. Why couldn’t he have an army of his own, answerable only to him? 

The answer to Joffrey’s question is that the medieval economy did not allow such a setup. A medieval monarch faced two choices about where to maintain his army. Should he keep it close, in the capital, or should it be distributed throughout the kingdom? If he opted for the former, maintaining control over the periphery would be difficult. If he chose the latter, given the tyranny of distance in medieval times, maintaining effective central command over the army was difficult. He would have to distribute command by giving autonomy to local leaders. But the latter option meant that the soldiers would be loyal to the local leaders, not to him. 

Modern states maintain large standing armies. A medieval state that tried to maintain a large standing army would face famine because moving young men off farm to the army meant that the fields lay fallow – this would be especially true if it kept this standing army concentrated at some place for purposes of control. A modern state needs a much smaller proportion of its population in agriculture . It can also, because of modern weaponry, maintain a monopoly on use of force with a much smaller and more centralized army.  

For a medieval state, maintaining effective monopoly on use of force was pretty much impossible.  Other than the limit on size of the army, entry barriers to someone else raising an army were non-existent. Raising a modern army requires sophisticated machine guns, tanks and other artillery. In modern day India, if someone began to acquire such weaponry, the state would notice pretty quickly. In a medieval state, if someone decided to acquire spears, bows and arrows and cannon, there’s a good chance that they’d be able to do it without the state noticing.  

If medieval states did not have monopoly on the use of force, how did they maintain political stability? For most part, they did not. There was always palace intrigue, rebellion brewing in the peripheral regions or a foreign invasion going on. To the extent that stability existed, it was built and maintained by the king negotiating coalitions with the various lords and satraps throughout the kingdom. It was the need to do this that so frustrated Joffrey. The need to maintain these coalitions constrained the medieval monarch, preventing him from turning into an absolute ruler.

The more successful states embedded these constraints into customs and traditions that carried on over generations – Game of Thrones was at its best when it depicted this delicate balance in Westeros. The formalization of these customs and traditions, the codification of them in writing (for example, via the Magna Carta), was one of the ways in which democracy began.   

But while medieval kings were not absolute rulers, the economic and social conditions of those times did not actually permit an evolution to real democracy. In a parliamentary system, we know the challenges of having to build coalitions and and governing with the support of many small parties. Imagine having to do that, but with the difference that those parties are not accountable to the people and have armies of their own.  Your attempt to govern for the benefit of the people will be hampered by the fact that your coalition partners want absolute rule over their own jagirs and may want you to run the government for their benefit rather than their subjects’. Your attempt to bring about the rule of law will be stymied by the fact that the government is constrained, not by laws, but by balance of power, and as the balance changes, your coalition partners will want to renegotiate the rules. 

 So here is the paradox. The journey towards democracy may begin with the codification of customs and traditions that constrained kings, but to actually achieve a modern democracy, you need a centralized army with the ability to exercise monopoly over power. One way to achieve democracy is to evolve towards it, slowly changing the rules towards greater and greater participation of the people. The other way, which was Danerys’ preferred way, was to break the wheel – to bring about revolutionary change that blows away the existing power structures in the kingdom. It did help that she had access to the three dragons that, through their awesome firepower, would be able to subdue any opposition to their monopoly. But if you seize power by destroying the existing power structures, you have also destroyed the customary constraints on the autocrat’s power, and now what will stop the military monopoly from sliding into tyranny? 

It is clear that Game of Thrones wanted to conclude the series by coming out in favour of evolutionary over revolutionary social change, but because of the incompetence of the writers and because the showrunners were in a hurry to end the series, they went about it in the dumbest way possible. The worst scene of the worst episode of the worst season of the series is the one that takes place at the dragon pit after Jon Snow has killed Danerys Targaryen. There, the lords and ladies  have gathered to elect the new monarch, and Sam Tarly rather timidly suggests broadening the franchise to include commoners. His suggestion is scoffed at, with the gathered lords arguing that they might as well include dogs in the vote. Quite clearly, this was meant to signal that the socio-techno-economic conditions of the time did not permit a drastic transition to full liberal democracy. 

But the point about evolutionary change is that each step in the evolution needs to be sustainable, possibly over many generations till conditions are ripe for the next steps. The finale of Thrones was a masterclass in papering over the obvious cracks. The surviving dragon, has for some reason, flown away to an unknown location, conveniently doing away with the problem of civilian control of dragonry. But how is this new setup supposed to maintain political stability in its absence? The capital has been destroyed, most of the army has been killed, the military force that conquered the kingdom has been pensioned off, and the one person who is a competent military commander has been sent off to guard against a non-existent threat. Worst of all, the kingdom has installed as ruler a philosopher king who is more philosopher than king, and the philosophy in question being more of the mystic variety than of the kind that will provide guidance in this world. At least, if at the end it had been revealed that Bran the broken intended to use his warging abilities to exercise surveillance over the entire kingdom and use his information asymmetry as power, the series would have been slightly salvaged, but this ending is an unmitigated disaster. 

It’s quite clear that the producers of the series knew that the ending was stupid and that they were airbrushing visuals of loose ends from the picture – Yara Greyjoy, for example, makes some noises about she being still loyal to her old queen, and before she could set out to lead a rebellion to extract vengeance, she is asked to shut up, presumably because the producers were in a hurry to end the series.  This hurry has been visible right from season 6, when they started using their their various dei ex machina to eliminate the complexities in the story. Till that season, all the unexpected twists – the death of Ned Stark, the Red Wedding or the poisoning of Joffrey – had increased the complexity in the story. But when Cersei blew up the Great Sept using wildfire – yes, it led to Olenna Tyrell plotting revenge and joining Danerys, but you have to wonder about the High Sparrow and the Faith Militant. Was there no fallout from eliminating them? Did they not have a following in Kings Landing? Did killing them all not cause any kind of unrest?  In the same season, Dany uses her dragons to burn the slavers’ ships and destroys their fleet. No fallout from that? No one left to plot revenge?  

Evidently, the showrunners were incompetent at plotting the course of the series when unmoored from George R R Martin’s guidance. But Martin himself has been unable to finish writing his books, and while he is good at fleshing out the complexity of the real world, I don’t see any evidence that he has the ability to resolve the complexity and bring the series to a satisfactory conclusion. Which is just as well. A satisfactory conclusion to the series will bring about the end of the cycle of the four yugas, result in Pralaya, and the start of a new cycle. I don’t think we are ready for that yet.  

Should you vote for your PM or your MP?

Many people are arguing that because India is a parliamentary democracy, voters should be voting to elect members of the Lok Sabha, and that it is an error to vote on the basis of whom they want to see as Prime Minister. Such fidelity to the original tenets of parliamentary democracy is touching in a country that has amended its constitution over a hundred times in seventy years and is currently run according to the whims of its judges. This argument also reminds me of one of the two dumbest features of the United States Constitution. 

I am referring to the Electoral College. The US Constitution, as it was originally written (actually, even in its current form) does not provide for direct election of the president by its citizens.  The president was supposed to be elected by an electoral college. Each state would be able to send a certain number of members to the EC, the number being equal to the sum of the numbers of the representative and senators from that state. The method of choosing the electors was left to each individual state. The electors could be chosen by the state legislature, and I believe this was the method adopted by most states during the first few decades of the republic’s history. The electoral college was expected to gather, debate and then vote for their choice of candidate for the president. 

The existence of the electoral college is the reason why the vote of the citizen of a smaller state carries a larger weight than that of a larger state. Every state gets 2 senators regardless of its size and it gets to send at least one representative even if its population may be smaller than the average congressional district, which means that a state that has a population 1/20th of that of a state that sends 20 representatives gets to send 3 electors as against the 22 that the larger state can send. 

But this is not the reason why I believe that the electoral college a dumb idea. To understand why it was unworkable, take a look at how it evolved to its current form. It changed in 3 ways, 2 of which should have been entirely predictable to a political scientist

  1. States began to bind the electors – i.e. they started making laws saying that the electors should vote for particular candidates of their choice.
  2. They started to mandate that all  electors from their state vote for a particular candidate
  3. One by one, all states devolved the “choice” of  electors to the voters of the state. 

The first 2 of these should have been completely predictable. Firstly, why spend time and energy on electing a bunch of people whose only job is to confer among themselves and then elect another person, when you could spend that time and energy in deciding on the person you ultimately want to see elected? Perhaps the founders of the United States believed that discussion and debate among the electors would lead to decisions of better quality, but electing a president is not like writing a constitution, making laws or negotiating some kind of agreement. If you have to do any of those things, by all means delegate the task to your representatives, because there is much scope for discussion debate, give and take, and compromises – all good reasons why it was a bad idea to hold a referendum on Brexit. There is very little scope for compromise on the question of who should be the President – you can’t mix the head of one person and the heart of another and construct a compromise president. Perhaps you can bargain over who should be the vice president, over cabinet positions and over what policies the president should follow, but given that cabinet members can be dismissed at will and policies can be changed at will,  and given that the Electoral College disbands itself after the election, there would be very little scope for the Electoral College to hold the president to any compromises he agrees to. It should have been completely predictable that the election of electors would become an election of the elected. 

The second outcome was also predictable, given the first. In theory, states could have adopted systems where the ticket was split – perhaps in proportion to the votes in the state legislature. In fact, in the early decades of the republic, many states did so. But a state that chooses to split its ticket is much less valuable to a presidential candidate than a state that gives all its votes to one candidate. Once a few states started adopting the general ticket model, everyone else was compelled to follow suit. 

The devolution of the vote to the ordinary citizens wasn’t a predictable consequence of the design of the Electoral College, but seems to have followed from the cultural DNA of the United States. At least in the 19th and till the early 20th century,  that nation seems to have had a strong bias for direct elections.

 I recount the story of the Electoral College of the United States for a couple of reasons. The first is that questions about what constitutes the essence, the basic structure of a republic, is difficult to pin down. You still hear many Americans defend the Electoral College, but when they do, they do not refer to its actual design. Instead, they argue, in rather vague terms, that the College is the reason why the United States is a republic rather than a democracy. It is not quite clear what they mean by that. These days, the design of the EC affects democracy in the US in two ways – first by overweighting the smaller states and second by giving all votes from one state to one candidate or the other depending on who got the majority in that state. There may be some justification for the first. I am not sure why the second is a good thing, but can think of many reasons why it is bad. It must surely contribute to the polarization of politics on geographic lines.  It is rare for anyone to argue that the electors should vote like actual thinking people rather than dummies. Recently, the Americans elected a mentally unstable person as their president, and there were some murmurs that this was exactly the kind of situation for which the Electoral College was designed – that the electors should vote as responsible people and not as bound agents, and override the choice the Americans seem to have made. It should be immediately obvious why that would have been a terrible idea. No matter what the constitution says, the legitimacy of democracy depends on everyone following the rules that everyone agrees are the rules. The voters did not vote for the electors. They voted for the man or woman they wanted as president. A set of essentially random people overriding this choice would destroy the legitimacy of the republic, no matter what the original design of the Electoral College was. 

The second reason is that the experience of the Electoral College has some relevance to our parliamentary system.  Our chief executive is elected by the Lok Sabha. You could say that it essentially functions as a permanent electoral college.  Now, many of you will protest my characterization of the Lok Sabha as a permanent electoral college, and will argue that our Sansad is a legislature, though I am sure you will agree that the lower house also functions as an electoral college. A textbook answer to the question: “What are the functions of our Sansad?” would be: 

  1. Makes laws
  2. Exercises oversight over the executive
  3. Members of Parliament act as a bridge between their constituents and the government
  4. Elects the Prime Minster (Lok Sabha only)

But how is it in practice? Our parliament doesn’t actually make laws in the sense that the Congress of the United States does. That body actually has primary responsibility for making laws. Senators or representatives draft legislation, the Senate and the House form committees to consider them, amendments are proposed, there are negotiations among the legislators, and this back and forth determines the final shape of the law. The executive has a significant say in this process – but it has to exercise its say mostly informally – through its influence over the legislators and by the power of the President to appeal to his popularity. The formal power the President has is the threat of the veto, but the veto power is, by definition, not an agenda setting power.  I think that it is fair to say that no other legislative body in the world, and in particular no legislative body among parliamentary democracies, exercises that kind of power. In most other countries, the government sets the agenda and writes the acts of legislation, the legislature debates them, amends them as needed and passes them into law, or not. In India, a bill not drafted by the government being turned into law is so unlikely that I believe it has happened only once in its history. The parliament has next to no input to drafting or amending legislation, and while members of parliament have a vote, that vote is entirely on party lines. Members of the ruling party support all bills introduced by the government, and members of the opposition oppose it if their party decides to oppose or support if it does. 

The oversight function fares better, if only slightly. Members of parliament do have some freedom to question ministers of their party, especially when it happens behind closed doors in parliamentary committees. 

The only thing that really differentiates our members of the Lok Sabha from electors of an electoral college is the third function – which is to stay in contact with the people, listen to their grievances and communicate these to the government. In fact, India has introduced a weird innovation in the form of the MP Local Area Development Scheme that allocates funds to members of parliament to carry out what are essentially municipal schemes. Many people who believe that we should vote for MPs rather than the PM also believe that the function of a member of parliament is to carry out local development work in the constituency.  Going by the original constitutional design, the latter is just as out of scope of an MP’s remit as is the former.  The only reason MPs are tasked with these things is that our municipal governance is non-existent. 

It is quite clear that the most important task of the legislatures in India is to elect the chief executive, overshadowing their ostensible purpose, which is to legislate. For a voter whose concern is to see certain laws passed and policies executed, the rational thing to do is not to pretend that you are electing legislators, but to model the problem as electing a prime minister, and the members of parliament as members of an electoral college. The alternative model is that of the MP as a feudal patron with the power to dispense government largess and who acts as a conduit for your grievances. The model of an MP as a legislator doesn’t really make sense. For one thing, MPs do not legislate in practice. Secondly, even if by chance one constituency decides to elect an MP who believes that his main task is to legislate, it is pointless unless he is able to coordinate this with a couple of hundred other MPs. 

If you think through this, it should not be surprising – indeed, it should have been completely predictable, as predictable as the evolution of the electoral college was. Some people will argue that the law-making powers of our legislatures began to atrophy due to the anti-defection amendment. I agree that the amendment is a bad idea and did contribute to the worsening of the independence of our legislatures, but the root cause lies with our system of government. If you were designing a system, and you went: “We will have elected legislatures. Their main function is to make laws for the executive to implement. And oh, they will also elect a committee that will actually run the government.” a perceptive political scientist should have been able to point out that this system would inevitably lead to the latter function overshadowing the former, especially in an era where the development of mass communication makes presidential politics possible. The parliamentary system did not come about because someone thoughtfully designed it. In countries where the parliamentary system originally evolved, the monarch held executive power, the legislature slowly wrested law-making powers from him, and eventually evolved to take on executive power as well. There was a path dependency to this. Because the traditions of the legislature had time to evolve before there was a prime minister to exercise executive functions, the legislature in places like Britain does have some independence. India’s Sansad never got time to evolve that kind of independence. It came bundled with a popular prime minister. It is therefore inevitable that it grew to be a kind of glorified electoral college.  If you need that to change, give the voters separate votes – one for a chief executive and one for their representative. If you insist on giving only one vote, don’t be surprised if they decide to use it to choose their chief executive. 

Cash for Votes

It is true that corruption, as Indira Gandhi once famously said, is a global phenomenon. That said, the nature and quantum of corruption varies across space and time. We believe that the first world has less corruption than India, but a citizen of a western country will ruefully point out the prevalence of lobbying and bribery through campaign contributions in his country. We would both be right in our views. Outright bribery in cash seems a lot uglier than corruption through lobbying. In practical terms, it is also less transparent because it is unaccounted for.

Of course, the first world wasn’t always wealthy and wasn’t always so sophisticated in its modes of corruption. The United States, during its gilded age, was famous for corruption among its legislatures. Businesses bought favourable laws by bribing lawmakers outright. William A Clark, the Copper Baron, bought his way into the US Senate by bribing members of the Montana state legislature. This was back when senators were elected by state legislatures. This scandal led to the passage of the 17th amendment, providing for direct elections to the Senate.
There is one curious incident of the dog in the night time that failed to bark. Why do we not have examples of an Aya Ram Gaya Ram culture having developed in the United Kingdom? The party system seems to have developed early and grown strong roots there. There has never been the equivalent of an Anti-Defection law in Britain. Why was there no phase when MPs routinely switched parties, leading to unstable governments? Legislators in the US decide legislation while in the UK, they choose governments. There should be much greater scope for inducements in the latter system. Why did it not happen?

One explanation is that at the time the party system formed in the UK, members of parliament were independently wealthy, making them less susceptible to inducements. I think that this explanation is partly true. But I think a stronger explanation exists. Back when the British party system formed, the two parties were the Whigs and the Tories. (The Labour party did not yet exist, which is not surprising given that franchise was limited to holders of property and land.) The two parties represented two classes of British society. The Whigs were the party of the aristocratic land owners while the Tories were that of the industrial and business classes. Given the rigidity of British society of the time, your class was your identity. Imagine an MP of the time trying to change his party affiliation. Given how closely the affiliation was tied to class and identity, such a thing would have been impossible to imagine, let alone put into effect. I think that this close linkage between party affiliation and identity explains why the party system got so strong in the UK.

How does this relate to India? Indian politics is identity politics. People vote according to their caste or religious affiliations. The are parties that are closely linked to particular castes or religions. You’d expect the same party dynamic to develop in India too? But it hasn’t, and the reason is perhaps that politics developed to be a lot more transactional in India. For example, BSP is closely associated with the Dalits, but if a Dalit leader switches over from the BSP to the SP, or a Brahmin leader joins the BSP, it isn’t considered a big deal. The supporters of the leaders in question may migrate with them or they may not, and if they do not, switching parties was a bad career move for the politician in question, but it is not an unthinkable or a career-ending move.

The exception to this would be things like someone switching from the MIM to the BJP, from the communist parties to the BJP, or vice versa. Politicians freely switch from the BJP to the Congress or vice versa, but the BJP has a core drawn from the RSS that doesn’t easily switch.

Also, the BJP is more likely to have a base of supporters who are fiercely loyal to the party and its ideology, are unlikely to follow a leader to another party and are willing to punish someone who switches out of the party.

Overall, it appears to me that the incentives that face the BJP are different from those that confront other parties on the question of party discipline. The BJP is likely to benefit more and more quickly from a culture of strong party loyalty developing than will other parties, which should mean that they face a different trade-off when they have a choice between buying legislators and staying out of power.

The voice in your head

The Guardian reports that MIT Media Labs have developed a device that can read people’s minds and translate their thoughts into words. While this is a remarkable development, the piece makes it clear that the device cannot read your raw thoughts. You have to actually verbalize your thoughts, i.e. think out the exact words in your mind for the device to pick them up and translate them into sounds.

When you think of it, the process of forming a thought and converting them into words is fascinatingly complex. I am not a neuroscientist, but introspection tells me that the process has at least four stages. First, there is the raw thought that forms in your mind. This thought just exists, albeit at a high level of abstraction. For example, at this point in time, even though I am struggling through the process of structuring and picking the right words for this piece, the thought I want to convey exists fully formed in my mind. The device should pick up these raw thoughts when I think them, and in theory, a sufficiently advanced AI would be able to write this piece for me. But in the absence of such an AI, the thoughts would be just a jumble of electrical signals as far as this device is concerned.

Second, this thought needs to be structured into a sequence of ideas best suited for communication. Third, the ideas need to be converted into sentences and words that best describe the thought, and finally in verbal communication, at the point of speaking these words, the brain will send electrical impulses to the mouth that will set off the mechanical process of converting them into sounds. When we speak, at least the last three, perhaps all four, steps occur within a split second. Those who are good speakers make this seem so easy, and we make fun of the inarticulate. But it is only when we think of what is involved in human speech that we realise what an extraordinary thing speech is.

The device that the MIT labs have developed is unlikely to intercept your thoughts at the first or second stages, so it’s unlikely that it will be useful as an interrogation tool. I wonder whether it picks them up at the third stage or the fourth.

I once got introduced to someone and at the beginning of the conversation I gave him my name. At the end of the conversation, as we were saying our good byes, to his great embarrassment, he found that he had forgotten my name. He fumbled and he addressed me as “Bhaskar”. I found this mistake fascinating because both my name (“Ravi”) and “Bhaskar” mean “sun” in Sanskrit. Quite clearly, my interlocutor had saved my name with a reference to its meaning in his head, though when it came to translating the meaning back to the actual word this system had failed.

Now, I don’t think that everyone who knows my name thinks of it with reference to the sun every time they have occasion to think of my name. Once the name is familiar, it is just a name. But I think that the way the guy did the translation of meaning to word happens everytime we choose the appropriate word in either speech or writing. Does the technology MIT labs have developed detect the human brain during this process? My initial guess was that that is how the technology worked. If true, then an obvious extension of the technology would be translation. You can think in one language but the device senses the meaning of what you wanted to convey and translates to another language. Another application would be to have a speaking device for the deaf.

But when I thought to the implications of this, I realised that it was very unlikely that that is how the machine works. It is more likely that the device intercepts the brain in the process of sending neural instructions to the mouth to create a particular sound, i.e. at the fourth step of the verbalizing process. If that is the case, the device can potentially transcribe your thoughts to any language, but it cannot translate. It cannot help the deaf, because the sign language is completely different from the verbal language. The mistakes the device would make would be more on the lines of confusing tree with three, the same kind voice recognition systems make.

It is said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Well that is true, the opposite is also true. Advanced technology that seems magical will cease to be so when one understands it. So it will be with this technology.

One last thought. I wonder how this device will handle a person’s second language. I hate to describe Kannada as a second language for me given that it is my mother tongue. I read it very well, I can write it with some effort and I speak it fluently. But it is not the language I think my complex thoughts in. When I attempted to think in Kannada while writing this post, I had to imagine myself speaking to someone. I don’t need to do that when thinking in English. I fear that if I attempt to think in Kannada for the device, it will actually detect the original English I am translating from!

The Pirate Game

The Pirate Game is an extension of the Ultimatum Game. While the Ultimatum Game involves 2 players and a few gold coins, the Pirate Game involves 5 pirates and 100 gold coins making offers to one another. Describing the problem and explaining the solution will take up too many words, but unless you understand the problem and the solution, the rest of this post will not make sense, so I must ask you to read the Wikipedia article before proceeding to the next paragraph. The Wikipedia article has the solution as well, but try to figure it out yourself first. It’s more fun that way. Most importantly, understand the assumptions (The wiki entry calls them “factors”) involved, because that’s the focus of this post.
We are now in the second paragraph of this post and I will assume that you have heeded the warning in the previous para. So, without further ado, here is the assumption I want to relax: “the pirates do not trust each other, and will neither make nor honor any promises between pirates.”
To understand why this assumption is important, let’s revisit the solution at the  point where we are down to three pirates, C, D and E. The canonical solution says that C cannot offer any deal to D that leaves C alive, because D knows that he can get 100 coins plus a dead C, which is a better deal for him than 100 coins and a live C. And C knows that if he dies, E is going to get nothing under D’s regime, so C can get away with offering one coin to E.
But… this solution seems unsatisfactory. D and E are left with nil and one coin respectively. If D could credibly promise to offer more than 0 to E, they could conspire to refuse C’s offer and divide the 100 coins between themselves. The exact proportion could be anything as long as E got more than one. Of course, as soon as C gets wind of the deal, he will try to save his neck by offering a better deal to either D or E. He may also try to offer a deal to both D and E to ensure that neither initiates a conspiracy with the other.
In the strict version of the game, these deals are precluded by the rule that the pirates do not trust the other pirates to keep any promises they make. The relaxation of this rule turns the problem into one with an indeterminate solution. If the lack-of-trust assumption is in place, the three player pirate game results in a definite solution, with C getting 99 coins, D getting none and E getting one. Relax the assumption, and while we cannot definitively solve the problem, we can safely say that D and E will get a better deal than they would get under the strict version. Now, note that if you’re down to two players, there is no difference between the strict version and the one with the assumption relaxed, as there is no longer anyone to make deals with. E will be badly off in the two player version, i.e. he is in a better position when he has an intermediary to play off against the one who has custody of the gold coins than he is in when he has to negotiate directly.
In other words, the three player game is a pretty good model of reality, where E is the proletariat, C is the bourgeoisie government and D is the communist movement wanting to overthrow C. It explains why the threat of a revolution worked to the benefit of the proles in some cases, while in others the threat was managed by buying off the revolutionaries. It also explains why an actual revolution invariably ends up as a bad deal for the masses.
But if we know that achieving a revolution to overthrow C is bad for E, it’s a safe bet that C also knows this, so why would the prospect of D and E colluding ever be a credible threat to C? To show credibility, E may need to demonstrate a willingness to irrationally go against his interest. If C is afraid that E and D will kill him even if it’s against E’s interests, it’s cold comfort for him to know that E will be worse off as  a result. One way for C to have this fear is if another E in another game has overthrown his C. The C in our game will be afraid that something similar may happen in his own game. We may note that something very similar happened in Western democracies vis-a-vis communism. Another way is to set up the game so that the overthrow of C doesn’t turn it into a two-player game. For example, if D turns into C and vice versa, the next iteration is also a three player game. This is of course what happens in a multi-party democracy.
I am sure we can find many other real life situations where the three-player Pirate Game is a good model. What about the four-player game? I haven’t thought through it in detail, but here is one situation where it may be a useful model:
  • E: people
  • C: state government
  • D: opposition party in state government
  • B: central government
I’ll let others do the analysis required, but I have ab strong hunch that as you add more pirates to the game, the possibility that E gets a good deal reduces significantly

Thoughts on the GST

Much reporting on the GST is about how tax rates have changed after the rollout. You may have read that a good or service was taxed at, say15% earlier, but will be at 18% now. I suspect that these reports are comparing on the basis of sales tax and VAT in the case of goods and service tax in the case of services. Such reporting displays a lack of understanding of the fact that GST replaces many other taxes, as also of the value added nature of the tax.

Suppose that you run a shop. You have been buying a widget that incurred excise at 10%. The cost to the manufacturer, ex tax, was Rs50. With tax, you bought it for 55 rupees. Your value addition and profit came to Rs45; with a 15% sales tax on Rs 100, the widget retailed for Rs115. The tax incidence on the widget was 20/95, or 21%.

Now, the GST at 18% has been introduced, replacing all other taxes. In a perfect world that adjusts to the GST immediately, you would receive an invoice for the widget from your supplier showing a price of Rs50 and the GST of Rs9 as separate line items. This GST would not figure in your pricing decisions because you would claim it as input tax credit. Your value addition and profit would still be 45 rupees, so your widget would be priced at Rs95 pre-tax. With a GST of 18%, your widget would be priced at Rs112.1. In other words, in our perfect world, it is perfectly possible that replacing sales tax of 15% with a GST of 18% results in a reduction in price.

The real world differs from the perfect world in several crucial ways.

First, the widget in question is imaginary and I have made up the tax rates. I have only a dim understanding of what taxes used to apply at what stage, and I have no idea what the tax rates were on different products. The government has claimed that the tax rates were aimed at achieving revenue neutrality. If they are right and if they have done a perfect job of being revenue neutral on every product and service, retail prices should not change at all. Of course, it is unrealistic to expect that kind of perfection. It will take significant analysis to figure out how good or bad a job they have done on this count, and whether they have erred on the side of higher or lower revenues. But the point to note is that revenue neutrality can only be achieved if the GST is higher than or equal to the current sales or service tax.

Second, the example assumes that the shop will instantly respond to a fall in input prices with a reduction in price. In reality, it’s just as likely to keep its listed price the same and slap the 18% on top of it, and try to pocket the profits as long as market forces let it.

Third, even if the shop does want to adjust prices in response to the GST, it is unlikely to have full visibility into prices along the entire supply chain. The example of the widget was a deliberately simplified one. The more realistic scenario is a complex supply chain with multiple stages involved in the conversion of raw materials to finished goods. Each participant in the supply chain faced a certain set of taxes earlier and is faced with GST and input tax credits now. Getting all the costs worked out and the prices renegotiated is going to take time.

Fourth, one of the avowed aims of the GST rollout is increased tax compliance. While that is a good thing, if it succeeds in achieving this goal, it means that taxes that weren’t being paid earlier are now being paid. If that happens, it means an increase in prices.

In other words, any claim you read about how the GST is going to increase or reduce prices should be taken with a pinch of salt. Unless there is evidence that those who are making the claim have done rigorous studies taking into consideration the above factors, they are probably just pulling numbers out of their ass.

A partial exception to this principle of scepticism can probably be made for services. Unlike goods, there is no supply chain to deal with, so it’s more likely that replacing a 15% service tax with GST at 18% results in a straightforward increase in price. Of course, a hairdresser’s shop does deal with raw material like shampoos and hair dyes, while for a financial services firm, the tax credit on office stationery and on ISP payments will probably not compensate for the higher GST rate.

The point of all this is that calculating the impact of the GST on prices even in the short to medium run is difficult. In the long run, the GST is supposed to bring about a whole bunch of structural changes in the economy, like speedier transport of goods, economies of scale in warehousing, more rational decision-making on the question of where to locate factories, etc. All of these should contribute to economic growth and should also have a positive impact on inflation. Calculating that impact is a different story.

In Defence of the GDP

The GDP as a measure has well-known limitations – in fact, I learnt about these limitations in the same chapter of the introductory Economics textbook that taught me how the GDP is calculated. The most glaring among these limitations is that voluntary and unpaid labour is not taken into account in its calculations. This tends to devalue women’s work. A woman cooking for her family in her own kitchen does not add to the GDP, but if the family hires a cook, the payment to the cook does. Likewise, as Alan Greenspan pointed out, a natural breeze does not show up in the GDP, but air conditioning does. Other things being equal, a society naturally endowed with pleasant weather is better off than one that has to keep the A.C. on all the time, no matter what the GDP says.

There are other criticisms that I am sympathetic to from the moral point of view. Purchase of cigarettes adds to the GDP, but a cigarette reduces the well-being of a smoker. The GDP has no way of knowing that. As far as it is concerned, a rupee spent on a cigarette or a prostitute’s services is as good as a rupee spent on buying healthy snacks for the children. This shortcoming has led some to argue that we must junk the GDP as a measure. Apparently, one of them is Lorenzo Fioramonti, who has written The World After GDP. I haven’t read the book, but I learnt of it by reading this broadly unsympathetic review in the FT (The FT article is subscription-only, so you should probably not bother clicking that link, and you should continue to read this blog post)

Now, as a non-smoker who abhors cigarette smoke, I am willing to lend a sympathetic ear to any method of GDP calculation that would lead to us not counting cigarette purchases while measuring the GDP. But is it really fair to say that the GDP is a top-down measure which takes society in the direction that it would not prefer to if it didn’t have GDP growth as a target? The argument that it is is not convincing.

First off, the GDP isn’t top down. It is a bottom up measure. In a market economy, a nation’s GDP is what it is because of the individual purchasing decisions of individual citizens. In fact, it is precisely because it is a bottom up measure that it ends up measuring things that some of us find abhorrent.

My friend is a smoker who smokes two cigarettes a day. Were you to ask him if his smoking makes him happy, his answer would be an empathetic no.  He claims to have cut down his smoking from his earlier quota of three a day and periodically claims that he is planning to quit altogether, but rather dubiously explains that quitting all at once is not recommended. He used to carry two cigarettes with him to work every day, but he’s stopped that. Now he walks down to the cigarette shack to buy his fix. The shack is 500 metres away from the office block, and his hope is that the prospect of doing the 1km trek twice a day will, at some point,  discourage him from going. It hasn’t so far. He takes his two breaks right after lunch and at around 4pm each day.

Peak temperatures these days in Hyderabad hit 42 degrees Celsius; I get dehydrated just looking out of the window. My friend pays for the cigarettes, not only in money, but also in sweat, quite literally. He is also quite willing to spend an hour of his time each day. Only the money he spends shows up in the GDP. Going by what he spends on it, the value added by those cigarettes to the national economy is actually much more.

Wait a minute! Didn’t we start from the premise that my friend’s smoking should be excluded from the GDP,  because when you ask him, he says that he does not like smoking and wants to quit? The problem is, if I tell the GDP: “Exclude my friend’s smoking when you get calculated. He says he doesn’t actually like smoking”, GDP will answer: “Look, first of all, it is very common for people to say one thing and do the other. That is why economists have a term called ‘Revealed Preference’. Words are cheap. People can say what they want, but the best way to find out if they get value from something is to check if they are willing to give away something they worked hard for, for it.

“Second of all, it’s not just a question of your friend. There are millions of smokers in this world, and it would be impractical to hand out a questionnaire with every cigarette that asks the smoker ‘Are you smoking this cigarette because you get utility out of it or are you just hopelessly addicted and trying to quit?’ And if you want me exclude smoking from my calculation because of a few people’s opinion that smoking does not add value to the smoker, well, that is not what I’d call a bottom-up way to measure me.”

OK, so the argument that the GDP is a top-down measure is unconvincing. What about the argument that the GDP as a top-down target leads us in the wrong direction? Well, that is even less convincing. When you get to work each morning, do you do it because you want to do your patriotic duty to your country by increasing its GDP or do you do it to earn money to buy the things you and your family want?  Or perhaps you are highly competitive and you enjoy the sense of achievement, you like winning the rat race, or you just enjoy having a lot of money. People have different motivations for doing things that contribute to the GDP, but “I want to increase the nation’s GDP” is rarely one of them.

The same goes for companies and businesses. They often do boast of how much they contribute to the nation’s economy, but surely primary motivation of those who run businesses is the growth of their business’s bottomline. This motivation would be unaffected if the government’s statisticians stopped reporting the GDP.

Does the GDP as a target take government policies in the wrong direction? Politicians want to get reelected, and the policies they pursue are the ones that will help them with that goal. While they may think of the GDP or the economy as a useful shorthand for the things that voters want, they must surely be aware that what the voters want is not the GDP in the abstract, but tangible things like jobs, roads, education for their children. These things tend to be correlated with the GDP, but voters will not stop wanting the tangible things they want just because the government stops reporting the GDP. In fact we know that governments do implement policies like protectionism even when they reduce the GDP. They do it because they care more for tangible things like saving jobs than the GDP in the abstract.

Given all this, I am just not convinced that giving up on, or even modifying the calculation of the GDP is worth the bother. If you are concerned about the untrammeled pursuit of material wealth, the problem is human nature. We aren’t doing it because the GDP tells us to, and we won’t stop if the GDP tells us to stop.

Arya Stark and Advaita

Arya Stark has had one of the strangest story arcs in Game of Thrones. She spends most of Season 6 getting beaten up, ostensibly in an attempt to become “No One”, but at the last moment, she declares that she is in fact Arya Stark of Winterfell. This has left many fans nonplussed. What was the point of the whole storyline? Why did she go through all that only to run away from her goal?

To those confused souls, this post shall offer enlightenment by explaining Arya’s actions through the prism of two great Indic philosophies, Advaita and Dvaita. It should be clear that the many-faced God is the Paramatma, or the Supreme Soul, who, in Advaitic terms, is the ultimate reality. A follower of the many-faced God aspires to be a faceless “No One”, who considers himself an instrument of the Supreme Soul.

You can see why this would be an attractive philosophy for someone like Arya. She has suffered a lot as Arya, and letting go of her identity probably seemed to be a liberating prospect. But of course, it is not just a question of peace of mind. She was also training as an assassin. Letting go of your self-doubt and considering yourself as an instrument of a being who is directing you for a higher purpose has a positive impact on your personal effectivenes – certainly if your calling is to be an assassin, but almost as certainly in any other profession.

In the event, it turns out that Arya doesn’t succeed in achieving No Oneness. It is possible that it wasn’t her intention in the first place. She hid away Needle when she was expected to give away her personal possessions. This could be an indication of insincerity, or it could be a confession of weakness. We will never know.

Instead, she affirms that she is Arya Stark rather than No One. Was all her training wasted then? Of course not. She has gone on the path of Dvaita, which posits that the human soul exists independent of the Supreme Soul. The girl has not achieved namelessness. The instead, achieved the ability to play the part of Arya Stark. She can still be a highly effective assassin because Arya Stark, the human soul, has achieved the same detachment from the bonds of Maya that one expects from the Supreme Soul.