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Economics VATSANALYSIS

Do we perform better when we are rewarded?

You are given a wax-candle, a box of matches and a box of pins. These are placed on a table next to a wall. Without using anything else, you have to fix the candle on the wall and light it in a way that no wax drips down the table. How would you solve this problem?

The above is called the Candle Problem. Two groups were asked to solve it. One of the groups was promised some money if they finished the task in a given time. The other group could take as long as they wanted; they weren’t getting any money whether they solved it or not.

Which group do you think finished the task faster?

The group that was not given any monetary incentive took lesser time to solve! I know, I know.

You can watch the above video to understand what explains this non-intuitive result but the short answer is – when a task requires creative thinking, we perform worse when working for a reward (think performance bonus). A reward leads to a bias called “functional fixedness” that makes us slower at coming up with creative solutions.

The speaker in the above video goes on to add that when the task is a straightforward one (simple set of rules + clear destination), then monetary incentive does lead to better performance.

Let me now flip the original question – do we become more productive when our earnings are taxed less?

For example, would the top 1% rich in the world be any less productive / innovative if we increased their taxes?

There is this ‘intuitive’ prevalent belief that low tax rates are necessary at the top, because the likes of Ambani need to be given the incentive to work hard, be creative, and launch the next Jio to change the game for everyone.

But the sad truth is that there is no evidence this actually happens, as Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo investigate and observe in their book – Good Economics for Hard Times.

There is absolutely no relationship between the depth of the cut between the 1960s and 2000s in a country and the change in growth rate in that country during the same period.

Abhijit V. Banerjee & Esther Duflo – Good Economics for Hard Times

One of the possible reasons why the rich continue making more money even when you tax them is that a rich person who makes 100X more than a poor person is not really working 100X times harder or innovating 100X times more.

Click on the image to read the full article (could be behind paywall)

Since the major chunk of all the money that the rich person makes, is simply not coming from his / her efficiency (or productivity), even if they feel like not working as hard because of higher tax (hypothetical scenario), it does not cause any significant dent in their overall earnings.

The speaker in the below TED talk also suggests the same (just watch the first three minutes if you are pressed for time).

By the way, if a person A who makes 100X more than a person B, is not not really creating 100X value compared to B (or anywhere even close to that), what explains the income difference? Rent seeking is one of the answers.

‘To put it baldly,’ says the economist Joseph Stiglitz, ‘there are two ways to become wealthy: to create wealth or to take wealth away from others. The former adds to society. The latter typically subtracts from it, for in the process of taking it away, wealth gets destroyed.’ Rent seeking is nothing more than a polite and rather neutral-sounding way of referring to what I call ‘accumulation by dispossession’.

[…]

As Stiglitz remarks, ‘Some of the most important innovations in business in the last three decades have centered not on making the economy more efficient but on how better to ensure monopoly power or how better to circumvent government regulations intended to align social returns and private rewards.

Harvey, David – Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism

If you are someone who knows more about Economics than me and find some of my arguments faulty, do let me know. Over the past few months I have been trying to understand how much of the outrage against the rich getting richer, is justified. Growing inequality is bad, but do we blame Ambani for that or the government? There is a lot that I am still reading and my perspective at this point in time is definitive by no means. Also, I don’t want to imply that all that Ambani does is make money by rent-seeking. I am sure he is also generating real value. But how much? Does the increase in the amount of wealth of the top 1% (or the top 0.1% or the top ten) truly reflect the increase in value that they generate? So far, all that I have read tells me – clearly not.

Let me end this post with a profound statement Nick Hanauer makes in the above embedded TED video – “people are not paid what they are worth; they are paid what they have the power to negotiate”.

Categories
Economics VATSANALYSIS

Does democracy make it difficult to introduce useful reforms?

NITI Ayog’s CEO Amitabh Kant was all over the news recently for the one line that he said in a video interview (that you can still see on Youtube) – “we are too much of a democracy”.

The context: relationship between dealing with democratic decision-making and ability to usher in “hard reforms”. Kant seemed to suggest an inverse correlation – the more democracy there is, the harder it is to introduce reforms. But is it really true?

Last week, I was having a conversation with a startup founder who said something similar. I don’t remember the exact words, but let me share an extract from a World Bank paper that sums up this intuitive logic that many seem to hold.

Reforms are often unpopular because they tend to reduce living standards in the short run. Even reforms that increase overall prosperity (measured in GDP growth) may be unpopular if compensation schemes for the losers are not credible; and if benefits are far in the future and costs more immediate.

These problems are compounded by the fact that democracies offer more channels of protest and influence on policy-making to subordinate groups than authoritarian regimes. Democratic rule may fragment decision-making authority among branches of government, allowing opponents of reform to interfere more easily with program design.

In contrast, authoritarian governments have less need to respond to either popular opinion or vested interests and hence can more readily base their decision on criteria of economic rationality. They are better able to make long-run plans than are democratic governments tied to electoral cycles; and have greater centralization of power that facilitates the implementation of reforms.

World Bank Policy Research Working Paper, 2016

Now comes the twist – this same World Bank paper goes ahead and analyzes 140+ countries to see if data supports this hypothesis and the answer is – NO! There is in fact robust evidence for a positive link between democracy and growth-enhancing reforms. A move from below-average to above-average level of democracy for example, increases the probability of reform by 20% +

Source: World Bank

Another paper from 2010 had a similar conclusion. The authors plotted a) the global democratic index from 1960 to 2004 and b) reform index for the same period (feel free to read up on how these indices were calculated in the linked paper). Almost always, the two graphs matched – implying that the more democratic the world gets, more reforms happen.

Now this is just a correlation, so causation may be debated but what the above charts show, is still significant – a belief that ‘hard reforms’ happen better in non-democratic setups is not backed by any statistical evidence.

So now we know the link between democracy and reforms. What about growth? Do democratic countries grow faster? Data says – yes. Below is a graph from a study by MIT, published last year.

So even when data doesn’t justify less democracy for the sake of better reforms / growth, why do some folks believe so? Amitabh Kant may have an agenda but what about the startup founder who is extremely rational and wouldn’t last in the industry if he didn’t rely on hard data to make business decisions (his company has been doing good)?

In the same conversation that I mentioned earlier, he narrated to me the story of chewing-gum ban in Singapore that was brought in at a time when miscreants were using the gum to block metro doors. He remarked how radical changes like the chewing-gum ban are so difficult to introduce in a democracy like India. But what he was telling me was a story – one that fed his intuitive idea of how the world probably works (by focusing on exceptions than what usually happens).

There is a deep gap between our thinking about statistics and our thinking about individual cases.

[…]

…even compelling causal statistics will not change long-held beliefs rooted in personal experience.

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast & Slow

The “China growth story” is another example that makes it easy for many to resist looking at the aggregate global evidence. It is easier to give in to the urge to conclude that democracy in general comes in the way of reforms / growth without asking – is China an exception or a rule? Has China grown in spite of democracy or because of its absence? Most of us never ask these questions; we simply form our opinions and beliefs based on stories that sound reasonable and once the opinion is formed, data becomes irrelevant – stories are all that remain.

Categories
politics VATSANALYSIS

Demonetization was a failure but the PM is OK lying about it even after 4 years!

This is a lie because there is no data which says what was the black money in 2016 and what it is now – so nobody can say black money has reduced.

In a written reply tabled in the Parliament in Dec 2016, the then Finance Minister had admitted, “There is no official estimation of the amount of black money either before or after the government’s decision of 08 Nov 2016…”

Now there are other things for which we do have data. Let’s talk about the issue of counterfeit currency for example. PM Modi had claimed that demonetization would solve it (without any basis). It has not been solved.

Source
Source: chart created from RBI data as presented here

Don’t forget, INR ~8,000 crore was spent in 2016-17 just on printing new notes (followed by ~5,000 crore a year after that). For what? A marketing gimmick!

Also let’s not forget that curbing terrorism was also a reason PM Modi had provided for justifying overnight demonetization.

What happened? See for yourself.

Data Source: https://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/india/states/jandk/data_sheets/annual_casualties.htm

Before I end this post, let me sum up why black money could never have been solved by demonetization anyway (the Govt. never presented any study whatsoever to justify the move – it was an insensitive illogical idea from the beginning).

The thing is – even when nobody really knows what is the total unaccounted for income in India, almost every estimate acknowledges that a very small portion of it (~1%) is in cash. Majority of the cash that exists is accounted for. So demonetization by design was a move to harass majority of Indians by targeting less than 1% of black income. In what world is this justified? More than 99.3% of all the demonetized note came back to the banking system!

There is a reason, almost nowhere in the world, ‘demonetization’ is ever used for this purpose! Except of course, if you have the confidence to ‘market’ the move as path-breaking initiative to end corruption!

Other than the harassment that most Indians faced while getting their notes exchanged (some died too) and the unnecessary work that our bankers had to do, week after week – demonetization also had some other far-fetched consequences. It looks like it even caused increase in infant mortality rate!

What about the move towards digital payments?

I will make two comments. The night demonetization was announced, PM Modi did not even talk about digital payments as a reason to justify torturing the entire country. Two, India did not become digital overnight anyway as the below chart shows.

Source | UPI transactions were almost non-existent in 2016 – but could this have happened without the need for demonetization? Yes.

If you scroll back up and look at the existing cash in the economy (much more than was in 2016), it becomes obvious that one does not need to take away cash from the system for digital payments to work and grow. There is not a single economist who has ever claimed that India wouldn’t have made the growth in UPI transactions without demonetization. On the contrary, many studies later found the damage that the move did to the economy itself.

Dear PM, show some shame, acknowledge the mistake and move on? Or am I missing something?

Categories
politics VATSANALYSIS

Is Modi like Hitler? Yes & No. Very important to understand.

I read a very interesting and insightful book called How Democracies Die. Levitsky & Ziblatt (the authors) have analysed democracies across the globe to understand when a leader turns authoritarian, often leading to collapse of democracy. The erosion of democracy takes place piecemeal, often in baby steps.

Let me share this chart for you to get a sense of how fragile a democratic system can really be.

Let me quickly explain the three terms mentioned in the above table – a. ‘capturing referees’, b. ‘sidelining players’ and c. ‘changing rules’.

A. CAPTURING REFEREES

It means hijacking institutions that hold the govt. accountable (intelligence agencies, courts). It offers a powerful weapon, allowing the government to selectively enforce the law, punishing opponents while protecting allies.

By default, the judicial system, law enforcement bodies, and intelligence, tax, and regulatory agencies are designed to serve as neutral arbiters. But if such agencies are controlled by loyalists, they could serve a would-be dictator’s aims.

Tax authorities may be used to target rival politicians, businesses, and media outlets. The police can crack down on opposition protest while tolerating acts of violence by pro-government thugs.

B. SIDELINING PLAYERS

Most contemporary autocracies do not wipe out all traces of dissent, as Mussolini did in fascist Italy or Fidel Castro did in communist Cuba. What they usually do is – ensure that key players – anyone capable of really hurting the government – are sidelined, hobbled, or bribed into throwing the game.

Key players might include opposition politicians, business leaders who finance the opposition, major media outlets, and in some cases, religious or other cultural figures who enjoy a certain public moral standing.

The Fujimori government in Peru was masterful at buying off its critics, particularly those in media. By the late 1990s, every major television network, several daily newspapers, and popular tabloid papers were on the government’s payroll.

Players who cannot be bought must be weakened. Whereas old-school dictators often jailed, exiled, or even killed their rivals, contemporary autocrats tend to hide their repression behind a veneer of legality.

Under Perón (Argentina), opposition leader Ricardo Balbín was imprisoned for “disrespecting” the president during an election campaign. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad used a politically loyal police force and a packed judiciary to investigate, arrest, and imprison his leading rival, Anwar Ibrahim, on sodomy charges in the late 1990s.

Governments may also use their control of referees to legally sidline the opposition media, often through libel or defamation suits.

In Russia, after Vladimir Gusinsky’s independent NTV television network earned a reputation as a “pain in the neck,” the Putin government unleashed the tax authorities on Gusinsky, arresting him for “financial misappropriation.” Gusinsky was offered “a deal straight out of a bad Mafia movie: give up NTV in exchange for freedom.” He took the deal, turned NTV over to the giant government-controlled energy company, Gazprom, and fled the country.

As key media outlets are assaulted, others grow wary and begin to practice self-censorship. When the Chávez government stepped up its attacks in the mid-2000s, one of the country’s largest television networks, Venevisión, decided to stop covering politics. Morning talk shows were replaced with astrology programs, and soap operas took precedence over evening news programs.

Finally, elected autocrats often try to silence cultural figures – artists, intellectuals, pop stars, athletes. Usually, however, governments prefer to co-opt popular cultural figures or reach a mutual accommodation with them, allowing them to continue their work as long as they stay out of politics.

C. CHANGING RULES

This essentially means somehow changing the Constitution itself. Authoritarians seeking to consolidate their power often reform the constitution, the electoral system, and other institutions in ways that disadvantage or weaken the opposition, in effect tilting the playing field against their rivals. These reforms are often carried out under the guise of some public good, while in reality they are stacking the deck in favor of incumbents. And guess what helps them most – a crisis situation.

For demagogues hemmed in by constitutional constraints, a crisis represents an opportunity to begin to dismantle the inconvenient and sometimes threatening checks and balances that come with democratic politics.

Elected autocrats often need crises – external threats offer them a chance to break free, both swiftly and, very often, “legally”.

Crisis are hard to predict, but their political consequences are not. They facilitate the concentration, and very often, abuse of power. Given that we have a crisis situation right now, had Modi been like Hitler, the damage to democracy could have been much worse.

Major security crises – wars or large-scale terrorist attacks – are political game changers. Almost invariably, they increase support for the government. Citizens become more likely to tolerate, and even endorse, authoritarian measures when they fear for their security. In the aftermath of September 11, President Bush saw his approval rating soar from 53% to 90%. Citizens are also more likely to tolerate – and even support – authoritarian measures when they fear their own safety.

The book – How Democracies Die – also talks about 4 litmus tests that can hep identify any authoritarian leader.

As per the authors, we should worry when a politician

  1. rejects, in words or actions, the democratic rules of the game (and this is why Modi is not like Hitler)
  2. denies the legitimacy of opponents
  3. tolerates or encourages violence (this is where if not Modi himself, his party is mildly like Hitler)
  4. indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media (again – why BJP is like Hitler).

A politician who meets even one of these criteria is a cause for concern.

Let me also share five more insights that the book offers (have contextualized it with Indian political examples, where I could).

1. Most authoritarians leaders are popular rank outsiders who have little patience with democracy.

In Latin America, of all 15 presidents elected in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela between 1990 and 2012, five were populist outsiders: Alberto Fujimori, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, Lucio Gutiérrez and Rafael Correa. All five ended up weakening democratic institutions.

When populists win elections, they often assault democratic institutions.

Democracy is grinding work – it requires negotiation, compromise and concessions. But would-be authoritarians have little patience with the day-to-day politics of the democracy (and in this regard, Modi is unlike Hitler; the BJP doesn’t only understand the politics that it needs to play but works towards it diligently).

In India, the hyper liberals don’t get the difference between being a Hitler and Modi. Modi for one, is not a rank outsider. Bhakts (and even some centrists) on the other hand, fail to understand that just because Modi is not exactly like Hitler, does not mean he is all good. They take the comparison ‘literally’ and start pointing out the differences. What matters is the similarity – and that’s what is scary and that is what we should watch out for.

Let me make a quick note on most arguments around comparison of two people / entities / countries / anything.

Those who don’t like the comparison get obsessed with the difference and only want to focus on why the comparison doesn’t make sense (‘you are comparing apples with oranges’). Of course no two people / entities / countries / anything are ‘the same’. Apples and oranges are different and yet in many contexts, it makes sense to compare them. It’s unwise to willfully ignore the intent behind any comparison – which is to appreciate the similarity! When we try to see the similarity between Modi and Hitler (the short-code I am using to denote an authoritarian leader), we become better prepared to watch out for when the government ends up pushing things too far off the line where democracy ends. If we keep obsessing about how they are not the same, we won’t gain much (that is the job of Govt. mouthpieces like Arnab Goswami; not citizens).

Ok now, carrying on with four more insights from the book.

2. Politicians do not always reveal the full scale of their authoritarianism before reaching power.

Hungarian PM Viktor Orban (and his party) began as a liberal democrat in the late 1980s and in his first stint as PM (1998-2002) he governed democratically. His autocratic about face in 2010 was a genuine surprise. The 2011 constitutional changes enacted under his leadership were, in particular, accused of centralizing legislative and executive power, curbing civil liberties, restricting freedom of speech, and weakening the Constitutional Court and judiciary. He has been in power since then.

3. Democracy requires ‘gate-keepers’ to do their job.

We like to believe the fate of the government lies in the hands of its citizens. As per the authors, this view is wrong. Political parties are democracies’ gatekeepers.

An over-reliance on the will of the people can lead to the election of a demagogue who threatens democracy itself.

Collective abdication – the transfer of authority to a leader who threatens democracy – usually flows from one of two sources.

  1. the misguided belief that an authoritarian can be controlled or tamed.
  2. ideological collusion – the authoritarian’s agenda overlaps sufficiently with that of mainstream politicians that abdication is desirable, or at least preferable to the alternatives.

Trump’s rise to presidency in 2016 is a good example of consequence of ineffective gatekeeping.

Some politicians did realize the problem and did their bit. For example, in March 2016, former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave a high-profile speech describing Trump as a danger to both the Republican Party and the country. Echoing Ronald Reagan’s 1964 “A Time for Choosing” speech, Romney declared that Trump was a “fraud” who had “neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president.”

Other party elders, including 2008 presidential candidate John McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham, had warned against Trump too.

But the sad fact is that the #NeverTrump movement was always more talk than action. In reality, the primary system had left Republican leaders virtually weaponless to halt Trump’s rise (the book explains this in detail). The barrage of attacks had little impact and possibly even backfired where it counted: the voting booth.

4. Polarization can destroy democratic norms – the process often begins with words.

Fujinori (Peru) called his critics “enemies” and “traitors”. Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi attacked judges who ruled against him as “communist”.

Status anxiety – when a groups’ social status, identity, and sense of belonging are perceived to be under existential threat – leads to a style of politics that is “overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic”. A demagogue’s initial rise to power tends to polarize society, creating a climate of panic, hostility, and mutual distrust (Modi is like Hiter in this aspect).

If the public comes to share the view that opponents are linked to terrorism and the media are spreading lies, it becomes easier to justify taking actions against them.

Some polarization is healthy – even necessary – for democracy. But when socioeconomic, racial, or religious differences give rise to extreme partisanship, in which societies sort themselves into political camps whose worldviews are not just different but mutually exclusive, toleration becomes harder to sustain. As mutual toleration disappears, politicians grow tempted to abandon forbearance (see point 5 below) and try to win at all costs.

Because of polarization, Chileans who had long prided themselves on being South America’s most stable democracy, succumbed to dictatorship that lasted for seventeen years!

In the US, in 1798, the Federalists passed the Sedition Act, which, though purportedly criminalizing false statements against the government, was so vague that it virtually criminalized criticism of the government.

When norms of mutual toleration are weak, democracy is hard to sustain. If we view our rivals as a dangerous threat, we have much to fear if they are elected. We may decide to employ any means necessary to defeat them – and therein lies a justification for authoritarian measures. Politicians who are tagged as criminal or subversive may be jailed; governments deemed to pose a threat to the nation may be overthrown.

In just about every case of democratic breakdown we have studied, would-be authoritarians – from Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini in interwar Europe to Marcos, Castro, and Pinochet during the Cold War to Putin, Chávez, and Erdogan most recently – have justified their consolidation of power by labeling their opponents as an existential threat.

How Democracies Die

5. ‘Forbearance’ – and why it matters

Much before Trump, the USA faced threat to democratic norms under President Roosevelt who subscribed to what he called the stewardship theory of the presidency – all executive actions are allowed unless expressly prohibited by law.

His use of executive orders – more than 3,000 during his presidency, averaging more than 300 a year – was unmatched at the time or since.

Forbearance is the exact opposite. It means “patient self-control; restraint and tolerance,” or “the action of restraining from exercising a legal right.

Prior to the 1973 coup, Chile had been Latin America’s oldest and most successful democracy, sustained by vibrant democratic norms. It was lack of forbearance that lead to fall of democracy.

Citizens are often slow to realize that their democracy is being dismantled – even as it happens before their eyes.

One may think of democracy as a game that we want to keep playing indefinitely. To ensure future rounds of the game, players must refrain from either incapacitating the other team or antagonizing them to such a degree, that they refuse to play again tomorrow. If one’s rivals quit, there can be no future games.

The cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.

Hope you learnt something / gained some insights. And if this topic interests you, do pick up the book.

Categories
VATSANALYSIS

I set up a Google Alert for “Rape India” for a month and tracked 125 reported rapes. Here are some insights.

Here is the the Google Sheet link if you’d like to run your own analysis.

06 Oct to 06 Nov 2020 – 125 reported rapes / attempted rapes.

In only 5.6% of cases the rapist was a stranger (imagine all the big deal we make about unknown sexual predators lurching in the dark).

In fact chances of you being raped by a relative (7%) is higher than being raped by a stranger. >60% cases had someone known commit the crime. You can literally read about each of these 125 rapes in the Google Sheet – this is the reality of India.

Over half of the rapes that I collated, happened in rural India (as a context – 65% of India’s population is rural).

Uttar Pradesh accounted for 1/4th of all the reported cases (Gujarat at no. 2)

In Uttar Pradesh, 70% of cases were rural.

Over 60% of victims / survivors were minors (and of the minors, 1/4th were less than ten year old). Almost 1/3rd of all reported rapes were gang-rapes. Only in ten percent cases at least one rapist was a minor.

In over 10% of rapes, the act was filmed / photographed.

Only 16% of the victims / survivors were identified as dalits / tribals. Also 16% of all cases lead to death / attempted murder of the victim.

Following news-articles it’s impossible to track what eventually happens – how cases unfold. But if 4 new cases show up just in media EVERY DAY – I don’t have much hope! This is a fucking terrible country for our women. When UP Govt. tells the overall no. of rapes is dropping year after year, (so does Delhi) it’s a statistically good news to hear – but doesn’t calm me down much.

Most stupid are the men who make it about, ‘oh not all men – women misuse rapes too’. I tracked 125 rapes and there were may be 2 cases of fake rape operations – like this one about a proper gang. So the ‘exceptions’ can’t be used to trivialize a problem that predominantly burdens young women from the exercise of male power – often driven by lust.

I don’t know why I tracked these rape-news stories. I don’t know what good will come out of it. But I am moving on. There is already analysed data from 2019 – of all the actual rape cases filed (@87 per day) – you can look at that if you want to. May be I wanted to read up about each story before I turned them into numbers. May be opening up my Google sheet link will have a different effect on you, than just reading my summary of the analysis.

In parallel, I was reading two books – both on India. One focused on documenting rapists and their thought process and the other focused on the polar opposite – documenting the stories of victims / survivors. The second book (No nation for women) was so upsetting to read that I ended up crying more and reading less (have manged only two chapters as of writing of this post).

May be one day I will find the courage to read rest of the stories from this book.

The other book – Why Men Rape – on rapists thought process, is easier to digest (and also explains why it’s not as simple to solve the crisis by law & order).

I wish there was a way to sum up my thoughts / feelings as I wrap up this piece. There is none. This is an ongoing crisis and we all should investigate more time in understanding what’s really happening around us and not worry so much about how to solve it. Solution is not coming anytime soon. Not allowing 18+ year old men to venture out sounds like a good solution but the men may not agree I think! 🙂

Categories
VATSANALYSIS

Why men often assume that when a woman shares a problem, she’s asking him to propose a solution?

If you are a woman, you would have observed it yourself. If you are a man, it is more than likely that you are wondering ‘what is even wrong in that’? Before I explain why men do this (or what is wrong about it), let me add that it has indeed been shown through various ways (lab observations / studies / surveys etc.) that women in general are better at empathizing and men in general are better at systemizing.

Empathizing Vs. Systemizing

Empathizing is the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion. It occurs when we feel an appropriate emotional reaction, an emotion triggered by the other person’s emotion. And it is done in order to understand another person, to predict their behavior, and to connect or resonate with them emotionally.

Systemizing on the other hand is the drive to analyze, explore, and construct a system. The systemizer intuitively figures out how things work, or extracts the underlying rules that govern the behavior of a system. This is done in order to understand and predict the system, or to invent a new one.

I have borrowed the above explanation from Simon Cohen’s “The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain”. Simon shares his own studies on this difference between men and women.

Males score less than females on empathizing skills
Females score less than males on systemizing skills

Just to be clear, not every man is poorer at empathizing than every woman. Most men are. Likewise, not every man is better at systemizing than every woman. Most men are.

And now, before we explore the ‘why’ of it (which to be honest is not that important in my opinion), let me share the problem with this urge to offer solutions (which you would do when you have lower empathy skills and higher systemizing skills; E < S).

There are three kinds of conversations that we have –

  • the “what happened” conversation – on things like who did what, what cane be done about it, who should take up the job etc.
  • the feeling conversation – how is one feeling (angry / hurt / disgusted / unsafe / loved etc.), is it okay to feel like that? and so on and so forth; and
  • the identity conversation – where we discuss about the implication of a given situation on us – are we being good? are we doing the right thing? are we competent? and other such things.

I borrow this classification from a wonderful book called “Difficult Conversations” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton & Sheila Heen that I think everyone should read.

Since most men are not as good empathizers as women, they are not able to realize when a particular conversation is a “feeling conversation”.

When a woman is having a “feeling conversation”, she wants you to acknowledge that she has been heard. She does *not* want you to offer solutions. But that’s exactly what men end up doing – treating every conversation / discussion like a “what happened” conversation where the objective, for the man, immediately shifts to doing something about the situation. This upsets the women and the man wonders – how can she get upset when I was offering a solution to the problem she just described? I was trying to help! Some men even want to have a ‘logical’ argument about it so that they can see the issue in their ‘reasoning’.

See the thing is, ultimately, everyone does want their problems addressed. But when you move to “what happened” before spending enough time in acknowledging the emotions, the conversations go nowhere and in spite of your great intention of doing something for the other person, you make it worse.

Alright, now that you are aware of this issue, I hope that if you are a man, you will henceforth try harder to listen and try to control the urge to offer solutions. Listening is not as simple as it sounds and if you really want to get better at it (for your own good), I urge you to pick up the “Difficult Conversations” book that I recommended earlier. It’s an eye opener. Not just for men, but for women too.

And now the last part – the ‘why’ bit. Why are men like this? The answer is what you would expect – a bit of biology and a bit of social / cultural setup.

The biology

Let me tell you the story from a psychology experiment (borrowing again from the ‘Essential Difference’ book that I earlier mentioned).

In the Rosie Maternity Hospital in Cambridge, England, two researchers (Jennifer and Anna) videotaped over 100 babies who were just one day old.

The babies were shown Jennifer’s face, smiling over their crib. Her face moved in the natural way that faces do. The babies were also shown a ball the same size as Jennifer’s head, with the same coloring but with her features rearranged, so that the overall impression was no longer face-like. Let’s call this ball a ‘mobile’ face.

The idea was to compare the baby’s interest in a social object (a face) and a mechanical object (a mobile).

In order for the experimenters to remain unbiased, mothers were asked not to tell the researchers the sex of her baby. This information was only checked after the videotapes had been coded for how long each baby looked at each type of object.

So the question was, would babies look longer at Jennifer’s face, or at the mobile?

When the videotapes were analyzed, it was found that girls looked for longer at the face, and that boys looked for longer at the mobile. And this sex difference in social interest was on the first day of life!

This difference at birth echoes a pattern we have seen right across the human lifespan. For example, on average, women engage in more “consistent” social smiling and “maintained” eye contact than does the average man. The fact that this difference is present at birth strongly suggests that biology plays a role.

Simon Baron-Cohen, The Essential Difference

And if biology is at work, there will be evolutionary theories to explain why women and men ended up happening different kinds of brains. I don’t want to go there (read the quoted book if you are interested) because this makes it easy for a man to just say ‘that’s how we men are’ – which then becomes an excuse to continue acting like an asshole! And in any case, biology is just one way to understand the difference.

The social / cultural influence

With or without the knowledge of the biological difference, most parents typically hold in their mind some notion that boys are wilder or greater risk-takers and therefore need more restrictions. This leads to boys growing up in ways where empathy matters less and systemizing matters more.

Growing up, it has been found that more men choose to work (when choice is there) in “dominance-oriented” occupations (i.e., those emphasizing social hierarchies and the control over others), while more women choose to work in “dominance-attenuating jobs (i.e., working in a team of equals with others, and / or working with disadvantaged people). In essence, more men end up getting socially / culturally influenced and encouraged to let a skill that they are already likely bad at since birth, further deteriorate.

So yeah, that’s the explanation. But what I believe is more important is for men to try to become better after acknowledging this problem of lower empathy. Not only will it help you in general in all conversations, it will be immensely helpful in your relationship with your girl-friend / partner.

The most romantic gift: to listen to another’s anxieties for one hour, without judgement or “solutions”, as an analyst might.

Alain de Botton

Systemizing is a great skill to have (and useful in many things), but it gets you almost nowhere in most day-to-day social interaction. I especially want to encourage all the ‘good intentioned’ men out there, who ‘genuinely’ want to offer solutions to problems that predominantly impact women. Please learn to listen more than you think is necessary. There is no other way for you to really understand the problem (that you so earnestly want to solve) because unlike women, you don’t have access to the lived-experience they have! And when you don’t understand the problem well, all your systemizing will be useless in bringing in any real change.

All the best, men.

Categories
VATSANALYSIS

The myth of the paid subscription model for news.

If you are not paying for the product, you are the product, right? The newspapers / publications / independent bloggers that want their content behind a paywall, definitely want you to believe so.

The proposed logic is simple – when you pay, the publishers / writers don’t have to rely on ad money (or the money from rich businessmen / trusts). This we are told, leads to two things – a) freedom and b) quality.

Freedom of press refers to the freedom of the journalist / publication to pursue and put out whatever story they feel is important, without any political / commercial pressure. Quality is a broad term that I am using to refer to the many aspects of the coverage itself – how well researched the content is, how unbiased it is, insights, verification level, professionalism etc.

I took an insta poll last week asking my followers that if they had to choose between freedom and quality, what would they choose. I received about 40 responses. 60% voted for freedom, 40% for quality.

A. Freedom of Press – does ‘paid subscription’ model have a positive impact?

Without freedom of press, how will stories about atrocities / wrongdoings of the powerful come out? A Modi or an Ambani should not be able to influence what stories are put out and what buried.

It should be kept in mind that criticizing those in power is only one of the many journalistic objectives (also called playing the role of a detached investigative watchdog). Over the years, in various countries, journalists have played other roles too (and continue to). These other roles include:

  • bringing out facts (with objectivity) for the public (with some context but minimum opinion);
  • analyzing facts underpinning key issues;
  • being critical change agents (by influencing public opinion and advocating for social change – this is going beyond just being a ‘detached watchdog’ and may include actively encouraging citizen involvement); and
  • acting as opportunist facilitators (i.e. supporting those in power – which is a good thing only when a disturbed nation is seeking some stability and a new government has typically just come in power).

Anyway, so freedom of press is a big problem in our country right now. India ranks 140th in the World Press Freedom Index (of total 180 countries that are included). There is a detailed NY Times article (unfortunately behind a paywall) on this topic, if you want to read more.

Will a subscription based model really solve this freedom problem? How about we look at the top performers in the World Press Freedom (WPF) rankings and dissect them a little?

Source: rsf.org

So the Nordic countries are on the top. Is news mostly free in these countries or the freedom comes from paid subscriptions?

Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism / Digital News Report 2020 – link

42% of Norwegians pay for their news. That’s great – the more people pay for news, the better freedom of press, right?

But wait, look at Finland and Denmark (no. 2 and no. 2 on WPF). Less than 20% pay for news and yet US which is slightly better than them in terms of paid news subscribers, does not even rank in top ten! In fact, US ranks 45th! What’s really happening here?

In Portugal (no. 10 in WPF ranking) only 10% pay for news (same as Germany which ranks just below Portugal at no. 11).

Freedom of press and paid-subscription doesn’t seem to have any correlation.

While it is possible that if you take money from Ambani / Adani, you may find it difficult to talk against them, to make this scenario sound like the only possible scenario is a bit much. Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post in 2013. But it does not mean that the publication by default remains silent when it comes to criticizing Bezos.

In any case, even if you don’t take any money from Ambai / Adani / Amazon, if there is an overall culture where journalists are labelled ‘prestitutes‘, targeted and killed (the way it frequently happens in India – one of the main reasons why it ranks so bad in the freedom index), subscription model is not necessarily going to ensure much freedom. Arnab Goswami does not necessarily lick the BJP government’s ass because poor Arnab has no way to get subscription money. Arnab does it because that’s what he wants to do and he has access to the business model that works for him. The intent of the publication / journalist / media house comes first; the enablers and business models come later.

Let’s also for a moment think of one of the benefits of a free press – the publication / journalists can report on all important issues without pressure. Is Climate Change an important issue? I hope most of you say yes.

So say between Sweden (press freedom rank 4) and US (press freedom rank 45), if we did a poll of its citizens to check which populace took Climate Change more seriously, what do you think would the result be?

Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism / Digital News Report 2020 – link

40% in US believe that Climate Change is an extremely serious problem but less than 20% of Swedes think so!

Being ‘free’ does not automatically equate to making use of that freedom as some media houses / journalists would like to believe! And in any case, you do not necessarily have to get away from ad money to exercise your freedom. Quint does a fabulous job of putting out stories that matter – 95% of its revenue comes from advertisement!

By the way, it’s not that we Indians don’t pay for our news. ~25% of the English language, internet using respondents for example, said in a Reuters survey that they have paid in some form, for some kind of digital news in the last year. [Source]

Of the respondents who do not currently pay, almost 40% said they are at least ‘somewhat likely’ to pay for news in the next year (much more than users in the United States).

Source

It is okay if some publications / writers get the subscription model going for them. Whatever works! I myself pay for one Indian publication (Business Standard), one US publication (NY Times) and one UK publication (The Economist). But I do not necessarily do so because the free ad-based news that I also consume, has no freedom and can no way put out stories that those behind paywalls can!

There are many reasons why people pay for news – supporting independence of press is at best a justification from those who pay, than any proven positive impact on freedom.

Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism / Digital News Report 2020 – link

B. Quality of news – does subscription model have an impact?

When you pay for a product, the makers have an incentive to make the product better. But is news really a product? No.

Journalism is not simply the aggregation of content. It is not a product, but a process, a way to search for truth and a conversation, not a lecture.

Richard M. Perloff, The Dynamics of News: Journalism in the 21st-Century Media Milieu

And what this means is, taking care of market economics is simply not enough (or the most important criteria) for good journalism.

If paying for news meant better news, most people who paid for news would have rated their consumption better and more reliable, right? But look at the reality.

The above chart shows us that the average trust is independent of whether something is behind a paywall or not! Below is how we Indians trust our news sources.

Source

Most of the Indian brands listed above make money primarily from ads! The business model of a news publication and the quality does not have a proven correlation. But generally if a publication is running ads of big brands, it is unlikely for the quality to be low. So as far as quality goes, ad-model >> subscription model.

Early American newspapers like Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette and Alexander Hamilton’s Gazette of the United States were unashamedly partisan. … As they sought wider audiences in the 19th century, newspapers became more concerned with what they called “realism”. … And advertisers wanted less partisan coverage to sit alongside their messages.

The Economist, Jul 2020

Ad-money lead to news quality getting better – getting more objective.

Another way to think of why paying customers do not necessarily lead to the ‘product’ getting better is to think of mainstream Bollywood / Hollywood films – truck load of shitty movies in spite of paying customers. What about shitty Bollywood music of the 90s when we were still buying audio cassettes? When a business model depends upon a buying customer, the producer just ends up optimizing the cost of production and the sales-volume. Journalism should never work like that.

Why is everyone really talking about paid subscriptions then?

It is the failure of most media houses to retain the ad-money flow that they once had, that’s behind the push to make the ‘paid subscription based model’ work. It is not driven by a noble cause of freedom of press or quality of reportage – although both can definitely be achieved in this model too.

In fact, on the question of who should be primarily responsible for solving a key quality aspect of news – the misinformation problem – over 60% Indians think it is the government’s job.

Source

I earlier showed how other than Norway, the other Nordic countries in the top ten World Press Freedom list have lesser paid subscriber %age compared to US. The reason they have such higher freedom of press in spite of low paid subscribers is because of their governments!

In the Nordic countries, the states have played a key role by giving the press a high degree of operational freedom and helping it financially through subsidies.

The strong position of public service media fit with the welfare ideal where the media – supported by the state – are judged to play an important role in citizens’ well being alongside other public institutions and the societal responsibility of the journalists is emphasized.

A Welfare State of Mind? – Journalism Studies, Vol 18 2017

If you read the above cited paper (behind paywall) – you will also note that the most independent press in the world (in these Nordic countries) typically restricts its role to being detached watchdogs. They generally refrain from taking on the role of ‘critical change agents’ (that I explained in the beginning, involves influencing public opinion and advocating for social change).

Irrespective of whether you make money from ads or paid subscribers, if the governments comes after journalists, would there be enough freedom? Unlikely. We need a truly free media and yet paid subscriptions doesn’t necessarily ensure it.

Anyway, so now we know that the potential benefits of the subscription model are pretty debatable (even when logically, they sound so perfect, no)?

The follow-up question is: are there any problems that the paid subscription model itself creates? Plenty!

Paywall problems

#1 Readers love opinions

Theoretically, you have the freedom to put out whatever story that you desire. But can you? When you have paying readers, you have to cater to their tastes. And unlike advertisers, readers love opinions.

The incentive to keep readers happy – and the penalty for failing – are greater than ever.

The Economist, Jul 2020

I love the below observation by an IIT senior who has been a writer for many years now.

It’s interesting that back when the New York Times was [just] a dead-tree periodical, it had a tagline that went “all the news that’s fit to print”. Now that it’s gone online, got a paywall and had to get into real time news, it’s become an outrage machine.”

Pertinent Observations, 30 Sep 2020

#2 Information inequality

Not everyone can afford paid subscriptions, so those with less money get left out from accessing it. Who do they rely on for great quality news?

We saw earlier that in US, ~20% pay for access to pay-walled news. 24% of them are also concerned about others missing out on what they read.

Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism / Digital News Report 2020

#3 Subscription fatigue

Even those who have subscriptions, soon run into a subscription fatigue – how many publications can you really subscribe to? And then you have other subscriptions to take care of as well, like Netflix.

When everything goes behind paywall, you would most likely miss out on a diverse coverage at the cost of a hypothetical freedom of press / better quality.

Although the number of readers paying for online news has increased in many countries, this trend is driven by a ‘winner-take-most’ trend in which large national news brands draw the highest proportion of subscribers. Around half of those that subscribe to any online or combined package in the United States use the New York Times or the Washington Post and a similar proportion subscribe to either The Times or the Telegraph in the UK.

The average (median) number of news subscriptions per person – among those that pay – is just ‘one’ even in high-income households in the US.

To sum up, a journalist can have freedom both in a subscription model and an ad-driven model (or a mix of both, with varying ratio) or even in a charity / donation model (that say Wikipedia deploys). Indians are indeed willing to support donation models too. In a survey, 37% showed support.

Source

In fact this is the model I advocate for my own writing – I want my wiring to be open to all, but ‘patrons’ are always welcome. If you want to fund my work, feel free. I would be grateful.

Likewise, freedom of press can be exercised both in ad-driven model and in a subscription model. There are way more factors at play than just the economics here. What matters at the end of the day is that journalists get to do a good job (and not just view their content as a product) and get paid one way or another.

I want to leave you with the following parting commentary, borrowed from here.

Journalism is facing stiff competition for attention and its connection with the public is threatened by news avoidance, low trust, and the perception that news does not help people live the lives they want to live. But in many ways, the best journalism today is better than ever – more accessible, more timely, more informative, more interactive, more engaged with its audience.

REUTERS INSTITUTE REPORTJANUARY2019

That will be all for this blog. Hope you learnt something.

Categories
Gyaan VATSANALYSIS

Explained – why ‘be proud of Hindu culture’ pages / accounts really exist.

Let me introduce you to this beautiful insta account with 122k+ followers.

Alright let’s get going. Can’t wait to know my Bharat more. What can be as harmless as a page that is just about making one aware about ancient science?

OK. So this ‘ancient’ trivia wants us Hindus to feel ashamed that a temple was taken away from an Indian currency note?

The year ‘1954’ makes me wonder – was Nehru the fake Hindu behind it?

No wait, here’s the reality – this currency was very much in circulation all the way till 1978 when it was finally demonetized by the most anti Congress Government ever – the Janata Party. Morarji Desai of Janata Party was the first non-Congress prime minister in independent modern India’s history (there was no BJP then).

While the 1,000 rupees note was at least real, the above are fake coins! These are not currency coins but “temple tokens”!

One of the objectives of such accounts / sites is to make Hindus feel that the past was so much better for them and that the present represses their freedom.

Many of you will be surprised to note that this literally is like the fist rule of fascism – “build a mythic past”.

How fascism works!

Below is the table of content from a book that I read recently (How fascism works). Note the name of the first chapter.

Alright, let’s get back to the “ancient_science” account now…

When the mythic past is being built, a language is not just that – it is so much more – something that facilitates ‘unfoldment of higher awareness’! A language is not just a means to express ideas and discoveries (like this blog) but something that ’emulates the mantric sounds of the cosmic mind’!

Is it by any chance possible that the Vedas were written in Sanskrit because that was the *only* language that the authors knew to write in?

I crosschecked some of the above quotes and guess what, they are legit. But there are two issues with the post. First, the headline – “Influenced by Hindu Dharma”.

All these guys read some Hindu texts (like Gita). And there is a reason. They were all trying to find the connection between physics and philosophy and that meant they had to read up the well known philosophies (including eastern and Hindu philosophy of which Swami Vivekananda was a great spreader of, during this time). This explains the quotes – not endorsement of Hindu dharma.

The word dharma encompasses duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and “right way of living” – none of these scientists have ever proclaimed that the Hindu / Sanatana dharma influenced them. But of course that shouldn’t come in the way of evoking the pride that we must attach to being Hindus.

The second issue with this post is that it makes use of what’s called the halo effect to fool one’s brain. I have written about the halo effect in another blog, but in short – it is our instinctive disability that makes us believe that if someone is good in some aspects, that person is good in all aspects (and vice-versa).

For example, Tesla (quoted above) disagreed with the theory of atoms being composed of smaller subatomic particles, stating there was no such thing as an electron creating an electric charge! Today, any school student will tell that Tesla was wrong. This doesn’t necessarily make Tesla a fool. And yet it doesn’t necessarily mean that every single quote of Tesla is of value! Same goes with others.

Yes. Just like below is the beauty of Islam?

And what about this? Beauty of Sikhism?

Let’s get to the beauty of temples now…

Posts like these try to make you feel proud of the kind of amazing temples Hindus built centuries ago. Except that the construction of this ‘ancient’ structure was started in 1990!

There is a much older ancient temple (not so instagram-worthy) in the same place too. But the Gopuram that you see in the image is not that. It’s common for Gopurams to be added to older temples. Both the Gopuram and a Shiva statue were funded by NRI business tycoon B R Shetty. And it’s a great thing if religious rich folks build grand Gopurams or temples. I have nothing against them really. I am only trying to show you the overall motivation of insta accounts that put together posts like these. They don’t care about B R Shetty or the great work that he did. What do they care about? You will see for yourself. Just read on!

Is there any reason for us H for Hindus to be not super proud of such glorious past? Tell me. What else did our ancestors have in mind other than to make a ‘fashion statement’? Apparently, a lot!

This 12th-century Hindu temple was commissioned by King Vishnuvardhana in 1117 CE, on the banks of the Yagachi River in Belur (then Velapura – an early Hoysala Empire capital). The temple was built over three generations and took over hundred years to finish. It was repeatedly damaged and plundered during wars and repeatedly rebuilt and repaired over its history.

In 1774, Haidar Ali was the de facto ruler on behalf of the Wadiyar dynasty. Ali got the temple repaired (a Hindu officer was given the task). In 1935, parts of the temple was cleaned and restored with financing by the Mysore government and grants by the Wadiyar dynasty. [source]

Now here’s an interesting bit that some of you proud Hindus may find rather offensive – the temple artwork depicts scenes of secular life in the 12th century, dancers and musicians. It is a Vaishnava temple that reverentially includes many themes from Shaivism and Shaktism, as well as images of a Jina from Jainism and the Buddha from Buddhism.

One more illustrious insight? The Vijayanagara Empire sponsored the addition of smaller shrines in the temple complex, dedicated to goddesses and the Naganayakana mandapa that were constructed by collecting the war ruins of other demolished temples in Belur area and reusing them!

Posts from accounts like “ancient_science” remain silent on all such details, by design. These accounts don’t exist to teach you history. They just want to use selective / distorted and if needed, fake history to help create a mythical past for you.

If one can convince a population that they are rightfully exceptional, that they are destined by nature or by religious fate to rule other populations, one has already convinced them of a monstrous lie.

In a glorious past that fascism aims to create, members of the chosen community had their ‘rightful’ place at the top that set the cultural and economic agenda for everyone else.

“Now” this is a masjid. There are only two minor issues. “Now” = 15th century! Yes this has been a mosque since 15th century! And the second minor issue – the claim that this was once a temple is unverified! Of course. Just don’t take it to the Supreme Court because you know what happens in the end.

The photograph is real and not photoshopped if that’s what you are wondering. It is Daitya Sudan temple situated in Lonar, Maharashtra.

There is no record as such of how one of the gates has this Islamic architecture looking upper half thingy but let’s just assume an Islamic invasion it must have been. What lazy invaders, then?

It’s interesting that this insta account teaches us nothing about temple demolition beyond an Islamic war against Hinduism. So let me talk about it then. Learning some more history is not harmful, is it?

Recorded instances of Indian kings attacking the temples of their political rivals date from at least the eighth century, when Bengali troops destroyed what they thought was the image of Vishnu Vaikuntha, Kashmir’s state deity under King Lalitaditya (r. 724–60).

This is from the book India in the Persianage Age 1000-1765.

  • In the early tenth century, the Rashtrakuta monarch Indra III not only demolished the temple of Kalapriya (at Kalpi near the Jamuna River), patronized by the Rashtrakutas’ deadly enemies the Pratiharas, but took special delight in recording the fact;
  • In the late eleventh century, the Kashmiri King Harsha raised the plundering of enemy temples to an institutionalized activity;
  • In the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, kings of the Paramara dynasty attacked and plundered Jain temples in Gujarat.

And you know what, I am not going to judge them. The way temples and religions and Hindus and Muslims are talked about in the present was NOT how they were viewed and talked about in the past. And therefore, using selected real / fake stories from past to influence the present thinking is nothing but a means to manipulate into imagining things a certain way!

Austrians are the biggest shiv-bhakts you see. And Shivji must have one day accidentally gone to Alps instead of Himalayas.

Every cylindrical ling / phallus shaped thing in the world is a proof of the spread of our culture. What is the lie in this? Leaning tower of Pisa? Shiv ling. The Qutab Minar? Shivling. You have to be blind to not see it.

The Eisriesenwelt (German for “World of the Ice Giants”) is a natural limestone and ice cave located in Werfen, Austria, about 40 km south of Salzburg. The cave is inside the Hochkogel mountain in the Tennengebirge section of the Alps. It is the largest ice cave in the world, extending more than 42 km and visited by about 200,000 tourists every year.

At least the ice-cave photo from Austria was factually correct. But see that “Sudhwara – Africa – 6000 years” image in the above grid? That is not even from Africa! I did a reverse image search and it turns out that structure is in Ireland!

The understanding of and the respect for our own mythological past and our own history will form the first condition for more firmly anchoring the coming generation in the soil of Europe’s original homeland.

Alfred Rosenberg – a leading Nazi ideologue and editor of the prominent Nazi newspaper the Völkischer Beobachter (1924)

Yay. Victim. But wait, not really?

India Today Anti Fake News War Room (AFWA) has found the claim to be false. Pakistani Hindus celebrated the Shivratri festival in Karachi between February 21 and 23, 2020.

India Today

In a 1922 speech at the Fascist Congress in Naples, Benito Mussolini declared – “we have created our myth. The myth is a faith, a passion. It is not necessary for it to be a reality. Our myth is the nation, our myth is the greatness of the nation! And to this myth, this greatness, which we want to translate into a total reality, we subordinate everything”.

Of course!

Fascist leaders appeal to history to replace the actual historical record with a glorious mythic replacement that, in its specifics, can serve their political ends and their ultimate goal of replacing facts with power.

Such pride inducing ancient science! Could it possibly be untrue?

The astrolabe was invented in Hellenistic Greece around the second century, but it was the Islamic world which preserved this Greek knowledge, elaborated upon it and then disseminated it eastwards up to India and westwards up to England.

In his India, Al Biruni claims to have composed a manual on the astrolabe in Sanskrit verse. The work does not survive, but it is quite probable that Al Biruni had brought the astrolabe with him and taught its working principles to his Hindu interlocutors at Multan in the first quarter of the eleventh century.

Proceedings of the 13th World Sanskrit Conference

OK, one last example and then I am done.

Aww – so beautiful. Let me quote something from a renowned Dalit activist and writer – Kancha Illaiah.

Hinduism has been claiming that the Dalitbahujans are Hindus, but at the same time their very Gods are openly against them. As a result, this religion, from its very inception, has a fascist nature, which can be experienced and understood only by the Dalitbahujans, not by Brahmins who regard the manipulation and exploitation as systemic and not as part of their own individual consciousness.

…unless one examines in detail how all the main Hindu Gods are only killers and oppressors of the Dalitbahujans, and how the Dalitbahujan castes have built a cultural tradition of their own, and Gods and Goddesses of their own (who have never been respected by the brahminical castes), one cannot open up the minds of the Dalitbahujans to reality.

Why I Am Not a Hindu – Kancha Illaiah

The dangers of fascist politics come from the particular way in which it dehumanizes segments of the population. It aims to limit your capacity for empathy, leading to the justification of inhumane treatment, from repression of freedom, mass imprisonment, and expulsion to, in extreme cases, mass extermination. Go check out the kind of comments the account attracts and you will see what is true intended outcome of running such accounts – it’s succeeding in its job. In the mean time that I wrote this blog, it added 2,000 more followers.

So now you know why accounts like “ancient_science” exist – they play their role in promoting fascism. Let someone else know too?

Categories
Gyaan VATSANALYSIS

If everyone had friends from minority groups, would there be less bigotry overall?

In one of my Instagram stories, I wrote about the need for more Hindus to have at least one good Muslim friend. Likewise, upper castes should have one good lower-caste friend. This I proposed would make the Bhakts more empathetic (Bhakts I believe are predominantly upper caste Hindu men).

Note: You can also listen to this blog in my podcast (to subscribe to my podcast channel, search for VATSAnalysis on your favourite podcast platform)

To this suggestion, someone pointed out that this may not help at all.

“Having a friend really makes little to no difference to Bhakts / card carrying RSS member for that matter. The hypocrisy is too deep”, P commented and shared the below cartoon.

View this post on Instagram

A cartoon by @ellisjrosen. #NewYorkerCartoons

A post shared by The New Yorker Cartoons (@newyorkercartoons) on

“All these people have friends. But they consider them friends only until outside their doorstep”, P added. “They never give up on rituals and cultural processes. They stay with the family circles and with those, they have constructed beliefs that make a villain out of minorities.”

Since this ‘friendship ain’t gonna do nothing’ theory was primarily coming from the P’s personal experiences, I wanted to find out if there were studies available, where sociologists / social scientists had tried to test this hypothesis.

Life’s real answers are mostly neither here, nor there – they are somewhere in between! 🙂

Jamil Zaki is the director of The Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab. Following are some insights he shares in his book:

  • In all-white housing projects in US, 75% of residents said they’d dislike living alongside blacks; but in mixed projects, only 25% disliked having black neighbors.
  • In all-white platoons in US, 62% of soldiers opposed integrating the armed forces; but among whites who had been in a mixed platoon, only 7% opposed such integration.

Do you now think there is a possibility of an evidence based support for what I was instinctively thinking? In fact, there’s a name for it – the ‘Contact Hypothesis’.

Bigotry often boils down to a lack of acquaintance.

Gordon Allport, The Nature of Prejudice

The antidote to bigotry that the Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport proposed in his 1954 book was simple – Bring people together – which in psychology, came to be known as the ‘Contact Hypothesis‘.

But Contact doesn’t work all the time. In fact, in some cases, it can actually make things worse.

The Boston commuter train experiment

When each morning at the same time, some Latino passengers were ‘planted’ on a Boston commuter train – and this was done for ten days – it was observed that the white commuters who saw Latinos grew less tolerant of immigration than they had been before.

“Goodwill contact without concrete goals accomplishes nothing”, Allport proposed, followed by recommendations to make such Contact initiatives truly effective (things like giving the groups mutual goals, making the interactions personal etc.)

Allport proposed that for most favorable results of such Contact initiatives, groups should be given equal status (even if one group has more power in real life). But now we know it takes more than that (in part thanks to the Sender-Responder experiment).

The Sender-Responder experiment

Emile Bruneau – Director of the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab at University of Pennsylvania – started with the premise that if one group is silenced for most part in real life, perhaps they should be given greater status when the groups come together.

To test this idea, he paired Mexican immigrants and white U.S. citizens who had never met. In each pair,

  • one person was assigned the role of “sender” – who would write a short essay about the hardships facing their group;
  • the second person – the “responder” – would read the essay and then summarize it in their own words and pass it back.

When white Americans acted as responders (reading what Mexicans wrote and then summed it up themselves), they said they felt better about Mexican immigrants. The Mexican immigrants who acted as senders also felt the same.

But when Mexican immigrants acted as responders (where they had to read about hardships of white Americans), they felt worse about the white Americans.

Brunue tried similar experiments in different contexts and settings and the results were the same. The minority group is already well aware of the majority narrative / perspective. In a sit-down where say both men and women are supposed to share their perspectives, men get to gain real insights; women – not so much.

Women are so keenly aware of the male experience because our entire existence had to be kind of through that lens. Whereas men have never had to understand the female experience in order to exist in the world.

Sarah Silverman (from The War for Kindness)

Contact Hypothesis works, but it works best when it reverses the existing power structure, rather than ignoring it in the name of ‘equality’.

Before I end, let me share another story / experiment from the book – this one is on psychopaths. Psychopaths, by definition, have impaired empathy – they simply don’t care about other people’s emotion. So the question is – IS IT POSSIBLE TO ALTER THE EMPATHY LEVEL OF PSYCHOPATHS TOO?

The short answer is yes! I know I know…

Christian Keysers and his colleagues traveled to prisons around the Netherlands and scanned the brains of both psychopathic and non-psychopathic criminals as they were shown images of people in pain.

As expected, psychopaths didn’t show a mirroring response (activation of mirror neurons takes place in our brain when we feel someone else’s feelings / pains / movement). The non-psychopathic criminals showed such mirroring response.

This may suggest that psychopaths’ lack of empathy is “hardwired” into their brains. But then Keysers’s team ran a second version of the study – the result was no more the same!

The psychopaths were now asked to focus on victims’ pain and to do their best to imagine how it felt. And when the psychopaths did this, their brains mirrored suffering in almost exactly the same way as non-psychopaths!

Bottom-line – with the right nudge, anyone can be triggered to show empathy.

The book of course talks a lot about short-term empathy and long-term empathy and what works when and the need for more research in select areas etc. There is no way I can sum all that up in a blog (nor should I). If you like the premise and whatever little that I have shared, it’s definitely a meaningful read.

As I end, let me leave you with a Ted talk by Jamil Zaki where he touches upon few more aspects of empathy (like his Roddenbery hypothesis). That will be all for this blog – hope your learnt something useful. If you like what I write, do subscribe to my Sunday newsletter.

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VATSANALYSIS

India is in a much better position than other countries – is Modi right about this Covid-19 claim?

If you like watching video more than reading – I have video-fied this blog – so you can just watch me explain my analysis below.


And now the original blog…
PM Modi made some claims this week.

The above video should play from 7:22. You will hear Modi claim the following:

  • India’s recovery rate is better than other countries
  • The death rate (%age of total cases who died) is less compared to most other countries
  • Losing even one life is a loss – but overall many lives have been saved
  • The danger of the virus is not yet over – we need to continue being alert (masks / social distancing / hand-washing / hygiene)

All of the above is true.

I want to make something clear though – the first three bullet points are basically the same point – when you are infected and you don’t die, what happens? You ‘recover’! So it goes without saying that high ‘recovery rate’ = low death %age = many lives saved. They are not three different things. But then Modi has always been overboard on ‘marketing’! Which politician isn’t?

Below quote is from next day – 27 Jul 2020.

You can hear him say the above quoted lines in the below video (that will play from 3:20).

And if you watch the video further, you will notice that Modi is citing the same parameters he did the day before – lower death %age – higher recovery rate.

Many Modi haters / bashers and far-left folks got extremely agitated.

How can Modi say we are doing better than most other countries, when today we clearly have the third highest case count globally?

Yes, India is indeed in top three if one looks at cases.

As on 30 Jul 2020 – WHO

Even if you consider total death toll, we are in top ten (no.6).

As on 30 Jul 2020 – WHO

But here’s the thing – neither Modi is lying nor the doubters are wrong.

The question really is – what is the right way to look at how a country is managing its Covid situation?

Modi assumes it is by looking at death rates (not total infection or total death toll). The anti-Modi camp wants the ‘total’ cases to be considered.

My general views in life often align with the anti-Modi camp but this time, I would side with Modi. I think it’s silly to look at total cases. Death is what really matters. If you don’t die, you just recover and move on with life!

With that, let’s revisit the death growth rate.

If for all the countries, one compares growth in total Covid deaths from the time when they all saw their first few deaths – below is what that graph looks like:

Source: FT

You can see above that there are 6 countries (grey lines) between US and India where deaths grew much faster than India.

Out of the six, for two of them the total death toll continues to grow rapidly – Brazil & Mexico.

For the remaining four grey lines between US and India, you can see the lines have tapered down (meaning growth in death tolls has slowed). In fact, two lines have been overtaken by India (meaning India has more people dead than them).

UK, Italy, France & Spain have tapered down. India has overtaken France & Spain in total deaths.

Then there are a bunch of other countries below India where growth has been much slower, and total deaths on an avg, seem to be hovering around 10k-20k mark (compared to 30k+ where India is today).

Now let me dissect the relative performance by breaking down comparison in three legs:

  • leg 1: first 100+ death (for each country) till India crossed 1k+ deaths
  • leg 2: first 1k+ death (for each country) till India crossed 10k + deaths
  • leg3: likewise, from 10k+ till present (when India’s death toll is over 30k)

To avoid, clutter, I will not compare all the countries. Firstly, let me take off US – the death growth rate and the total deaths for US are literally “off the charts”. Keeping US in the mix screws up the rest of the graph. We already know US is the worst by a big margin.

So let me pick Spain, UK, France, Italy, Brazil and Mexico to begin with. To this list, let me add few more countries from the lower growth rate cluster – which if you observe carefully, can be viewed in two categories:

  • cluster 1- Peru, Russia & Iran
  • cluster 2 – the bunch of grey lines further below Iran

From the bunch of grey lines further below Iran (cluster 2), let me randomly pick up few countries – say Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt, Bangladesh & Philippines, to compare.

Before I proceed

I want to make it clear that at this point, I choose not to get into the data-authenticity debate (which is real). All countries probably cheat on data – some less, some more. Since we don’t have enough info on the scale of this cheating, let’s just assume that in relative comparison, the cheating-factor gets evened out.

And now to leg-wise comparison

Below is how the chart looks like for leg 1 (first 100 deaths for the select countries, to the time India crossed the 1,000 total deaths figure). Date for starting-point is obviously different for each country.

You can see here that in the 24 days it took for India’s total death toll to grow from 100+ to 1,000+, Spain, UK, France & Italy (let’s label them – SUFI) grew all the way to be in the 8,000-12,000 deaths range! So did we do better than some of these advanced countries? Yes.

Did we do better simply because there are more older people in SUFI? May be.

Graph generated from data compiled from indexmundi.com

Lesser no. of older people in India clearly seems to have played some role. But did the strict lock-down early on also matter?

May be it did? Did the fact that our PM advocated social distancing (and later masks) and has continued to do so (in contrast to say Brazil and US) have any impact on the death toll growth? Again, I would think yes.

Let’s see how the leg 1 growth chart looks like after we get rid of SUFI (that way we can focus more on the rest of the countries where the death-toll growth is somewhat comparable to what we see for India).

In the above chart, you can see for yourself that in leg 1, India is just an average performer.

In the no. of days that it took for India’s death toll to rise from 100+ to 1k+, countries like Brazil, Iran, Turkey, Mexico and Russia reached relatively higher death toll figures (all the way up to even 2500). And other countries did better than India.

Did the countries that did worse, do it simply because they all have way more older people compared to India? Not really.

Other than Russia, most other countries have similar percentage of older people as compared to India (10 to 18% range – India being somewhere in the middle).

India has clearly managed its Covid situation better than Mexico, Turkey & Iran. The old-age logic can’t be used here. Iran in fact has an even younger demographic than India and yet it reached 2500 deaths in the same number of days compared to 1,000 for India (starting at the same point of 100).

Let’s now look at leg 2 (starting-point for each country is its first 1k+ death, plotted till India crosses the 10k total death mark).

As you see above, it took India around 50 days to travel from 1k to 10k+ . But not only did the usual suspects (SUFI) do much worse (reaching 25k to 35k deaths in the same number of days), Brazil & Mexico too reached far higher death toll figures than India (25k+ and 15k+ respectively).

So even in this second leg of death toll journey, India doesn’t seem to have performed that bad; just average. Some countries have done worse and others seem to have managed their death growth much better (keeping it below 5k – Turkey, Egypt, Bangladesh, Indonesia).

On to leg 3 now!

Even in here, India still looks like an average performer, doesn’t it?

In the time that India journeyed from 10k+ to 33k+ deaths (present), Brazil, UK and Mexico did worse. Many other countries that did better than India (lesser deaths in the same no. of days) where not drastically different – Italy, France, Spain! But then Peru, Russia and Iran did much better (may be because their journey has started only recently and they are better prepared to treat patients?)

How does it look like when we observe leg 1 (100+ to 1k+ deaths) for India, Japan, China, & South Korea?

Not too bad right? By the way over 40% of Japan is more than 55 years of age. Japan is like the class topper. India is an average student. US will need to repeat the class.

What about leg 2 (1k+ to 10k+ journey) for the above countries? Only India and China remain to be compared, because neither Japan nor South Korea have a death toll crossing 1k till date.

Clearly something happened in China once it reached 3k death toll. Since then China’s total death toll figure refuses to cross even the 5k mark. Could India have even been able to pull this feat off? There is no way to tell. Does this make India one of the ‘worst’ performers? No.

If one had to look at just one graph, what would that be?

In conclusion I would say that the best way to really look at the relative performance of any country is to look at how the death per million figure grew, when compared from a common starting-point (say 3 deaths per million – which is exactly Financial Times lets you track). 

In the above chart, all the countries on the left of India (blue line), did worse than India.

For some of them (SUFI for example), old-age was a factor. For others, death toll grew faster because the pandemic started earlier (in Feb-March – when treatment strategies were not as well developed as they are today). Then for other countries like US and Brazil, bad leadership can clearly be linked to bad performance. And of course, a mix of all these factors apply on a country by country basis.

Modi’s messaging, from the very beginning, has focused on the right things (even when he has also continuously spoken about many other random things – from tali, thali to atmanirbhar catchphrase and what not). It is hard to deny that without his sustained focus on social distancing, wearing masks etc. – India would have done worse (just look at US & Brazil). And without an early lock-down, our death-toll would have grown faster in the leg 1 (difficult to say by how much though).

What about the migrant worker issue that the lockdown caused?

Yes, that sucks. The government simply didn’t anticipate the implication and messed up the entire situation leaving it to the civil society to plug in the gap. I did document that story myself, in case you have not yet seen it.

But I guess that’s the only major blunder. And in spite of the blunder, today India is not doing as bad as many would want you to believe! That’s all I’ve got to say really. I hope you gained some good insights from this analysis.