Sunday, March 29, 2015

Shekhar Gupta on the Pakistani National Security State

This is a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in Pakistan: We respect all, we suspect all, until proven ok.

It is remarkable how much free speech and criticism even this security establishment allows the mostly western-educated intellectual class. But with one unwritten condition: it must remain confined to English, which is a marginalised discourse here. Follow some of Pakistan's finest, most courageous minds—many of them young women—in the new media. They have enormously more spunk than us in India. But all in English. Urdu is a different matter altogether. English publications' circulation is minuscule compared to Urdu and there isn't even one news channel in English, though they have in Mubashir Luqman someone who can by himself outshout all our English prime-time warriors, including the champion of champions. My friends tell me the story of Raza Rumi, a fine, brave liberal commentator and patriot. He was ignored as long as he confined himself to English. Then one day he succumbed to the temptation of TV, obviously in Urdu, and continued speaking the same honest truth. His car was attacked, his driver died and he escaped with a bullet and is now exiled in Washington. Do Google his writings.

PS: Raza Rumi's writings can be found here.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Shiv Tandav Stotra by Om Voices

Friday, March 20, 2015

Rajiv Malhotra: Are Sanskrit Studies in the West becoming a New Orientalism?

An important talk by Rajiv Malhotra, in Hindi, with very few English subtitles.

De-Macaulayization - 8

Aatish Taseer writes in the New York Times: How English ruined Indian Literature.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Two contrasting views of America - which one is true?

Ross Douthat in today's New York Times writes:

....And yet, for all these disturbances and shifts, lower-income Americans have more money, experience less poverty, and receive far more safety-net support than their grandparents ever did. Over all, material conditions have improved, not worsened, across the period when their communities have come apart.

Between 1979 and 2010, for instance, the average after-tax income for the poorest quintile of American households rose from $14,800 to $19,200; for the second-poorest quintile, it rose from $29,900 to $39,100.

Meanwhile, per-person antipoverty spending at the state and federal level increased sixfold between 1968 and 2008 — and that’s excluding Medicare, unemployment benefits and Social Security. Despite some conservative skepticism, this spending did reduce the poverty rate (though probably more so after welfare reform). One plausible estimate suggests the rate fell from 26 percent in 1967 to 15 percent in 2012, and child poverty fell as well.
But the basic point is this: In a substantially poorer American past with a much thinner safety net, lower-income Americans found a way to cultivate monogamy, fidelity, sobriety and thrift to an extent that they have not in our richer, higher-spending present.
But let us look at what has happened to the basics - housing, health care and education.

The median and average new house prices in the US from the Census Bureau:
Jan 1979 Median: $60,300 Average: $67,700
Jan 2010 Median: $218,200 Average: $283,400

So the average new home price rose from 4.6 times of the lowest quintile's average income to 14.8 times over 1979 to 2012.

The next set of numbers comes from Affording Health Care and Education on the Minimum Wage by John Schmitt and Marie-Eve Augier from the Center of Economic and Policy Research (PDF).  It is expressed in terms of the minimum wage, but the point to take away is the dramatic increase in costs.

On health-care:
Health-insurance premiums have also increased enormously when expressed in terms of the minimum wage. In 1979, one year of individual health insurance coverage cost a minimum-wage worker 130 hours. By 2011, the same coverage cost 749 hours. (See Figure 2.)

The cost of family coverage increased from 329 hours in 1979 to 2,079 hours in 2011. These figures imply that after paying for family health insurance coverage, a minimum-wage worker would have just one hour’s worth of wages left over to spend on other goods and services after working 40 hours per week for 52 weeks in a year.

On higher education:
A minimum-wage worker in 1979, making $2.90 per hour, had to work 254 hours in a year to pay the $738 annual cost of tuition at a public four-year college. By 2010, minimum- wage workers at $7.25 per hour had to spend 923 hours to cover the $6,695 annual tuition at a public four-year college. (All our calculations ignore taxes and subsidies. More on that later.) (See Figure 1.)

In 1979, a four-year private college required 1,112 hours of work at the minimum wage. By 2010, the cost in minimum-wage hours had increased so much that it was no longer possible to pay for a full year of a private four- year college–3,201 hours–by working full-year, full- time (2080 hours) at the minimum wage.

Even the minimum-wage hours needed to pay tuition for one year at a two- year college almost tripled between 1979 and 2010, from 156 hours to 403 hours.

To be sure, the authors point out that government help has made the cost of higher education less onerous than the above simple arithmetic makes it out to be.  And the article was written in 2012, before Obamacare helped or arrested the worsening situation with respect to health-care for many Americans.

The narrative competing with Douthat's is that it was much harder in 2012 for a family to earn enough to cover housing, health-care and higher education than in 1979.  And even if monogamy, fidelity, thrift and sobriety were more in 1979 than today, people in 1979 were still in the mind-set of an era of increasing general prosperity.  No culture can withstand the great deterioration of economic expectations that occurred over the past 30 years.  At some point, fatigue sets in and the faith that things can be better evaporates.

On Social Mobility

Via an article on, this paper:
(only the abstract is available for free):

Using educational status in England from 1170 to 2012, we show that the rate of social mobility in any society can be estimated from knowledge of just two facts: the distribution over time of surnames in the society and the distribution of surnames among an elite or underclass. Such surname measures reveal that the typical estimate of parent–child correlations in socioeconomic measures in the range of 0.2–0.6 are misleading about rates of overall social mobility. Measuring education status through Oxbridge attendance suggests a generalized intergenerational correlation in status in the range of 0.70–0.90. Social status is more strongly inherited even than height. This correlation is unchanged over centuries. Social mobility in England in 2012 was little greater than in preindustrial times. Thus there are indications of an underlying social physics surprisingly immune to government intervention.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Sweden, Germany say no arms for Saudi Arabia; will US ever be so principled?

Commentary here.

Swedish politicians have done a lot of nail-biting over the contract. The cancellation has been under discussion for months, with various interest groups, from feminists to environmentalists, putting pressure on the government.

Prime Minister Stefan Loefven has denied it, but the last straw apparently came on Monday, when Saudi Arabia blocked Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom from speaking to the Arab League in Cairo.

Wallstrom had been invited because Sweden was the first EU country to recognize the Palestinian state, but because she had previously called Saudi Arabia a dictatorship, the kingdom’s representatives apparently feared she might further embarrass their county before other Arab leaders. It was only after Wollstrom’s invitation was rescinded that Loefven confirmed the Saudi deal was finally off.

Strictly speaking, military cooperation with the Saudi regime should have been a nonstarter for European Union countries since 2008, when they approved their Common Position on arms exports. The document makes “respect for human rights in the country of final destination” a precondition of defense cooperation. A country that uses Shariah law, as Saudi Arabia does, can hardly be a paragon of respect for human rights in the Western sense of this expression.

For a time, however, another paragraph in the Common Position has outweighed that consideration: “Behavior of the buyer country with regard to the international community, in particular its attitude to terrorism, the nature of its alliances and its respect for international law.”

The Saudis have managed to convince the West that they are a reliable ally against terrorist organizations. U.S. policy in the Middle East has been in large part based on its partnership with the Saudis. European voters, however, have long been irritated with what they perceive as the consequences of U.S. activity in the volatile region, including the increased flow of refugees from Syria and Iraq.

They find it hard to understand why their governments should support an oppressive and fundamentalist regime just because it is a U.S. ally. Politicians have to take the popular mood into account, so the tide began to turn against arms exports to Saudi Arabia.
Sooner or later, the United Kingdom, whose defense industry counts Saudi Arabia as its biggest foreign customer, will also need to confront the fact that it’s arming a blatantly undemocratic country in contradiction to EU commitments. It may decide in favor of holding on to its market share and its special relationship with the U.S., but that will inevitably weaken the U.K.’s diplomatic position in matters involving human rights. Germany, as Europe’s new leader, is at least trying to be more consistent in putting principles over cash.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

India's New Forest Conservation Plan

See here.
India just did something big for the climate: it announced that it will allocate $6 billion a year in tax revenue in a way that will encourage forest conservation. That’s more results-based finance for forest conservation than any other country in the world, including the current biggest spender Norway.

Here’s how it will work: every year India’s central government collects about $200 billion in taxes. From that sum it then passes along about $60 billion to the 29 state governments. Following recommendations by India’s 14th Finance Commission, Parliament this past week accepted a watershed reform that not only increases the size of transfers to states from $60 billion to $80 billion, but also changes how this tax revenue is distributed between states.

The reform changes the “horizontal devolution” formula so that the pie will now – for the first time – be shared between states not just on the basis of population, area, and income, but also forest cover.
We are also directed to this interaction with Dr Arvind Subramanian, Chief Economic Adviser, Ministry of Finance, Government of India" for more details:

A pile of bunk

In his recent NYT column, Ross Douthat refers to this conversation on between Daniel Kahneman and Yuval Noah Harari.  Kahneman is a Nobel Laureatte, and Harari is a historian who has won attention for successfully pushing his greatly oversimplified view of reality. 

The best you can say about this conversation is that Harari is talking about many decades from now; and there's little original there - the masters of science fiction have long covered all these scenarios.

Let's take a few:
Nobody has a clue how the world will look like in, say, 40, 50 years.
There is nothing new or profound about that.  Consider the changes over the lifetime of a person who lived 1900-1980.  
But in the 21st century, there is a good chance that most humans will lose, they are losing, their military and economic value. This is true for the military, it's done, it's over. 
This might be true in the future; but if it was true today, the USwould have ended the civil war in Syria, and failing that, it would certainly wipe out in zero time the excrescence that is ISIS/Daish. But military operations still require putting people in harm's way;  remote air power is insufficient to defeat ISIS; it needs "boots on the ground".

And the handful of people trickling in from Europe and America to join ISIS would not cause such consternation and alarm, if humans were so not-valuable for military purposes.
People never die because the Angel of Death comes, they die because their heart stops pumping, or because an artery is clogged, or because cancerous cells are spreading in the liver or somewhere. These are all technical problems, and in essence, they should have some technical solution. And this way of thinking is now becoming very dominant in scientific circles, and also among the ultra-rich who have come to understand that, wait a minute, something is happening here. For the first time in history, if I'm rich enough, maybe I don't have to die.
The attitude may be there (Steve Jobs might be an exception?) but this way of thinking is delusional.  Not that there is an Angel of Death,  but  in thinking that "having some technical solution" means being able to achieve such a solution.    The problem of reconciling quantum mechanics and the General Theory of Relativity is a technical problem, and in essence, it should have a technical solution.  Good luck with that!   And how far have we gotten with curing cancer?  Or understanding the cause of autism?   All these are "technical problems".    Finding efficient computation for  NP-complete problems is a "technical problem" with a "technical solution".

If any ultra-rich person thinks that the world is like the Star Trek universe, where the Captain asks how long will it take to solve this never-before encountered complex engineering or scientific problem, and the crew says "5 hours", and the Captain says, "make it 4, make it so", and it all happens, please send that ultra-rich person my way, so I may join the ranks of the ultra-rich in short order.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

The tax paradise that is Saudi Arabia

There are no income taxes, sales taxes, value-added taxes in Saudi Arabia.  Corporate taxes and capital gains taxes seem to be a flat 20% except maybe for oil & gas business.   This is possible because the Saudi state gets all its revenue from the oil business.  

Libertarians should be asked to explain why Saudi Arabia is not the economic leader of the world.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Drawing the boundaries of constituencies

In the US, it would seem that a Constitutional Amendment will be required to give the authority to draw the lines of constituencies to a body directly elected by the people, responsible to the legislature but not the legislature.  Legislatures are famous for gerrymandering, i.e., drawing constituency boundaries to favor the majority party.