Monday, September 05, 2011

The Political Economy of Fasting

Political action that focuses inward is a powerful and equalizing tool in all but the most violent societies. It is a basic right to claim control over your own body, where Doing is intermixed with Being. Fasting as a personal (sacred) political act is often done to gain sharper spiritual understanding (as with the Buddha) or as a means of aligning oneself with (profane) public notions of physical beauty. Fasting as a public political act was understood as such long before Gandhi and has a great and storied history in the development of human civilization. Gandhi however refined the act of fasting as a means to achieve public/political ends. What is important to understand is that Gandhi actual took to fasting not just in protest against the acts of a colonial or authoritarian (or even democratic) government, but also where he had a point of view that was unpopular, such as against retaliatory violence among religious groups. Fasting was not a means to pout or sulk, but to introspect, to bring about change, and not necessarily a change that the person fasting wanted. In this sense, fasting is a superior and public form of protest rooted in an examination of the self. It seeks to explore the public realm based on an acute interrogation of the physical body, a ritual of detoxification that focuses the mind. Recently in India a public figure took to fasting as a means of political protest. In these populist times, there was a focus on the individual, his authoritarianism, his lack of respect for democratic institutions, and his unsavory friends. Rahul Gandhi, scion of the great Kashmiri-Italian dynasty of Gandhis that rules India by proxy, even made a speech in parliament about how he was torn between his concern for Anna's (the man fasting) health and the damage being done to democratic institutions (he doth protest too much!). Depending upon their point of view about corruption in India, many people in India saw this as a good, bad, or ugly thing. The 24 hour cable media in India variously saw it as a business opportunity, an entertainment spectacle, and an urban middle-class civic uprising based on cult of personality. The much more sophisticated Western media saw it as an extension of the "Arab spring" sweeping through roughly that part of the world. (Meanwhile, in the US, another democratic nation, the very same media sees no connection, correctly, between the Arab spring and tea party negotiations on the debt ceiling, or foreign students that protested in Pennsylvania because they were not paid for work at a Hershey's factory while on an exchange visa....but I digress.) Fasting is a legitimate means of protest; much like recalls and referendums in parliamentary democracies, but requiring more personal sacrifice than inking a ballot. Parliaments are simply the temporary gatekeepers of public opinion, and elections are just one means of expressing that public opinion. Fasting as a means of influencing a legislative outcome is an old tool in the democratic toolkit and it is less frequently used because it asks more of the protester. It can galvanize public opinion as it did in India recently, and it can question legislators in a way that a hundred thousand signatures on a petition cannot. In taking sides with personalities and parties in the most recent episode where fasting has been used as a means to an end, we must not forget the importance of fasting itself, in our private and public lives.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Living on the reservation

Democracies are not complete when they exclude certain segments of the population from minimal acts of political participation due to exclusionary rules. The United States, for example, prides itself on being a democracy since the eighteenth century but it really has been a democracy for a considerably shorter period of time, a fact that very few people have pointed out. Free and fair elections are a necessary but not sufficient condition of democratic regimes. Who can vote and who can contest in elections is a much more important aspect of minimal democratic systems. For example, men of European origin with private property were the only parts of the population in the US that were able to vote till much after the constitution was written. Similarly, women acquired the right to vote in US elections only in the 1920s. It was only in the 1960s that most African-Americans could vote in US elections. Even at a basic level, the United States has been a democracy only for the last fifty years or so.
Similarly, in India, many electoral districts in India are reserved for scheduled caste and scheduled tribe candidates (from a constitutional schedule that lists these castes and tribes). Citizens who are not members of these groups may not stand for elections in such electoral districts. Affirmative action programs to correct historical persecution or lack of rights in the spheres of education and jobs are not what we are talking about here (the merits of such programs can be debated and have been elsewhere).
When all citizens do not have equal constitutional access to voting, and contesting in elections, democracy fails at a very basic level. The electoral district where my home town in India falls, does not allow, for example, any Brahmins, to contest in elections, simply because of the accident of their birth. It certainly feels, in a perverse sort of way, like one is living on a reservation.
Now, there is legislation being proposed to reserve electoral seats for women through a constitutional amendment in India. This strikes at the very heart of India democracy, by excluding a majority of the population from contesting in many electoral districts. How then can India claim to be a democracy, let alone the largest in the world?

Bureaucrats & Politicians

Many people love to hate politicians, blaming them for everything from wars to poverty and budget deficits. I think politicians are actually great leaders and for the most part the discipline that most of them require to be popular enough to win elections repeatedly is rare and envied. In fact, I would hypothesize that statements about "politics being the last resort of scoundrels" is primarily due to the following empirical observations:
1. Some politicians seek to maximize wealth when they attach a low probability to winning the next election, aided by the means to maximize wealth in a way most ordinary people do not; and
2. Many politicians seek to maximize the welfare of their constituents with an eye to winning the next election, without considering the flawed execution of public programs by bureaucrats.
This brings us to the real villains in the public space: bureaucrats, particularly in countries where these people have lifetime job security with minimal scrutiny. Bureaucrats have done much damage in the name of public welfare programs; in many countries they manage very large budgets without the oversight prevalent in the private sector. They generally seek to maximize (relatively successfully) their own private material interests at the expense of the taxpayer without many of the controls that shareholders can exert in private sector settings. The design of rules for the punishment/reward of bureaucrats is an important but minimally studied aspect of social welfare; the implementation of such rules is even more rare.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The immorality of vegetarianism

Growing up in a Brahmin household in India, I became habituated to ritual vegetarianism, based on concepts of hygiene and the separation of food groups, as well as the exclusion of complex non-vegetarian diet in a tropical climate. As I went to college, I had the freedom to partake of animal proteins and I slowly grew used to this in moderation. Indian cuisine is varied and there is such a great variety of vegetables, fruits, and dairy products that the eating of non-vegetarian food is moderate.
These days, many people who are progressive have turned to vegetarianism. That is not a bad thing, considering its positive effects on the human body, as well as the relatively low levels of energy used in the production of non-vegetarian food, particularly animals.
A sub-segment of these vegetarians however claim a sense of moral superiority compared to meat consumers and hence shun non-vegetarian food completely, not necessarily due to enlightened self-interest but as a dogma or caste ritual. There is an implication that consuming vegetables is better than killing animals for food.
I actually think that all types of food -- animal and vegetable -- should be eaten in moderation. Vegetables are as much part of the sentient universe as are animals and involve the same level of cruelty, more or less, to process for human consumption.
Climate, relative personal health, physical age, and the availability of animal vs. plant life should determine, in addition to taste, the mix of these foods in our daily diet. A novel idea in Hinduism, is the absence of non-vegetarian food in kitchens on particular days of the week. Some clever sage must have thought of this idea to discipline the amount of animal protein intake among the weak-minded.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Sasana -- Village and Worldview

When I now go to Orissa, I like to spend much of my time in villages. These villages are known as Sasana, much like the Agrahara of South India.
I was born and raised a brahmin, and both my families on the maternal and paternal side were priests and astrologers to one of the erstwhile kings in Orissa. When the king invited them from Varanasi or other places of higher study, he gave them considerable land as an annuity stream. This was common practice in the creation of Sasanas in the period between the 10th and 18th centuries, and resulted in a certain cultural construct but also an important part of Brahmin social identity in many parts of India, continuing to this day.
Looked at through a western lens, these villages may seem to suggest the classic proof for homo heirarchicus and separateness but the reality is somewhat deeper. Religious ritual and meditation required an environment that was focussed on study, discipline, debate, voice modulation for Sanskrit chants, and purification of body and mind. A key learning for me as a child was how much internal focus and self-awareness there was in these villageworlds. I still remember my great-grandfather providing detailed notes on his examination of Sanskrit papers from Oxford University where he was a designated external examiner explaining to me (and the student who was being examined) what grammatical logic meant in the various schools of linguistic philosophy and how that might translate into a framework understandeable to a native English speaker.
Many of my interactions with people in the West or in nearly-West urban India these days suggests the opposite: the defensive-aggressive posture, the lack of scholarship and self-awareness, superficial discourse, and above all externalization of ignorance and even a righteous defense of these when questioned resulting in Ad Hominem fallacies. Westerners who are increasingly interacting with India, see only the urban social construct which is largely a diluted reflection of their own mindset from the colonial age reinforced by the globalization of western media. They have not for the most part interacted with rural India where in places it has been independent of these globalizing forces.
Thus in the Sasana there was an appreciation of difference that is not directive, and there was a contentment that came from great introspection. The chants still speak in an ancient tone of the oneness of self and the universal divine. The crumbling palm leaf manuscipt next to the salegram points the way through meditation to fulfilment. All that is slowly changing now as cable wires intrude ever deeper into this Indian psyche.
For now, these villages still provide a view of the world.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

White Woman's Burden?

There are a small number of blogs now, by women from the West in the process of getting married to, or already with, an Indian husband. Interestingly many of these blogs call out to themselves in "skin color" terms: "WHITE Indian housewife" or "GORI girl". Perhaps I am overly sensitive, but there seems to be a mild air of prejudiced condecension in the subtext of these blog titles.
'Look at me, I am white but I am trying to make it with a "colored" man in very difficult circumstances. I am liberated and don't care about race (what about those color references as the defining characteristic of the blog titles?) but look at my husband's family and country -- caste system, higher fees at parks for foreigners, they shit and spit in the street, mom-in-law looks at my "blonde" hair and "fair" skin in envy -- so much of a white woman's burden (sigh!).'
Methinks there is an externalization of collective prejudice perhaps? When 9/11 happened, Sikhs got murdered in Phoenix, AZ, coz some European-Americans couldn't be bothered with the difference between them and Al-Qaeda! Sikhs and Muslims thrown into the same category because they have turbans and beards is the ultimate irony! And speakin' of Australia --- well, lets examine the immigration policies from a few years ago or how "aborigines" have been treated.....the less said the better! Australia, South Africa, and the US are examples of institutionalized prejudice in European-dominant societies, in the same way as one might think of the caste system in India. There is unfortunately no racial monopoly when it comes to prejudice, although the evidence points to greater violence related to institutional prejudice in "white" societies.
Another important point about these (mis)conceptions is the equating of race with skin or eye color. Any decent anthropologist or evolutionary biologist will tell you that human beings are essentially all racial hybrids and are genetically indistinguishable from each other racially compared to other species, say, apes or mice. Indians and Europeans are actually all caucasians who even share a common original language called proto-Indo-European -- read Max Mueller. This is what really gets me: that these women/men think they actually have married into a different race because of differences in skin color. It never occurs to them in their ignorance that they should question the prejudices they grew up with in their own societies/families. The externalization of ignorance is the very essence of prejudice. So skin color is just a political manifestation of "racial" self-identity in institutionally prejuduced societies: us vs. the aborigines, us vs. the "blacks", us vs. the injuns, us vs. the japs we put in the internment camps, us vs. the wetbacks, us vs. the curry-smelling brown guys, us vs. the shudras, etc., etc. I have never actually seen a WHITE-skinned person, they are mottled pink or cream, or yellow, or brown, or whatever. White is the color of the printer paper next to your PC;its an invention of convenience to define separateness in very superficial terms.
So, I might ask, are Westerners like that only, but I may be accused of generalizing to an entire group or race or set of countries, and that wouldn't be right, now, would it?

Friday, February 13, 2009

A President for the Ages?

Re: my earlier post on the emergence of democracy in the US, we now have a President of a non-European hue. Free, free at last! Watch the media swoon at the inaugural balls. And Oprah and Jesse crying! Well, the President is sophisticated and he actually mentioned the word "Hindu" along with other religions in his inaugural speech. And he says "Eeraan" and not "I-ran" and that is a truly wondrous thing.

But the popular media is still so illiterate. Things are so black-and-white. Many have declared the country free of racism and prejudice with the election of one different looking man about 200 years after the constitution got started. Lets have some perspective here folks! What about that senator from Louisiana. What if he wasn't born-again; what if he was twice-born? Would you vote for him as the next Republican candidate for President? Wouldja?
Meanwhile we had one woman take over from another in a presidential election in godforsaken, third-world, Muslim-dominant Bangaladesh. Boy, they must be crazy!

Movie Slumdogs

Once again I am struck by this rising to the surface of a shadowy battle; the clash of exports from the two great film-producing countries of the world, mediated by the old imperial master, Britain.
There are many good movies on Mumbai, classic like Anand or Kaagaz Ke Phool or Maqbool, but also the more urban-modern: Bombay, Company, Satya. All edgy in different ways, visually arresting, tugging at your emotions, musically vivid. And then, I recently saw Slumdog Millionaire and have watched its Dickensian appeal to the Western media, rising up in waves about the feel-good story of the underdog, the conceits, the pulsating music and truthful view of Mumbai like the Indians would never tell it, and the raw cinematography. The interviews with Dev Patel (where are you from really? London, really? You have never been to India??) and Freida Pinto (are you from India? Really? Sure you are not from Portugal?) and the excitement over Bollywood dancing over the ending credits.
Slumdog Millionaire? A decent Bollywood movie on a $13MM budget. Good production values. But great? Come on! Wake up. Watch a few really good Mumbai the other ones I mention above. And I am just talking about movies out of Mumbai. Don't get me started on Adoor and Ritwik and the other great movie makers that have suffered the fate of all subalterns. Danny Boyle vs. Guru Dutt vs. Mani Ratnam. Such sadness underlies one of the great loves of my life, and yet so much richness.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Political Preference: The Obama Factor

The Democratic Presidential Primaries have sprung two lucky candidates -- one woman, and one African-American male -- against 200 years of ageing European extraction males being in the White House. The quality of media debate in the US, particularly in the Fox News and Lou Dobbs era, continues to be riveting.
In any democratic society, you would expect that unless there were historically reinforced inequalities, candidates, and indeed election winners would reflect social demographics. Not so in the USA...and citizens do not question it either. Where in another democratic country, people might naively push for rules to encourage women and historically oppressed segments of the population to participate and win, perhaps to the detriment of individual choice, in the US, democracy is massacred with statements about lucky black men, and a focus on the possibility of Islamic contamination in a middle name...psst, psst!
I have strong free market views and would probably make voting decisions for people on the right. Therefore, I am shocked by the implication that a Muslim or a Jew or a woman or a Hindu (are we even past Catholicism??) cannot aspire to and win high office in a democratic country.
It is interesting that the US seeks to export and even enforce free choice and democracy to the rest of the world. Except for the enforcing part, I actually support that sentiment.
But charity begins at home. The US must be a failed democracy if, having allowed women the right to vote in the 1920s, and citizens of African extraction the right to vote in the 1960s, cannot bring itself to allow people to run for office and be elected if they do not subscribe to the WASP norm. How different is this from the caste system in India or the suppression of Shia or Sunni sects. Israel has had a woman president; India has had a woman prime minister and an "untouchable" President, even the UK has had its Iron Lady PM.
When will the US catch up??

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Life and Death in Balance

It is interesting that most human beings, particularly when they are younger, live life as if they were immortal. Most people do not think of the prospect of dying, or have varying degrees of experience with it over their lifespan. This leads to what one may call short-term selfish behavior that has suboptimal results from a social standpoint. The outcomes in single-shot games (any interaction among two or more individuals where individual interests can be modeled in relation to a feasible outcome) do not often result in cooperation, but if the game were repeated many times from an endpoint of sincerity (an example being the extremely common occurrence of reflecting back on one's life when one is on one's deathbed) then one could have more cooperative outcomes.
If you reflect on the above, dear reader, many corollary observations follow, much like what Gautama Siddhartha started to realize as he observed sickness, disease, desire, and death in his rounds of the city as a young prince.

1. Younger human beings are more likely to be more self-directed in their dealings with others relative to older people who are increasingly confronted with their mortality, as well as that of their peer group.
1a. Among younger people, those with a higher relative experience of mortality will tend to behave less selfishly.
1b. Societies with higher and healthier lifespans will tend to be more self-interested, everything else being equal.
1c. In societies where there are subpopulations with significantly different experiences related to the prospect of death, there be a higher degree of intra-group coherence in those groups that have higher prospects of dying.
2. Higher education and wealth, which correlate with health and longevity, are likely to result in more self-directed behavior.
2a. In some cases, where the education effects outweigh wealth effects, behavior may be more altruistic (the informed ability to reflect on the consequences of death).

In short, reflecting on the prospect of dying (or not being able to do so) is what what defines us as human beings and causes many interesting patterns in social interaction, and our individual decisions in regard to those interactions. We often think that death is a consequence of how we live, but what is substantially more consequential is the prospect of dying for life.

The Risky Business of Insurance

I just read somewhere that Indians are one of the most underinsured populations in the world, and that this market will grow to INR 200,000,000 by 2010. Many more Indians will be employed in the insurance sector, which is a good thing (I remember growing up that some of the richest people around were LIC sales agents). Many more Indians will also be insured, and I am not sure that is a good thing. I just think that the less wealthy sections of the population will be more likely to buy insurance and that it will make them strictly worse off.
The theory of incomplete insurance markets is fairly well-known, imbedded in the economics of information. The idea is that at any given price (reflecting the risk premium) there will be adverse selection (meaning that due to information asymmetry between the provider of insurance and the customer set, the riskier subsegments -- smokers/genetically predisposed to disease -- will be more likely to buy), thus causing the a priori actuarial fatality outcome distributions for the issuer to be incorrect, in effect causing incumbent issuer losses, and a decline in the market for insurance over time. This reasoning has sometimes been used to nationalize insurance providers, as in India. It also causes severe cyclicity in insurance markets, leading to, for example, GE exiting the insurance/reinsurance markets citing "volatility of earnings". Adverse selection affects markets like credit and mortgages as well, where exotic derivative instruments may transfer risk or generate fees for bright young MBAs but eventually are no different than Ponzi schemes. That's partly the story of the ongoing mess in credit and mortgage markets, but that's another day's blog.
To me, getting insurance, particularly life insurance for after when you are dead, appears remarkably silly. The other forms of insurance, such as those for fixed periods/disability, or against damage to your home or other shiny baubles, prey on our insecurity, and there may in some cases even be positive externalities, as in the case of mandated third party claims; they are second-best solutions I can understand to a degree.
However, life insurance where payout is in the event of death, bothers me because it preys on you through your loved ones as well as on your own fears, depending on how much of a wimp you are. Older people, in general, would naturally be wimpier than younger ones when it comes to death, so they pay more! The marketing is very targeted, hoardings being put up near hospitals/cemeteries, and the names are well chosen, for example, Scottish Widow.
But basically, when you are dead, you have no loved ones (except, with some probability depending on your religion, God/Goddess/Devil). When you are dead, its all over and you cant relish the fruits of your labor (as in the premiums you paid), you are rotting in the ground, not looking down from heaven or (up from) hell at your loved ones thinking about how well you have taken care of their needs and how much they now fondly remember you (not!).
Lets imagine that you can look down from heaven after you are dead. Is the insurance payout the best you could have done for your loved ones? Would God really be pleased with you (this is the key question -- it does not matter if your spouse is displeased with you after you are dead) that you acted in the best interests of your family?
The answer is very likely No! If you had invested in various asset classes with a view to providing yourself (and your loved ones after your death) with an optimal earnings stream, and if insurance were one investment option, it would likely generate a very poor rate of return since it reflects the risk you think the provider is taking on your behalf! Therefore, other than misguided ego and guilt, you should not really be investing in insurance if you strictly have your loved ones' financial interests at heart.
In summary, when you are dead you are dead, and so why do you care what anybody is paid afterwards. Even if you had post-mortal caring, you would be castigated by your particular divine being for not making the right investments.
Invest in stocks, real estate, commodities, currency futures, even your children's higher education if that makes you feel better....but not insurance, surely?!!

Unconvinced? Here is an alternative point of view:

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Education in India (and elsewhere)

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the quality of some higher education institutions in India such as the IITs and the IIMs, some of it from the US media. While it is true that some of these graduates have done well in the information technology sector and, to a lesser extent, in other parts of the corporate world, as well as in entrepreneurial activities, the key questions are whether they truly represent value in India's growth equation, and whether they are truly the product of meritocracy. I would make the following observations:
1. The biggest public gains from a public welfare standpoint to any society is in primary and secondary, rather than in higher education. Since there are more private gains for every additional year of higher education, this is best left to private capital to manage at market prices. Affordability and access to such higher education institutions should not be an issue as long as tax policy and access to private funding is encouraged (bank loans, etc.) since the key underwriting question will be the net present value of future earnings from such education; the "sheepskin effect". I would venture to suggest that institutions such as the IITs should be sold to private entreprenuers (and even such institutions such as JNU whose current contribution to public welfare relative to tax spending is questionable) in order to release substantial efficiencies. The AICTE and other regulatory bodies, on the other hand, should be considerably strengthened in order to provide quality-control and oversight over privately funded institutions. Government expenditures in higher education should focus on niche areas relevant to economic growth such as biotechnology or alternative fuels research that may not attract short-term focused private funding, but even here, TATA (as in BP solar) or Suzlon and Biocon should be encouraged to fund their own future requirements in manpower and R&D (tax breaks). Also, fees in IITs should be increased substantially to reflect the true cost of education, mitigated appropriately by scholarships and loans to provide access to less-privileged students.
2. Although there is a strong myth about the competitive nature of IIT and IIM entrance examinations, and the focus on meritocracy, there is a considerable skew towards prospects from urban, english-language schools. Go to any IIT campus, and you will see that the proportion of students from such schools is much higher than the underlying proportion of such schools in the overall geography of India. My point is not to argue that those schools have an unfair advantage since they offer better educational facilities and preparation for IIT entrance examinations, but to suggest that kids from rural schools or government schools in general have a disadvantage when it comes to understanding the real relevance of IITs and other elite institutions in their future lifetime earnings. When one looks at other publicly funded "institutions of national importance" such as the ISIs (Indian Statistical Institutes) the skew is even more pathological; why is there an overwhelming overrepresentation of Bengalis in the ISIs, is it because they are genetically predisposed to be statistical in their thinking, or is it because the ISI entrance examination notices appear next to tender notices in many national newspapers, and is more heavily advertised in Bengal newspapers? The answer is that fees (and scholarships) need to be raised in these insitutions and specific funds need to be applied to advertising and coaching for students in rural and vernacular schools. Then you will see a real meritocracy, not just meritocracy among the children of the Indian professional elite. Think of the quality of IIT graduates then!
3. Despite the appearance of academic quality, there is a dearth of good faculty at these institutions and this is primarily due to the lack of pay but also due to the lack of quality control in faculty hiring and promotions. A lot of these issues are due to lack of autonomy and interference from government agencies, and the fact that the existing faculty and administrative bureaucracies at these institutions haave taken shelter under the pretense of lack of autonomy to subsidise large-scale inefficiencies. The lack of merit in teaching and research related income streams clearly will have downstream effects on the quality of graduates coming out of these institutions. These facts are often hidden from the taxpayers who fund these institutions, creating a classic "moral hazard" from a public welfare standpoint. The central universities, in particular, where an increasing share of taxpayer funding is diverted, are places where this kind of pathology is rampant -- JNU, Jamia, AMU, Pondicherry are all excellent (!) examples.
4. When it comes to primary and secondary education, there needs to be a sea-change in taxpayer funding, focussing large funds on rural schools, in teaching as well as in infrastructure, but also in the local control of these fund expenditures. Give local taxpayers control over schools and their governing bodies and you will see better visibility in their functioning.
One little known fact is the skew in public tax-based funding of Kendriya Vidyalayas, which subsidise inefficiencies and restrict access to these "better" schools through the tariff barriers of admission criteria. Let me explain this tax scandal which has been going on in India for the past half-century, which neither our media, nor tax-paying citizens have chose to make visible. Kendriya Vidyalayas are, like many other publicly funded institutions, primarily paid for by corporations and private-sector employees. However, the children of private-sector employees in effect have almost no access to these schools, who have a stated policy of discriminating in favor of government and public-sector employees as well as defence personnel. Why hasn't someone moved the courts against such an obvious flouting of equal treatment constitutional principles? Again, taxpayers in private-sector jobs probably have written this off as yet another cess and in any case have access to other private-sector primary/secondary education options, but what about access and scholarships for children of day laborers in the unorganized sector???
Perhaps the left leaning ideologues at JNU would wish to comment on this dictatorship of the proletariat! Why are there so many of these Vidyalayas in urban areas or in public industrial towns or in district headquarters towns rather than in far-flung rural areas?
Enough said.
By the way, educational access and skewness against the underprivileged is not just an Indian problem. Just see how asymmetries and inequalities are reinforced in other educational models; in the UK, how many Oxford and Cambridge graduates come from working Cockney families in relation to their proportion in the population? In the US, how are Harvard and Stanford admissions criteria different for children of alumni and donors, as opposed to the general population?
India has a tremendous focus on education (I have benefitted) but I would argue much of it is familial and societal culture; the specific question to honestly answer is how much the government has done to unleash productive human potential through illiteracy eradication. How much of India's education policies are simply a function of the need to provide quality education enclaves for the children of bureaucrats, the successors of the British collectors? Are we democratic in our education policies? Think about this the next time you vote.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Love and Marriage

Love has very little to do with marriage, although I am surprised at how many people -- even "educated" youngsters in places like India that were culturally mature in the past -- think otherwise. Married life, first with a partner, and then potentially with other genetically allied human beings, is essentially a lesson in the recognition of limitations on individual freedom. It has to do with tolerating and appreciating different points of view in a sequence of very prolonged and intimate interactions, where politeness may fade with time. So the initial flush of physical infatuation soon ceases to be a "decoupling" interruption in the reality of married life. Hence those marriages are likely to be long-tenured and successful that have been socially organized or arranged.
In all societies, marriages are arranged to more or less degree, although the rituals/brokerage mechanisms may be very divergent and appear disguised, particularly in societies where the mythology of individual freedom is widely accepted. The idea of individual choice in marriage is of course a mental construct that reinforces the acceptance of what is primarily a social and socially enforced institution. What is fascinating in "new" European societies such as the US, is the strong idealized belief that love is a necessary prerequisite in marriage, when there is dramatic empirical evidence to suggest that marriages fail for a variety of more mundane reasons such as wealth tolerance, brand preference, work-sharing, etc. It appears that despite marriages being based on "love", there is an ex ante probability of greater than 70% that love cannot overcome individual differences on the mundane criteria stated above.
So marriages are more likely to succeed where they are arranged and where there is a consistent connection between deep social networks, cultural celebration of social institutions including marriage, a clear/pragmatic recognition of gender differences, and a recognition of the balance between social intrusion and private space.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Liberated Advertising? The Exploitation of Women in the West

The irony of women's liberation in western societies is a deeply imbedded form of mental slavery that is hostage to sexist advertising, a hugely profitable cosmetic (from gels to surgery and wire-bras to stilletos) industry, and the widely held notion of progress by "comparison" with the sorry state of women in the third world.
Women are meek, servile, wretched, abused, the other/Eastern societies. In the West, they speak in a masculine tongue/harsh/gravel voice, they are "equal" to men, they work outside the home, they smoke, drink, take drugs, shave their legs and armpits in ritual fashion/fashion ritual, wear make-up their entire lives, wear restrictive underwear, and are made to sell everything from cars to razor blades through their physical nakedness. Now in the globalizing convergence of progress the mysterious separateness of men and women that constituted the most beautiful aspect of humanity is being diluted by Body Shop, an obligingly carbon-neutral guilt free removal of layers of difference and a plastering of organic make-up that will enslave all women as made-up gloss at the altar of those asexual objects, the Gods (Godesses?) of Equality.

American Colors: The Spin on Skin

The United States is uniquely ignorant in its obsession with race. All societies have institutionalised prejudice in one form or another; older societies have gone through many cycles of creating and dismantling hierarchies as various coalitions wrestled with the economic and social spoils available.
The idea here is to consider the American case as an anthropological absurdity rather than a comparative assessment of its moral status vis-a-vis related prejudice.
The first thing that struck me as absurd about American popular and institutional notions on race is its conscious connectivity with skin color. In reading through anthropological texts, the orthodoxy suggests that genetic differentiation intra-species was superficial (in terms of nose bridge structure/hair texture/skin color) and that the quasi-science of race nevertheless was defined in some non-superficial matrix : Austric, Caucasian, Mongoloid, etc., based on climatic and other adaptive contexts.
In the US, the census and many employment documents show a pervasive sense of politically/socially defined race categories exclusively and ignorantly based on skin color! So racial categories are white/black/yellow, etc. The sense of self/other is eurocentrically, the polite phraseology for blacks is african-american, whereas for whites, it is not european-american. So people from the Indian subcontinent who may be Caucasian or Mongoloid are called Asians (race category!). Thankfully I have not seen a category of "brown/yellow" in census documents; perhaps a young society cannot think in a less simplistic dimension than black/white in formulating prejudice hierarchies.
There is a definition of freedom and equality that seems inconsistent with the above, but is savagely upheld as being true despite the commonality of superficial race discourse across American society. A typical American is quite content to comment negatively on European or Asian (old society) class and caste hierarchies as laughably sophisticated prejudice in opposition to his/her own sense of freedom/equality in American society. The next moment, that same naive citizen will speak in the most ignorant manner about race categories in terms of skin color. This is ingrained at all levels in language, media, government, and in personal lives. A society founded on the massacre of native populations, and the systematic enslavement of other human beings must naturally be racist, but what is amazing about American racism is its focus on skin color as a defining characteristic of race, in defiance of all scientific and anthropological evidence.