Big P Progress

As Americans exercise their rights in an increasingly strained democratic process, I celebrated this festival of democracy by reading Team of Rivals and watching Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln. Steeped in the hot political issues of today, traveling back to those times was a surreal experience. For one, it is remarkable how similar the political landscape now is to then – two major parties, extremists agitating on both sides, political fortunes tracking the economy closely. It is also quite amazing that at that point in time, 150 years ago, American democracy was about as old as Indian democracy is today. The world is fortunate to have had such a long lasting experiment of this fragile political system.

But of course the division of society across fairly well defined lines also stood out – the stubborn, violent insistence of racist whites to exercise their right to own and abuse other humans, and (in light of this violence) the admirable moral courage of liberal whites to strive for decades to end slavery. In fact, this fairly modern seeming facet is where I believe American society has moved forward significantly. That American society continues to be divided along political lines is true then as of now, but I cannot help but think that this division is no longer along such a crystal clear line as before. Slavery, the suffragette movement, Civil Rights, LGBT rights – the steady march of time in this democratic experiment has taken care of the clearest lines, leaving later generations to have to choose divisions that are less striking in their moral substance.

Bob Gibbons uses the Big C – little c notation to distinguish between Culture as the Hegelian object that affects all people with a shared history, and culture as the beliefs and values that individuals adopt/follow. That American society’s divisions are along much fuzzier lines is Big P Progress.

Xi Xi P

In an ideal world, all ideas, even the bad ones, can be fairly evaluated. Their merits and demerits can be debated, and they can be experimentally analyzed (maybe in a nice randomized trial). But in practice, some ideas may have a hard time being given a fair chance, especially in certain contexts. For example, it would be hard to estimate the value of free speech in a true democracy, because by definition there cannot be full suppression of speech. So the claim that political freedoms are not really that valuable cannot be countered, at least with good evidence.

The CCP experiment feels like the closest we can get towards such a test. While democracies such as the US have emphasized a wide variety of freedoms, the CCP has consistently placed economic freedom over political ones, sacrificing the latter whenever the former is imperiled (the claim is always made in the name of “stability”, but I find it persuasive that stability is valued primarily due to its economic benefits). Xi seems to be reinforcing this choice. Although my strong belief is that economic advancement without political freedoms is insufferably hollow, the silver lining to Xi’s power grab will be a chance to see whether this is indeed true. Either Chinese citizens will soon push back in order to gain more political rights, or they will consign themselves to being rich and powerless. In both cases there will be lessons to be learned.

Cry me a river

A recent UN study projected that India could be the most populous country as early as next year. Around the same time, the results of a national survey were released, showing that fertility rates have dropped just below replacement rate for the first time. Both seem to be good news, in that there’s a large population that’s not exploding but also not contracting at a rate which would jeopardize development.

But ground realities (literally, as you’ll see) are different. The strain on natural resources to sustain this size of a population is immense. Already, at a somewhat lower level of development, the air and the water in most urban regions (which account for over a third of India’s population) is dangerously rotten. Water tables and soil quality struggle to keep up with the hungry demands of agriculture; barring another Green Revolution, these probably cannot keep up with higher standards of living. The most important bottleneck to improving living conditions will come from natural resource constraints, rather than human resource ones.

I see barely any will to address any of these constraints. When the air itself chokes, any public official that doesn’t toil to loosen its grip should find themselves voted out or booted out. Yet there is barely a whimper of a complaint from citizens. The Ganga remains relatively unclean despite a huge quasi-religious effort to clean it, and those other rivers unlucky enough to not be associated with a major Hindu deity fare much, much worse. No amount of increase in GDP can offset having to breath smoke and drink sludge.

Look West policy

In an increasingly interconnected world, it is hard to be ignorant of international news. But news from the West, especially the United States, seems to have a prepotence over people around the world, especially the youth. A stark reminder of this effect came recently in the form of the Roe v Wade controversy.

The US has many peculiar cultural fights, most of them idiosyncratic and pointless. The debate over abortion falls into that majority. There are much better sources on the causes, intricacies, and effects of the abortion debate, so I won’t dwell on any of those here. But I will argue that there’s little of import in the debate that is of direct relevance to anyone living in India. Nobody in India is going to be affected by what the US Supreme Court decides on the case, directly or indirectly. They are not subject to that decision, and it will not have externalities in the form of cultural effects that can influence legislation and litigation in India. Denying the right of abortion, especially early on in the pregnancy, is exceptionally dumb and there’s no chance of something like that gaining a foothold. And yet, many spoke passionately about this news. The internet was flooded with Twitter threads, opinion pieces, memes; all chiming in on a debate that is of little or no consequence to them. Contrast this to the relative silence on a recent High Court ruling that refused to strike down a law that gives legal sanction to marital rape. You’d be hard pressed to find an issue that impacts as many people in India as this ruling. Half a billion Indians are directly affected by it, and the other half a billion indirectly by being family members of the other half.

The more of our collective energy that we expend on the stupid cultural fights of influential countries, the less we will have left over to clean important stuff up in our own backyard.

Ask what your country can do for you

One of the things that used to fascinate me early on in the pandemic was how officials could track down how someone contracted the virus, and create a chain of transmission events, literally like an infection network. Admittedly there is uncertainty in this model and events are probabilistic rather than certain, but it certainly was amazing that even a hazy picture of viral transmission could emerge. Isolation of exposed people seemed to be the obvious purpose, but I believe that focusing on only this purpose has unfortunately led us to where we are today, with contact tracing relegated because it is no longer feasible to isolate every exposed person. A very important externality of contact tracing has become unavailable to us as a result.

Individual decisions are hard even in normal times. During a pandemic, they become stressful. The best recourse is to deploy our collective understanding to aid people making choices everyday, and in turn using those decisions to inform and update our understanding. But without contact tracing, it is no longer easily identifiable where the virus spreads most efficiently. Two years into the pandemic, I still cannot claim with confidence whether taking well-ventilated and mostly mask-compliant public transport is as good (or better) than taking a cab. I cannot tell whether attending fully masked classrooms and seminars is as safe as being virtual. If we’d kept track during each wave where the virus seemed to be spreading the most, these would have been easy questions to answer with the data. Like most failures, this has been a failure of imagination by those entrusted with our collective decision rights.

The science is dismal

A Twitter thread got me thinking about the widespread disagreement about how to respond to the covid pandemic, especially how it relates to “following the science”. From one perspective, it is hard to wrap one’s head around the idea that scientific and rational people can disagree so starkly on what to do. Assuming that everyone has access to similar information (which may sound incredible, but this is more plausible than ever in the age of the internet), surely anyone that respects and follows the science must agree on the right action to choose. But this, I believe, is where the meaning of the word “science” has to be broadened to include economics as well.

Even an undergraduate student of economics can argue that two different persons with different beliefs about the world can process the same data differently to infer different things about what to do. But even starting out with the same belief, people can disagree on the action to be taken simply because they have different objective functions. A Bayesian agent would take the action that minimizes expected harm, while a regret minimizing agent would take the action that provides some guarantee against the regret, and so on for a variety of different objectives. A lot of the times, the arguments on how to proceed (the rational and sensible ones, at least) seem to be implicitly arguing about the right objective function to use. A month ago, those who were arguing that boosters be given to everyone immediately seemed to be arguing for using a minmax objective, while those who were content with giving it only to a small section of the population seemed to be arguing for a more Bayesian take. And similarly on the response to the omicron variant.

In dependence

Independence day evokes memories of outsized displays of patriotic fervour for me, from loudspeakers blasting a medley of songs centred around watan, desh, and bharat, to the upright posture of bodies staring at a flag fluttering happily, oblivious to the demand for stationarity. Dignitaries ranging from the Prime Minister (on TV) to the Secretary of my housing society (on podium) delivered eloquent and evocative speeches, after which sweets were distributed. My expectations on my first 4th of July in the US were primed by these memories, amplified by the usual trope of Americans being “patriots”. They were summarily dashed by the complete lack of any significant marker except for a damp squib of a firework display barely better than the one that my housing society puts up for Diwali. So much for American patriotism, I thought.

But then on deeper reflection, I realized that there is a significant difference in the two countries that I’m not accounting for here. The US is a nation at its absolute prime, secure in the knowledge (belief?) that it is in many ways the best. Its current identity is far removed from whatever state it existed in two hundred or so years ago, having had enough time and success to mature. India, on the other hand, still suffers from the insecurity and ailments that it did seventy years ago. We are still a nation of former glory and wounded pride. Of filthy riches and pathetic poverty. Of terrific potential always tantalizingly just out of reach. Our outsized displays of patriotism are not meant to convince anyone else about our greatness – they are meant as a plea to ourselves to continue to believe in it.

Permagram

Having always felt technologically out of place for a number of years now, I realized recently that my technological preferences may indeed be antiquated. About a decade ago, or “in my time”, the purpose of social media and the internet used to be to establish and preserve – connections, memories, discussions. Even the platforms that could be used as temporary media, such as Yahoo Messenger, had an option to save chats. Today the exact opposite of this is true. Virtually all platforms have versions of “stories” – ephemeral objects you throw out into the world knowing that they will disappear completely into oblivion, and in a day it will be as if they never existed.

Even as I use these platforms, my mind rebels against this outrageous concept. Ever conscious of my own impermanence and mortality, it is the internet that provides some measure of expression that may, with whatever little probability, endure past my own expiry date. I want to believe my thoughts, ideas, and memories matter – and sending them into the world lit with a short fuse seems to devalue them to the point of umbrage.

I guess the widespread adoption of this medium of expression may be due to the enhanced freedom it offers. You can afford to open up more once you are sure that it will not be a testimonial forever to your identity; a digital etch a sketch is much less risky than a digital rosetta stone. This impulse to be evanescent, evidently attractive to many, strikes me as deeply unsettling, in a manner similar to what Pope conjures up with “The world forgetting, by the world forgot”.

Playing the fiddle

Thousands of miles away from home as it endures one of its worst humanitarian crises in recent times, I cannot but wonder how things were allowed to get so bad, especially since I know a close relative in Australia who has been living a fairly normal life for most of the past year. To an extent, I understand why it might be impossible to expect India to push down the curve as low as Australia – the lockdown made it clear that was not possible even with extreme measures. But why did it need to reach the point where the country is literally gasping for breath, without even hospital beds to lie on? It is all the more exasperating that this has come to pass an entire year after we encountered this virus – we can’t even claim that we were caught unawares.

It is almost blindingly obvious that this is a failure of governance. Common sense measures like restricting gatherings, which would be even less psychologically costly now that vaccines are only a few months away from reaching most adults, were all too easily discarded – but that’s unsurprising given the agonisingly stupid idea of allowing and promoting the Kumbh Mela (the contrast with the Tablighi Jamaat event and the subsequent ostracism of Muslims early in the pandemic is just another painful reminder of how low the republic’s sensibilities have fallen). But what really takes the cake is that absolutely no preparation was undertaken for an entire year to ensure that the healthcare system doesn’t buckle. Nero played the fiddle as Rome was splashed with petrol.

And now, as Rome burns, Nero continues to escape accountability. I had to rub my eyes in disbelief today as I saw a friend jump through the most ridiculous hoops to avoid blaming this crisis on the government, at one point even blaming the lack of philanthropy in India. Nero cloaked in Cicero is worse than Nero – at least your faith in the republican idea doesn’t die even as you do.

Academic shackles

I remember that a survey found a few years ago that a plurality of children in the US aspire to be YouTube stars more than anything else. Loud lamentations and comparisons ensued, since it was also found that children in China wanted to be astronauts, and commentators wondered why kids in the US did not want to be something valuable like scientists, doctors, engineers and so forth. I found the survey’s results noteworthy, but what captivated me even more were the reactions it elicited. Not the content of these reactions, but what was missing in them. Almost nobody cited any profession of the social sciences as a respectable or desired alternative.

Achievements in philosophy, rhetoric, artistic and literary creativity, and many similar skills and pursuits formed the pinnacle of the best of societies, in all parts of the world. Plato’s denouncing of sophistry tells us how popular and advanced thought in the social sciences had become – it had proliferated to such an extent that it became necessary to condemn its oversized influence. Today, this role has been usurped to some extent by the natural sciences. The most trusted and followed leaders of thought tend to be from that domain, even on topics like politics, ethics, and morality, which would call for practitioners from its sister domain.

I think this partly stems from the excessive academization of the social sciences. For the natural sciences, academization and intense specialization makes sense – I, the average rational Joe, can trust the experts for scientific advice even when I do not understand the logic or analysis behind it, because the advice can be verified to be applicable quite easily. If a scientist tells me to take a vaccine without telling me about the magical mRNA technology behind it, I will take it because it seems to work. On the other hand, if a professor of philosophy tells me that only some specific terms and labels can now be used, I would have no immediate reason to agree. Even if I tried to understand the reasons, they would seem to be cloaked in abstruse jargon designed to confuse rather than elucidate. As always, the Onion has a relevant video. As long as the social sciences confine themselves to an ivory tower to feel themselves the equal of the natural sciences, they will continue to harm themselves. Sometimes what is sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander.