Cashless and Thoughtless


There has been a lot of push from international organizations to make poor societies around the world copy Western institutions, and recently to go cashless. Blind to differences in cultures, these international organizations have hugely over-estimated the organizational capabilities of people in the emerging markets — in the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Anyone who has spent a sensible amount of time in emerging markets — not in five-star settings but as a normal person — knows that in these countries, an organization of two people often has one person too many. It is also evident that the two tends to expand into dozens, hundreds, and thousands, either because of the local desire to subsidize more people or because of the need to instigate a Western-style bureaucracy to control the whole thing.

Erroneously assuming that we are all the same, that specific cultures do not matter, and that all that matters is training and incentives, there was a huge push for globalization.

In these culturally very different markets, companies and institutions — Western concepts, which do not transplant well without the underlying European culture and values — can never stay nimble. To maintain control, internal bureaucracies must grow to provide checks and balances, because workers fail in independent thinking, work ethics, honesty, and cooperation. Creativity stays conspicuous by its absence.

Despite seemingly low labor costs — as low as a couple of dollars a day in wages — the costs of keeping such organizations together grows exponentially with size. Growing bureaucracies require additional checks and balances. Without the cleaning mechanism of European values and the control systems they provide, these organizations invariably accumulate dead mass, which keeps growing cancerously until they crumble under their own weight. Organizations that do not have constant blood transfusions and external subsidies tend to disintegrate rather rapidly. The price of keeping them together is extremely high.

In a climate already characterized by political correctness, a certain wisdom that Europeans had accumulated about the colonized world had evaporated by the time the USSR era ended in the late 1980s. Erroneously assuming that we are all the same, that specific cultures do not matter, and that all that matters is training and incentives, there was a huge push for globalization.

German companies moved their factories to Eastern Europe, a region of relative cultural closeness to Germany. But many factories have since moved back. The anticipated cost savings turned out to be the exact opposite. All kinds of configurations of Western corporate investment in emerging markets were tried, with similar results.

The problem is that these emerging markets’ societies are tribal. In such cultures you need the glue of violence, subsidies, and massive bureaucracies to keep organizations in place. The experiments of the past 500 years with colonization and Western education show that it is not easy — when it is even possible — to wean societies away from tribalism. Bigger and bigger organizations were put in place in emerging markets, but they tended to remain poor and in strife. The intervention of Western economic methods created an unnatural gap between the poor and an entrenched elite, rendered more entrenched by the possession of whatever new wealth was produced.

Many factories have since moved back. The anticipated cost savings turned out to be the exact opposite.

There is only one solution: keep organizations in these emerging markets as small as possible, remembering that tribal instincts ironically propel them to make their organizations big. Never subsidize big organizations, for if you do, besides providing services that add value you create operations that are a massive drag on the economy, full of endeavors that consume wealth instead of producing it.

This brings us to the current drive to go cashless.

India has recently attempted to reduce the use of cash, ostensibly to reduce corruption but actually to further centralize the economy by creating a medium of exchange that the government can constantly monitor. Naturally, it is also creating a national ID card system. Both of these are in direct conflict with what India should do as a tribal, medieval society.

Let’s consider the sequence of steps required to operate an online bank account in India.

Start with slow internet connections and frequent interruptions in electricity. Add extremely unwieldy websites, websites that do not open properly. My browser often gets hung up on these sites. My password has a limited validity and must be renewed regularly by using the old password and a one-time password sent to my mobile phone; and a lot goes wrong during this “simple” process. Once inside the account, however, I may need another one-time password and an additional transaction password to complete my business.

Most people actually walk down to their bank branch to do the so-called online transaction — a clear instance of the fact that trying to modernize any system beyond its natural capacity in a tribal society increases the costs and makes it more difficult. This is the persistent irony of modernization.

My Indian banks charge me fees and commissions I never agreed on. They then top it up with taxes on “services” provided. Bank statements are ridden with so many charges that only the rare person has time or patience to sort them out, particularly when the banks are crowded, and getting someone to talk to you on the phone is extremely difficult. When you get through to an agent, he usually knows nothing.

The frustration of the people has been steadily increasing. Instead of easing their lives, the reduction of cash has added significantly to the burden.

It gets worse, especially if you are the so-called common man. I know my way around pretty well, but I frequently get stuck. And here is a country where 25% of the population is officially illiterate and where engineers and doctors choose to apply for jobs as janitors, mostly because their degrees are no more than paper. It is a country where a large proportion of those who claim to be literate struggle to sign their own names, let alone show themselves capable of reading a sentence. Imagine how they would deal with forced digitalization of the currency system. This will end in disaster.

Even now, in the last six months that India has been trying to reduce the usage of cash, the frustration of the people has been steadily increasing. Instead of easing their lives, it has added significantly to the burden.

Notably, however, none of this means that people have gone against the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi. He is winning election after election, and most people simply love him. When not facing banking problems in real time, they are actively in support of Modi’s attempt to go cashless. One must remind himself that this is a tribal, irrational society. People often cannot connect simple dots that are right in front of them; not even the so-called educated ones can do that. They tend to do exactly more of what created the original problem, which in this case is irrational authority.

Any tribal society contains the impetus to make bigger, and more complex systems of authority. Tribal people want nannies. They feel secure in big structures, despite the fact that such structures actually make them less safe. Tribal people demand free stuff, without any feeling of gratitude to any real source of wealth. Governments meet that emotional need, while doing little else for their subjects.

Any rational leader would make an aggressive attempt to counter a tribal society’s willingness to increase the sizes of its institutions. But tribal societies do not easily produce rational leaders. They operate through expediency, not through rationality or objective moral thinking.

The IMF and the World Bank think that these emerging markets need better institutions. They think these countries need to reduce corruption, which is one of the reasons for the push towards going cashless. Locals in these countries agree. The irony is that these locals haven’t a clue about what corruption means — their tribal worldview means that they do not see corruption from a moral perspective. They merely look at the need to end corruption as a tool of expediency to improve their personal lives. They may think that everyone should stop asking for bribes, but they do not include themselves individually in that equation. Any sane, non-tribal person can see that this does not add up.

Tribal societies do not easily produce rational leaders. They operate through expediency, not through rationality or objective moral thinking.

Contrary to the view of many libertarians, even when privatization does happen, there can only be limited improvements. Indian companies — for they have tribal people as ingredients — are instinctively dishonest. They lack a work ethic and, unconstrained by morals, they rampantly abuse their clients. For example, I used an online Indian travel agency to buy an international ticket. After tens of attempts the money left my bank account — but I never got my ticket. The company said I never paid. No one knows whether it was the bank or the agent that was at fault. Eventually the agent refunded my money to the bank, but then the bank blocked that money. I had to run around the bank, which could not trace that blocked money. I shouted, screamed, and threatened, but in this entangled mess, I don’t really know who was the culprit. I do know that big organizations and forced-from-the-top digital money simply do not work.

Given the low-trust culture, Indians prefer immediate exchange of goods for money and vice versa. If you pay for a later delivery, you undertake huge risks that your goods might never arrive, and if they do arrive it is not unlikely that you might receive substandard goods. If you sell goods for payment at a later date, your money might never come. No wonder 95% of Indian consumer transactions happen in cash, with goods exchanging hands exactly at the same time that cash is paid.

India’s attempts to go cashless will end in a disaster. This will become obvious in a few months, not years. But India is merely an example. The situation with most of the emerging markets is exactly the same (with China, perhaps, as the only exception).

The lesson is that poor countries are poor for a reason, despite all kinds of tools of technology — particularly the internet — that are available to make their economies rapidly converge with that of the West. Western institutions worked in the ex-colonies as long as Europeans ran their institutions. With Europeans long gone and European values no longer underpinning them, the institutions have increasingly become hollow structures — what one sees everywhere in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East, with the exception of a few small countries. An attempt to go cashless is a tribal attempt to centralize, exactly when their institutions, including the institution of the nation-state, another European import, are imploding.

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Corruption Revisited


I was born in India, and not long ago I returned for an extended visit — which occasioned many thoughts that might be used in answer to the question that people frequently ask me: “Has India changed?” By this people usually mean, Is India on its way to “development”? Here is an attempt to answer.

What is the free market?

Ask middle-class Indians what they mean by the “free market.” They will often define it as a system in which corporations are given free rein to expropriate properties of rural people so they can build modern factories. They believe that the government should be allowed to pay a fraction of the market price to acquire farmers’ land to build infrastructure. They think that India would not grow if corporations and government were not subsidized by the rural segment of society. For them, the “free market” is a system in which individual forces are pooled for the greater good of India.

In India, an overt caste system has continued to disappear, particularly in urban areas — but scratch the surface and you find that it is deeply entrenched. When reminded of wretchedness and poverty, the well-off middle class likes to counter with talk about a high standard of living. In a country where more than 50% of the people have no toilets, and similar numbers have no electricity, water supply, or access to primary healthcare, one has to ask what is meant by that high standard.

Middle-class Indians think that India would not grow if corporations and government were not subsidized by the rural segment of society.

In fact, the Indian middle class is devoid of empathy for poorer brethren. Its members often fail to count their chauffeurs, maids, guards, and servants as human beings. These poor people are lucky if they get $100 per month for 12 or more hours of work a day, with no days off or vacations. The situation gets much worse outside the urban areas.

In India one must pay a bribe for everything one gets, and paying a bribe is usually not enough; one must grovel at the feet of those in power. Any sane person who wants to survive must stay politically well-connected, learning to exchange favors in an entangled mess. One can understand why Indians who must live in India may need to tone down their opposition either to the backwardness of society or to the tyrants that backwardness creates.

Most of the media is indirectly controlled by the government, for without government advertisement revenue it is hard to survive. Meanwhile, India consistently ranks among the most dangerous places for journalists. Freedom of speech in India is a myth, and even the richest and most powerful live in chronic anxiety.

Speaking of riches — the Indian GDP is $1,718 per capita. The average Indian is economically poorer than the average African. It is understandable why Indians try to emigrate. Given a chance, most would. Those who fail prefer to sing to the glory of mother India — and those who emigrate, alas, end up doing the same thing.

There is only one way to make sense of all this: by understanding the underpinning cultural forces.

India is a pre-rational society. It is deeply tribal and superstitious, allowing little space for forward planning or long-term thinking. In such a society, people are driven by a compulsive need for material gains but not by compassion, fairness, or goodwill for others. An irrational society has by definition no moral instincts; life is lived not by values but by expediency.

One must pay a bribe for everything one gets, and paying a bribe is usually not enough; one must grovel at the feet of those in power.

India has imported the easy, entertainment aspects of Western society, but it has forgotten to import — actually completely failed to see — the way of reason, of continuity between cause and effect. The Indian diaspora sings to the greatness of India, not because it believes in it — for if it did, it would return to India — but because to the tribal mindset a glorified India gives increased self-confidence. If lobbying for India in the West adversely affects the poor, downtrodden people who live in India, this is of no significance to the voluntary exiles.

Deep culture is entrenched and resistant to change, even after people — including very well educated people — have moved to a new society. It may not change for generations, if it changes at all.

Why international organizations fail

Financial corruption is only the tip of the cultural iceberg.

Economists and international organizations long to help India set up big factories and enter the modern world. Yet despite flashy isolated data, during the 70 years of so-called post-independence, modernization has impoverished the country. The problem is that much of it proceeds by force.

Indian corporations are extremely dependent on government support: direct subsidies, regulatory favors, and overt transfer of wealth from poor people. One might call it legal plunder or corruption.

In India’s tribal society, in which any organization of two people has one person too many, real growth comes from the informal sector. The formal economy is often the pest, but money lent to the informal sectors earns as much as 36% a year — while the same money lent to the formal sector earns a negative real-interest rate. Of course, the informal sector contributes little to taxes.

International organizations should be, but are not, encouraging growth in the informal sector. These organizations operate with a very shallow definition of corruption. For them, tax avoidance, bribery and the exchange of favors are the only corrupt practices. They endeavor to fine-tune institutions in emerging markets so as to remove corruption in public institutions, unconcerned that these institutions might be incompatible with growth.

They also want to educate voters. They want to enforce the separation of judicial, executive, and political functions, and they invariably fail. They fail to understand that to a pre-rational culture, separation of the three arms of the government is unimaginable.

Despite flashy isolated data, during the 70 years of so-called post-independence, modernization has impoverished the country.

Indian institutions have continued to degenerate since the British left. What exists today is merely the facade of what the British abandoned 70 years back. Western institutions did work in India as long as the British ran them, but those days are over. Once destruction of those institutions has been completed — and they are now in an advanced stage of decay — they can never be rebuilt. India will then be on course to becoming a recognized banana republic.

International organizations fail because they don’t think that culture matters. They think that people are blank slates. They think that locals always strive for the “right” institutions. To them, local history, religion, habits, and values have no significance. They believe that all people care about is economic growth and as long as the “right” institutions can demonstrate better growth, locals will offer their support.

But corruption in India exists because of the underlying corruption in the culture. Given the circularity of the statement, “corruption” is perhaps the wrong word. “Irrationality” is a better replacement.

Managed disintegration

With the best efforts, changing a culture is a long affair. It is entirely possible that cultures never fundamentally change. They cannot be changed unless the institutions that might reform them are compatible with them. Without compatible institutions, evolution of culture cannot happen — a society with incompatible institutions is confused and fails to see causality. The more irrational a culture, the more decentralized its institutions must be; but ironically, the tribalism of such societies creates the poison of totalitarianism from the bottom up. An enlightened ruler — one who cannot come into existence through democratic means — would allow such a society to disintegrate politically, for he would know that eventually nature would lead it to that future. Decentralization and the managed disintegration of India is what international institutions should be striving for.

Corruption in India, in the rest of South Asia, and in the Middle East, Africa, and South America is a product of irrational cultures, worsened by incompatible institutions. International organizations might do a patch-up job, but they will eventually fail and will make the situation worse if they focus on financial corruption, which is only a distressing symptom.

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A Monster Calls, a Lion Roars Back


Boyhood should be filled with running and playing and studying and dreaming. It should not be filled with nightmares about unspeakable loss. Nevertheless, two excellent films released this month address that theme, each of them helmed by outstanding young actors and presented with exquisite cinematography. Although you would have to be emotionally empty to avoid a tearful sniffle at the boys’ plights, both films manage to avoid maudlin or gratuitous melodrama. Each is surprisingly uplifting, despite its dark themes.

A Monster Calls, set in England but filmed largely by a Spanish crew, follows the story of young Conor (Lewis MacDougall), who attends a boys’ school where he is routinely pummeled by a passionless bully much larger than he. Conor barely notices the punches to his face, however, because life has already served him a punch in the gut — his Mum (Felicity Jones) is dying from cancer. So stoic is he that when a monster appears at his window and breaks through his wall, he barely flinches. (More about the monster in a moment.) This story could only have been told in England, where maintaining a stiff upper lip (while developing an ulcer) is taught to perfection in boarding school.

The only person he unleashes on is his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), with whom he will have to live once the unspoken ending has happened. Meanwhile, Grandma is facing the loss of her daughter with the same British stoicism, and expresses her need for control by expecting Conor to live in her house without touching anything. Conor eyes her with distrust and is vocal about not wanting to go with her. He daydreams about moving to the United States to live with his Dad (Toby Kebbell) instead.

So stoic is he that when a monster appears at his window and breaks through his wall, he barely flinches.

Conor is stoic on the outside, but on the inside he is raging. The monster, voiced by Liam Neeson, is a metaphor for the rage he feels, and also for the monstrous circumstance that is attacking him. The monster is a gigantic tree-like creation with fiery eyes and thunderous voice, yet he seems more like a mythological guide than a terror. He says to Conor, “First I will tell you three stories, and then you will tell me the fourth.” Of Conor’s own story he tells us, “it begins with a boy too old to be a kid, and too young to be a man.”

The film has a strong sense of magical realism. Cinematographer Oscar Faura (The Imitation Game, The Impossible) and set decorator Pilar Revuelta contribute to this sense through skillful lighting, camera angles, prop dressing, and special effects. The score by Fernando Velasquez and Neeson’s powerful yet comforting voice are also important to the tone of the film.

Of course, the monster’s purpose is to help Conor express his rage and prepare for his grief. British stoicism be damned — rules don’t apply when a child loses a parent, nor do they apply when a parent loses a child. Somehow Conor and his grandmother will have to come to grips with both, and find a way to do it together.

Another film steeped in local culture and unbearable loss is Lion, about an even younger boy. Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is perhaps five years old when he inadvertently boards an empty train and travels over 1,000 miles to Calcutta before he can get off. Alone, frightened, unable to speak Bengali or even identify his mother by any name but “Mum,” he ends up on the streets with other abandoned children. Worse than facing the Faganesque threat of becoming petty thieves, these children are exposed to the threat of being sold into sexual slavery.

Rules don’t apply when a child loses a parent, nor do they apply when a parent loses a child.

Saroo manages to escape that fate and eventually is adopted by a couple in Australia. But the thought of his mother and siblings grieving over his disappearance continues to haunt him until, with the blessing of his adoptive mother (Nicole Kidman), he returns to India to find his roots.

It’s a simple story made wonderful by the acting of Sunny Pawar, who beat out 2,000 other young hopefuls for the part and didn’t even speak English when he began filming (which may have contributed to the uncanny portrayal of his character’s sense of confusion and loss in Calcutta). In early scenes he makes tangible the bond he shares with his big brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and his Mum (Priyanka Bose), as he proudly shows that he can work and contribute to the family table. One gets the sense that the cinematographer simply followed him around the hills of west India and the streets of Calcutta with a camera and caught him doing what he naturally would do. Greig Fraser’s soaring landscapes and cluttered, colorful cities are magnificent as well.

Dev Patel, best known for his breakout role in Slumdog Millionaire, in which he had the same job — portraying the older version of a young main character — steps into Act II of Lion with similar natural skill. He demonstrates the complex emotional confusion experienced by an adoptee old enough to remember his previous life and family, profoundly appreciative of his new parents, yet not completely at home in either location. He doesn’t quite know how to interact with his adoptive brother, who also joined the family as an older child; he plays cricket and surfs, but doesn’t know how to scoop curry with naan. He becomes isolated and withdrawn, confused by a combination of grief and guilt, until he is able to return to India and complete his search.

“Unbelievable” and “incredible” are words we throw around lightly, but this story really does seem to go beyond belief.

The film is about more than an orphaned boy’s search for his hometown; it touches on deep issues of child trafficking, international adoption, cultural identity negation, emotional handicap, and what it means to be a family.

Lion is one of those “stranger than fiction” stories that would never have been greenlighted if it weren’t true. “Unbelievable” and “incredible” are words we throw around lightly, but this story really does seem to go beyond belief. Yet the film is based on A Long Way Home, the autobiography of Saroo Brierley, who also served as co-scriptwriter of the film. From interviews I’ve seen with Brierley and then from watching the film, I would say it’s as true as he can make it. The acting is true too — vulnerable and heartbreaking, light as a bird and strong as a lion.

Editor's Note: Reviews of "A Monster Calls," directed by Juan Antonia Bayona. Focus Films, Apaches Entertainment, 2016, 108 minutes; and "Lion," directed by Garth Davis. See-Saw Films, 2016, 118 minutes.

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Infinity in One Hour, 48 Minutes


Biographical films, or “bioflicks” as they are often called, constitute a challenging genre for filmmakers — for a variety of reasons.

One major challenge is the difficulty of avoiding the extremes of hagiography and exposé. The temptation of a bioflick maker — especially one who is very sympathetic to the subject of the story, or who knows his audience is — may be to understate or omit relevant but unfavorable qualities or actions of the real character, or exaggerate the character’s good qualities or actions. One thinks of many of the biographical films of sports stars, artists, and political leaders from the 1930s through the 1960s. Conversely, the filmmaker — especially one who is very hostile to his subject, or who know the audience is — may be tempted to exaggerate the unfavorable qualities or actions of the real character, or to understate or omit the character’s good qualities or actions. There are even cases in which the bioflick maker is sympathetic to the perceived flaws of the real character and is tempted to exaggerate or accentuate them, in an effort to convince the public that they aren’t really flaws.

For these very reasons, bioflicks are often used as propaganda. Political regimes have long recognized the power of biographical film to advance their political causes, either by adoring portrayals of certain figures (such as key leaders of the regime, or historical figures whom the regime views favorably) or hateful portrayals of others (such as key opponents of the regime or historical figures whom the regime views unfavorably). For example, the Nazi Regime used bioflicks such as Hitler Youth Quex (1933) to convince people that the Party had among its supporters many noble young people.

The young Ramanujan apparently spent that year mastering the theorems, and by the next year he independently developed (among other things) the Bernoulli numbers.

Another challenge is conveying what the subject of the film actually accomplished, together with its significance. This is relatively easy if the subject is (say) an artist: the filmmaker can inter alia show pictures of the artist’s work, while portraying the difficulty he or she faced in gaining acceptance (as is nicely done in Vincente Minelli’s acclaimed biography of Van Gogh, Lust for Life [1956]). Again, if the subject is a composer, it is easy to make his major compositions part of the movie’s score (a successful instance is Richard Whorf’s popular biography of songwriter Jerome Kern, Till the Clouds Roll By [1946]). It can be more difficult if the subject of the film is a scientist, or worse, a mathematician. One sees these challenges, and a creative response to them, in an excellent new bioflick, currently showing in art houses.

The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the story of the great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Ramanujan was born in Erode, in the state of Madras, in 1887. He was of a Brahmin family (on his maternal side), but his parents were of limited means. His father was a clerk in a dress shop; his mother was a housewife. He survived smallpox when he was two, and grew up in a modest house in Kanchipuram (near Madras). The house is now a national museum in his honor. His mother — to whom he was very close, all his life — had three other children, all of whom died as infants. Raised as a devout Hindu, he kept the faith and Brahmin customs (especially vegetarianism) as an adult.

While Ramanujan went through secondary school and attended some college, he was largely self-taught. He mastered advanced trigonometry by age 13, discovering some higher-level theorems by himself. At age 14 he was able to pass in half the permitted time the high school math exit exam, and at age 15 he learned how to solve cubic equations. Then, by himself, he figured out how to solve quartic equations. A crucial year for him was his 16th, when a friend gave him a copy of A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics, a compilation of 5,000 theorems by G.S. Carr. He apparently spent that year mastering the theorems, and by the next year he independently developed (among other things) the Bernoulli numbers, a subject on which he published a paper some years later. He was graduated from Town Higher Secondary School that year (1904), winning the K. Ranganatha Rao prize for mathematics.

Ramanujan’s method was so quirky — “terse and novel,” as an editor put it — that many mathematicians found his papers hard to follow.

Unfortunately, although he was given a scholarship to attend college, he refused to focus on any studies besides mathematics, a refusal that resulted in his failure and dismissal. He subsequently left home and enrolled in another college, but again focused only on mathematics and was unable to get his bachelor’s degree. He left college in 1906 and worked as a poor independent scholar. In 1909 he married a very young girl, Srimathi Janaki — marrying very young was an Indian custom of the time — and after a bout of testicular disease, found work as a tutor helping students prepare for their mathematics exams.

In 1910, Ramanujan showed his work to V. Ramaswamy Aiyer, founder of the Indian Mathematical Society, who recognized his genius. Aiyer then sent him to R. Ramachandra Rao, secretary of the Indian Mathematical Society. Rao was initially skeptical but became convinced of Ramanujan’s originality and genius and provided both financial aid and institutional support so that Ramanujan could start publishing in the society’s journal. As the editor of the journal noted, Ramanujan’s method was so quirky — “terse and novel,” as the editor put it — that many mathematicians found his papers hard to follow.

In 1913, Rao and some other Indian mathematicians tried to help Ramanujan submit his work to British mathematicians. The first few who received the material were unimpressed, but G.H. Hardy was quite struck by the nine pages of results he received. He suspected that perhaps Ramanujan wasn’t the real author, but he felt that the results had to be true, because they were so intricate and plausible that nobody could have dreamt them up. Hardy showed them to his colleague and friend J. E. Littlewood, who was also amazed at Ramanujan’s genius. Hardy and others invited Ramanujan to come to Cambridge to work. The Indian was at first reluctant, because of his Brahmin belief that he shouldn’t leave his country, and apparently also because his mother opposed it. To the disappointment of Hardy, he obtained a research scholarship at the University of Madras.

Nevertheless, in 1914 — apparently after his mother had an epiphany — Ramanujan agreed to come to Cambridge. He started his studies under the tutelage of Hardy and Littlewood, who were able to look at his first three “notebooks.” (Ramanujan’s fourth major notebook — often called the “lost notebook” — was rediscovered in 1976.) While Hardy and Littlewood discovered some of the results and theorems were either wrong or had already been discovered, they immediately put Ramanujan in the same class as Leonhard Euler or Carl Jacobi. Hardy and Ramanujan had clashing styles, personalities, and cultural backgrounds — among other things, Hardy was an atheist and a stickler for detailed proofs, while Ramanujan was a Hindu and highly intuitionistic — but they collaborated successfully during the five years Ramanujan was at Cambridge.

One of the British professors exclaims about Ramanujan, “It’s as if every positive integer is his personal friend.”

In 1916, Ramanujan was awarded a Bachelor’s of Science “by research” (a degree subsequently renamed a Ph.D). In 1917 he was elected a Fellow of the London Mathematical Society, and in 1918 to the extremely prestigious Royal Society. At 31 years of age, he was one of the youngest Fellows of the Royal Society ever elected, and only the second Indian so honored. In that year also he was elected a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Ramanujan became ill in England, his sickness perhaps intensified by stress and (as the film suggests) by malnutrition. He was increasingly depressed and lonely, receiving few letters from his wife. The film identifies the cause as his mother’s jealous refusal to mail his wife’s letters to him. In 1918 he attempted suicide and spent time in a nursing home. He returned to Madras in 1919, and died the next year, barely 32 years of age. The cause was thought to be tuberculosis, though one doctor, examining his medical records, has opined that it was actually hepatic amoebiasis. His young widow lived to the age of 95.

The film centers on the period of his life shortly before the point, shortly before his death, at which the adult Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is gaining recognition through his work at Cambridge. As the film opens in 1913, we meet Ramanujan in the temple of the goddess Namagiri, writing an equation. (The film rightly portrays him as believing that mathematical truths are divinely crafted.) We see him desperately trying to provide for his pretty young wife Janaki (Devika Bhise) and his proud but rather domineering mother (Arundhati Nag). While the film focuses primarily on the relationship between Ramanujan and his work, it does skillfully present his loving but difficult marriage (he was in England, separated from his wife for nearly half his married life) as well as the strained relationship between his wife and mother.

The main part of the film, which ends with Ramanujan’s death in India, concerns his time in Britain, following with fair accuracy the real timeline of his life. We meet Hardy (Jeremy Irons) as he is given Ramanujan’s first letter and asked to comment on the handwritten pages. Irons plays Hardy as a crusty old bachelor, but also as a person who is obviously sincere in his desire to help Ramanujan. The film capably explores the relationship between the two, showing the transition from a mentorship to a friendship based on deep respect.

We watch as Hardy and Littlefield (Toby Jones) try to get the rest of the faculty — especially the racist Professor Howard (Anthony Calf) — to recognize Ramanujan’s worth. The film explores at length the antipathy that many of the British, even the faculty and students, felt toward Indians, culminating in a scene in which Ramanujan is beaten up by some soldiers — an episode that has a dramatic function, since racism against the immigrants from the colonies coming into England at the later part of WWI (to work in a labor market that had been decimated by the war) was exceedingly common — though this specific episode may have been invented. It also shows Ramanujan battling poor health in the face of a cold climate and lack of nutritious food. But Ramanujan’s spirit prevails, and we see him elected a Fellow of the College, a satisfying vindication of genuine genius over jealous bigotry. As one of the British professors exclaims about Ramanujan, “It’s as if every positive integer is [his] personal friend.”

The film takes the mathematics quite seriously. Two distinguished mathematicians — Manjul Bhargave and Ken Ono — are associate producers of the film. Bhargava is a winner of the Fields Medal — often called “the Nobel Prize of mathematics” — and Ono is a Guggenheim Fellow.

How can an autodidact from a colony of a major world power so powerfully demonstrate to the colonial overlords that his mathematical insights are true, or worthy of attempted proof?

Portraying Ramanujan’s work cinematically is of course especially challenging. Even if the audience were shown mathematical formulas he devised, few would comprehend them, much less see the genius it took to come up with them. And, unlike some scientists or other scholars that have a sudden dramatic “Eureka!” moment when they encounter the central theory or discovery for which they become famous, Ramanujan produced a continuing torrent of major work, even when ill — nearly 3,900 results during his short life (really, just 14 years of mature research).

The film, however, is rather effective at conveying Ramanujan’s work directly, as in the scene in which Hardy describes to his valet what “partitions” are — the number of ways a number can be the sum of others, as “4” is the sum of “4,” “2 + 2,” “2 + 1 + 1,” and “1 + 1 + 1 + 1” — as well as the scene in which Hardy and Ramanujan are waiting for a cab, and when one pulls up, Ramanujan immediately observes that its ID number (1729) is unique in that it is the smallest number that can be expressed as the sum of two cubes in two different ways. The film even more successfully conveys his genius obliquely by showing how the other great Cambridge mathematicians received it: Hardy and Littlewood immediately recognized the genius in his work, and we see how the other mathematicians (who are initially governed by their prejudices) are eventually compelled to recognize it. Still, this is not a movie for the completely innumerate.

The acting is outstanding across the board. Dev Patel — well-known to American audiences from his leading roles in Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) — ably conveys Ramanujan’s earnestness, integrity, and perseverance. Toby Jones is also superb as Littlewood, and Jeremy Northam givers a good supporting performance as Bertrand Russell. The supporting actresses are also excellent — Devika Bhise as Ramanujan’s young wife and Arundati Nag as his mother. But especially noteworthy is Jeremy Irons’ performance as Ramanujan’s sponsor, mentor, and friend G.H. Hardy.

Director Matthew Brown does an outstanding job conveying Ramanujan’s story, with descending into melodramatic hagiography. Really, he doesn’t need to because the true story — a modest, decent, indigent, largely self-taught genius in a colonized, poor country rises to the very top ranks of mathematics, in the face of considerable hostility, becoming a hero in his native land, before dying tragically young — is the very stuff of legend.

This film explores a number of issues of philosophic interest. Regarding the philosophy of religion, the exchanges between the avowed atheist Hardy and the devoutly religious Ramanujan on whether the gods give Ramanujan immediate access to mathematical truth are illustrative of how atheists and theists see the world in significantly different ways.

Regarding epistemology, Hardy is portrayed working hard to convince Ramanujan of the need not merely to recognize that a mathematical theorem is true, but to construct a proof that it is. This is an issue among other things about epistemic style: does any science advance more from bold broad conjectures, or by exact argumentation? (The movie interestingly presents Russell as counseling Hardy to let Ramanujan “run”; i.e., to let him do math as his heart dictates, which is by intuition instead of meticulous proofs. But considering the detailed constructive logical proofs that Russell — along with his mathematician coauthor Alfred North Whitehead — created in their seminal logical treatise Principia Mathematica, one is surprised and puzzled at this.)

Regarding history, the film nicely shows the effect that World War I had on the British intelligentsia, with some, such as Russell — and here the film is undeniably historically accurate — being opposed to the war, and having meetings on campus to organize opposition, while the rest of the faculty is outraged at what was taken to be a lack of patriotism.

Regarding psychology, the film invites us to think about the nature of mathematical genius: how can an autodidact from a colony of a major world power so powerfully demonstrate to the colonial overlords that his mathematical insights are true, or worthy of attempted proof? Here we should observe that many of Ramanujan’s conjectures on prime numbers were proven incorrect — however insightful and reasonably accurate they may have been — by Littlewood and others. I would suggest that his tutelage by Hardy was of great use in getting him to provide more proofs, and that most of his 3,900 results have been proven, including work that is being used today to understand black holes.

Finally, regarding an issue of concern in America today, The Man who Knew Infinity helps the audience understand the value of immigrants. The vicious discrimination that this estimable and amiable genius from India faced at the hands of the British makes one wonder why immigrants to our own country today are being targeted for systematic abuse. This is as counterproductive as it is immoral.

In fine, this is a bioflick of rare insight, and not to be missed.[i]


[i]It should be noted that in 2014 an Indian company produced a major biographical film, Ramanujan. It ran two and a half hours, was shot in multiple languages (including some pidgin languages, such as Tamenglish), and had a mixed reception. I don’t believe it was generally released in America.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Man Who Knew Infinity," directed by Matthew Brown. Pressman Film/Xeitgeist Entertainment Group/Cayenne Pepper Productions, 2016, 108 minutes.

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Western Institutions, Alien Societies


While some might look at human reason as a given, it has been one of the most difficult endeavors of humanity. It took the West over 2,000 years for its slow and unsure infusion of the concepts of objective reason, critical thinking, and self-awareness. Germinating gradually through a plethora of traditions, religious practices, customs, beliefs, authorities, lies, self-deceptions, inherent reptilian impulses, and socially entrenched interests, all interconnected in an entangled mess, the discovery of reason had to be a slow dance of adjustments, readjustments, and ever-slow improvements, often with serious retracements. Then, about 700 years ago, the sprouts were starting to emerge, culturally and economically. The West galloped ahead of the Rest of the world.

The respect for nonpartisan, objective reason led to individualism, to the concepts of liberty, rule of law, legal equality, disinterested differentiation between right and wrong, virtues and sins, social compassion, etc. Indeed, there was no book handed down by God that convinced people about the right distinction between virtues and vices. There was no concept of natural rights implanted in people’s minds, only local ideas of particular rights. What came to exist in the West was a product of millennia of argument and reflection — often very painful, for you cannot influence the irrational mind by using reason. Society and individuals adjusted, slowly and subtly. The concept of reason came to be reflected in concepts of justice, community, politics, and education; and hence of the institutions associated with them.

Reason is the organizing principle that enables an accumulation of intellectual and financial capital, within the individual and within societies.

The concept of reason germinated and survived not just because it was accepted by philosophers but because it permeated, organically, the habits and worldviews of the larger society, of people who otherwise lacked any interest in philosophy. Had this not happened, the would-be philosophers would have lacked the ecosystem that nurtures reason. Without this, their education would have been slow, hesitant, imbalanced, and grossly lacking in self-confidence and wisdom.

What came to exist in the West was a product of millennia of argument and reflection — often very painful, for you cannot influence the irrational mind by using reason.

Reason chiselled in its image the organization of physical space, architecture, music, literature, and the working of institutions. It provided a vocabulary of images, experiences, and ideas that enabled the learning of rational concepts through osmosis — not only through mere words but also through every day, every moment living.

Reason cannot be imposed

But despite hundreds of years of the West’s interactions with the Rest, the concept of reason has failed to gain a foothold there. Perhaps, slowly and subtly, over many generations — perhaps over centuries or even millennia — the Rest will go through a change in philosophy and ethics that will effect a change in social organization, architecture, music, and art. Perhaps these cultures will change their attitude to quiet contemplation from one based on escapism. But even before all this can happen, they must get rid of basic irrational beliefs and evolve social habits — and everything surrounding them — compatible with reason. This is a very gradual, painful process.

While the Rest has copied technology and other fruits of western creativity, alas, it cannot copy the Western culture without comprehending the concept of reason. There are today many new cities in the Rest that are copies of western cities, built in the hope that creativity would somehow sprout from this top-down means. This hasn’t worked.

“Thank you” and “please,” while omnipresent in the West, are hardly to be heard in most of the Rest. One should not expect to hear them in simple transactions, and one is unlikely to hear them even when going out of one’s way to help other people. The custom of gratitude looks simple in the West, but it took centuries to acquire.

In the Rest, charity is almost always about building more temples and mosques and funding religious indoctrination — among Hindus and Buddhists as well as Muslims. This is done from the desire for a better afterlife for oneself, not to help fellow human beings. There is almost no counterpart of western missionaries in the Rest.

What looks simple to achieve to a rational mind, isn’t so, for it is often an organic part of the whole, a symptom of the larger culture, the tip of the iceberg.

Simple courtesies of driving, giving way and not cutting the other vehicle off, are hard to find outside the West. Those who want to end constant honking and avoidable pollution — even in wealthy neighborhoods — are asking for the impossible. In India, I fought for years against the custom of burning the contents of garbage bins and organic material — the biggest source of localized pollution in most Indian cities and something that can be handled without any cost. Then I gave up.

What looks simple to achieve to a rational mind, isn’t so, for it is often an organic part of the whole, a symptom of the larger culture, the tip of the iceberg. As one hacks away the tip of the iceberg, one eventually realizes that he is against a mammoth irrational cultural apparatus.

Irrationality has very slippery hands. It does not allow for the accumulation of intellectual and financial capital. No wonder large parts of the Rest, even if they haven’t had any war in recent memory, look like slums, as if they had recently been bombed.

If one hasn’t lost himself in multiculturalism, one comes to an insight, through the process of reasoning, that it is hard to change other people and virtually impossible to change cultures. Centuries ago, English colonizers understood how difficult it is to change a culture and the individuals living in it. They mostly engaged in trade and missionary activities. Both had a significant possibility of making the societies in the Rest more rational, and hence more ethical. They knew that any change would happen only slowly, from the bottom up. Indeed, whatever figment of liberty and reason one sees outside the West was usually initiated by missionary education.

Some missionaries even realized that if they must change the culture, they must remove children from their parents, because the belief systems and worldviews the kids were getting infused with — those very small, imperceptible things that happen at home — preempted them from becoming rational beings. This was a heartless thing to do, but it does show the experience that people who were doing the job at the front were facing.

Then all went wrong. The Rest today is in crisis. And so is the West.

Degradation in the West

Political correctness became a part of the West. Wealth made people intellectually lazy. They — across the spectrum of political beliefs — came to believe in top-down methodology: the US government believed in bombs and drones, the removal of dictators and the imposition of Western institutions on alien societies; and anti-statist libertarians believed in removing governments or reducing their size.

Western governments degenerated, having become increasingly populated by professional politicians and professional bureaucrats. Meanwhile, everyone eventually got the right to vote. At first, only experienced, successful people were invited to work for the government and only successful people or landowners had the right to vote — this had its many problems but it was better than what we have today.

Simpletons in government had a habit of putting the cart before the horse, a derivative of the Keynesian way of thinking: create demand, and supply will come.

Those who came to run public policy in the West were increasingly removed from real life. They went from Ivy League universities to safe jobs in the government, and their experience precluded them from understanding the complexity and volatility of real life. But real life, at the fronts, is the only source from which one learns wisdom and integrity. Even when they weren’t crooks or just seeking an easy life, those who went to work for the government were simpletons with simplistic ideas.

Not understanding how wealth is created and how creativity works, simpletons in government had a habit of putting the cart before the horse, a derivative of the Keynesian way of thinking: create demand, and supply will come; impose the institutions of the West and all will change for the better in the Rest; send people to universities and creativity will blossom; enforce democracy and equality of rights will develop. Such thinking invariably did no good, and significant harm.

Three institutions

Three major Western institutions — public education, the nation state, and democracy — were increasingly imposed on the peoples of the Rest. Once imposed, these institutions mutated into something completely different from their original intention, as they adjusted to the inherent irrationality of their new locations.

Public education in the Rest has absolutely nothing to do with developing the concept of critical thinking and objective reasoning, education’s prime purpose. Lacking the concept of reason, the student is unable to integrate new knowledge into a “whole,” but absorbs it as particular beliefs, dogmas, and alleged facts, through rote learning. Such education is sheer indoctrination. When I was a student in India, I was beaten for asking questions. In an irrational culture questioning is seen as a challenge to teacher’s authority. Because I was constantly ordered around, I gained no experience of amicable negotiation with others. I still cannot negotiate for myself, for the moment I do, a cloudy complex of shame and guilt hits me. Even when one learns to recognize these problems, they can take decades to remedy.

After almost 150 years of implementing Western-style education, Japan, among the most successful countries in the Rest, still specializes in the creation of human robots, with horrendous social consequences. Singapore is not very different, and its government is struggling to understand why it cannot engender creativity in one of the world’s richest countries. People who don’t know individual, critical reason just cannot see its importance.

The situation is much worse elsewhere. India today produces more so-called PhDs and engineers than any other country. Most of them are completely unemployable, for they are seeking only a degree, their colleges are seeking only money, and their teachers have no clue about what they are supposedly teaching. Bad habits are all these students learn. In front of me is a bunch of MBA examination papers that a relative is taking me through. In one, a student has misspelled “financial” everywhere it appears in his Financial Accounting paper. These lucky students end up driving taxis or working as manual laborers, and they feel very frustrated. They thought their degrees would change their lives.

Education becomes sheer indoctrination. When I was a student in India, I was beaten for asking questions.

But the harm is much wider and deeper. Their minds are now burdened by many more beliefs — for even correct principles accepted as beliefs are in fact mere beliefs — than they would have been burdened with, had they none of this fake education. The burden has made them more immune to imbibing the concept of reason. With so many beliefs, the last thing they want to do is to think, except to regurgitate and exchange slogans and soundbites, all for comfort. If they thought, they would destabilize themselves mentally.

The nation-state has been another major problem for the Rest. This institution, as originally conceived in the West, was about values that people held. It was not necessarily about political boundaries. In the Rest, which lacks the concept of reason and hence the concept of values, the nation state has mutated into an aggressive tribal concept, based merely on the existence, or idolatry, of political boundaries, flags, and anthems. Ask these people what their nation believes and stands for, and you should expect parroted empty words, if they actually comprehend the question.

While the nation-state is in no way a nimble institution in the West — for it is now run by professional bureaucrats who have no real-life experience and demagogues voted into power by people who have no understanding of public policy — it is something that rapidly ossified in the irrational and hence tyrannical societies of other regions. Chinese, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian, Thai, and Cambodian armies are ready to enter a war for nothing more than inches of worthless land. And they don’t know how to negotiate and end what are in fact trivial issues. Africa and the Middle East have the same problem. While there is open discussion in the US about its wars, in India there no discussion whatsoever about its boundary disputes.

In the Rest, democracy boasts of virtually no success, despite a widely accepted claim to the contrary. The only success stories happened in states that were not democratic: China, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Voting by those who are irrational, superstitious, dogmatic, and tribal has meant constant troubles in Africa, central Asia, and southeast Asia. The Middle East is in flames. Not too long ago, people were very romantic about the democratic revolution called the Arab Spring. But democracy has politicized their masses, and what masses always want is free stuff, bread and circuses. Liberty is not their passion. Now the Arab Spring has matured in Libya and Syria, which are blowing up, spreading their problems to Europe. Blame this on the imposition of democracy, an alien institution in the Rest.

One might ask how people in the Rest — in whatever form — still exist in anything like a stable society. Violence, except in some Confucian cultures, is an essential part of “negotiations” in the Rest, where stability is found through a kind of ceasefire agreement. Wherever a pecking order changes or needs to be reestablished, violence erupts, until a ceasefire situation can be created. A death in a family almost invariably results in fights between siblings. This does not mean that people kill and rape as a habit. But remove them from the strict institutional and social structures that keep them sane, civilized, and well behaved, and you must expect violence to erupt systemically.

This is the sad reality of life, in the Rest. The West must accept the blame for very simplistically imposing Western institutions on societies that cannot bear them. You cannot just remove their tyrants, enforce western institutions, and hope that progress will happen. The solution is to let them find their tyrants, allowing them to get the institutions their values create — nothing more, and nothing less. This is the only hope for relative peace, both for them and for the West. If you want to help, do what missionaries and traders did: infuse reason into these societies, from the bottom up. But today the West must worry more about the rapid erosion of its own foundations of reason, a process fraught with a sense of entitlement and victimhood, and hence with a slow mutation of Western institutions. It will be easy to lose reason, but very hard to get it back, for there is no reason why reason should win.

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Asian Immigration and Trumpeterian Fabulism


I have always viewed with disgust the pervasive anti-immigrant sentiment that has plagued this country for decades, and is now reaching a fever pitch. It is most on display in the Republican Party — as I, a long-time supporter of the party, am ashamed to say. You can see the nativist hatred in its full intensity by watching the followers of our latest populist demagogue Donald Trump — people I call “Trumpeters” — exhibit orgiastic glee when he tells them he will deport 11 million illegal aliens, together with any American-born children they may have.

Trump — a man in the populist mold of Huey Long and Father Coughlin — already promises he will set up a “deportation force” to enter the immigrants’ homes and arrest them en masse. Since the immigrants are all entitled to court hearings, a President Trump will have to set up internment camps to house the millions of arrested immigrants until they can be tried.

Trump’s immigrant-bashing is all the more outrageous when we remember that when Romney was running for president, Trump bashed him for suggesting that illegals “self-deport.” Trump has no compunction about the illegal immigrants’ children born here being included, advancing the unusual legal theory that the Constitution does not (as the 14th Amendment seems clearly to do) make the children of illegals born here legal citizens.

You can see nativist hatred in its full intensity by watching the followers of Donald Trump exhibit orgiastic glee when he tells them he will deport 11 million illegal aliens.

Trump has repeatedly promised us a “fabulous wall,” to be paid for — by the Mexicans themselves! All we will need in addition are fabulous concentration camps. This is fascism of a new kind — fabulous fascism. And we need a new word for it. Perhaps the Orwellian neologism “fabulism” best captures Trump’s political program.

Of course, as readers of this estimable journal know, I don’t think that this resurgent nativist tide is — as the mainstream media portrays it — solely a Republican phenomenon. We must remember that Obama himself, when he was a US Senator, play the key role in scuttling the Bush comprehensive reform plan; moreover, after winning the presidency and having near-dictatorial control of Congress, he refused to introduce any immigration plan, or even discuss the topic for two years. He started to feign interest in the issue only after the Republicans took back the House, and intensified his charade when they took back the Senate.

The reason is, as I have suggested, that two key components of the Democratic Party base are deeply anti-immigration: organized labor, and the African-American community. The former dislikes immigration because it fears that immigrants will lower native-born workers’ wages and compete for their jobs, and the latter fears not only competition for jobs but losing its status as the main victim group entitled to governmental support.

But the joke is on the nativists, because the most recent wave of immigration is in fact rescuing this country.

Demographers love the cliché, “demography is destiny,” no doubt in great part because it accentuates the importance of their profession. But there is a fair amount of truth to it. For this reason, the most recent Pew report on recent trends in American demographics is well worthy of comment.

This resurgent nativist tide is not solely a Republican phenomenon. We must remember that Obama himself scuttled the Bush comprehensive reform plan.

As most of the European and Asian countries face contracting populations, our population is slated to grow robustly. The Pew report projects (on the basis of the most recent US Census data) that the American population will grow by an estimated 36% over the next half-century, reaching 441 million in 2065. The main driver of this projected increase in population is immigration. The report notes that nearly nine out of ten of the additional 103 million people will be immigrants or the children of immigrants (both legal and illegal). In fact, the percentage of immigrants in America’s population will rise from the current 14% to an estimated 18%.

Being spared the baleful effects of demographic decline puts us in much better economic shape than virtually all of our trading partners — indeed, most of the world. Social scientist Joel Kotkin has recently explored the idea that most countries will be facing demographic implosion. He points out that half the world’s population is now living in countries that are at negative population growth and suggests that by 2050, 139 countries (representing three-fourths of the world’s population) will be at negative population growth. China is just the most recent country to face this problem — which is why it has now frantically reversed its “one-child” policy. (What a surprise: government planning that results in failure! Who could have imagined it?) China is facing the same problem as Japan, Korea, Singapore, and most of Europe: increasingly fewer workers to support the elderly population.

Japan in particular is the paradigm case of a country struggling with deep demographic distress. The current population of 127 million is predicted to shrink to 108 million by 2050 — at which time there would be three Japanese over 65 for every one under 15. By 2100, the U.N. projects that Japan’s population will shrivel to 84.5 million, while Japan’s National Institute of Population projects it will plummet to 60 million — less than half its present size.

Exceptional in the Asian context is India. India continues to experience population growth, and is predicted to overtake China to become the world’s most populous country in just seven years. India faces no labor shortage in the foreseeable future — its population is not expected to peak until about 2060.

Being spared the baleful effects of demographic decline puts us in much better economic shape than virtually all of our trading partners — indeed, most of the world.

Even more interesting information from the aforementioned Pew Report is that there has been an historic demographic shift in the pattern of American immigration. Up to the 1970s, most immigrants to the US came from Europe. Starting in the 1980s, and peaking in the 1990s, most immigrants hailed from Mexico (and elsewhere in Latin America). But since 2011, most immigrants have come from Asia.

Nearly two-thirds of Asian Americans today are foreign-born, compared to only 37% of Hispanic Americans. Asians are predicted to surpass Latinos as the biggest foreign-born group in four decades — at which point, if the predictions are accurate, a higher percentage of Americans will be Asian than Black.

As Asians increase their numbers in America’s population, they will increase the wealth and productivity of this nation. Why? Because more than any other ethnic group — whites included — they embrace traditional marriage and education. Consider first the rates of American children born out of wedlock. As of 2013, the statistics are stunning: 72% of Black children are born outside of marriage, 66% of American Indian children, 53% of Hispanic children, and 29% of white children. The figure for Asian children is only 17%.

Now consider educational attainment. Looking at American ethnic groups, the percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2014 was: American Indian 5.6%, Hispanic 15.1%, black 22.4%, and whites 40.8%. Asians were at a whopping 60.8%.

Obviously, we should hope that the immigration of Asians only accelerates — the proliferation of scholars and entrepreneurs that would result would be of enormous economic and social benefit to all of us non-Asians.

Part of the reason for this historic shift is that the number of Asians seeking citizenship keeps rising steadily, in large part because Chinese and Indian students in American universities apply for citizenship upon graduation. Given the fact that most Asian countries — including China, but excluding India — are in demographic decline, we can expect that India will more and more be the supplier of our immigrants.

But another reason for the historic shift to Asian American immigration is the recent reversal of Mexican immigration. As a recent WSJ article reports, over the last five years, more Mexicans headed back to Mexico than moved here — 1,000,000 Mexicans decamped, compared to 870,000 coming in.

Trump’s fabulist fascism targets immigrants as a way to appeal to neurotic and psychotic voters who made bad personal life choices.

There are two major reasons why the flow of Mexican immigrants has reversed. First, over the past two decades, the Mexican birth rate has plummeted, and is now at about replacement level. But second, while the economic boom times from the 1980s until 2008 created lots of jobs for Mexican workers, the slow growth of jobs during the Obama “recovery,” along with the higher rate of growth in the Mexican economy, has drawn many Mexicans back home.

So Earth to Trump:

The Mexicans are already self-deporting, and the new wave of immigration is from Asia, not the Middle East.

And me to Trump:

I am a classical liberal, i.e., one who favors modern free market capitalism. This system, which involves the free movement of financial capital, products, and labor (human capital) across the world to find their most productive uses, isn’t just the right thing to do from the perspective of economic theory. During the modern era, and during the past half-century in particular, it has proven empirically to be the only force able to lift massive numbers of the absolute poor out of their misery — something that no other force (including religion) has ever been able to do. And this system is also morally superior because it allows the maximum amount of personal liberty: unless it threatens the security of the nation, every person should be free to invest his money where he believes it will give him the best return; unless it threatens the nation, every person should be free to buy products he finds it in his interest to buy, from anyone else on the planet; and unless it threatens the nation, every person should be free to employ anyone it is in his interest to employ.

Hence I hate interventionism (i.e., welfare statism), despise socialism, and loathe communism. But I both loathe and fear fascism. Forinterventionism, socialism, and communism are based on relatively weak psychological forces, to wit, envy of the rich and pity for the industrial working class. I say that these psychological forces are weak, first because the world is moving with increasing acceleration toward a global post-industrial (or more specifically, an epistemic) economy, with low-level factory work disappearing not just in America, but in every other industrialized economy (including China’s). So the appeal to pity for the proletariat is losing power, as the proletariat itself disappears. (Witness the precipitous decline in union membership in the private sector over the past half-century). And second, envy can always be countered by self-love: show an envious man that he, too, can become wealthy and the envy dissipates as “greed” (self-interest) grows.

But fascism — while it certainly does exploit envy of the rich and pity for the proles — appeals mainly to the love of one’s own tribe and the hatred of other tribes. Its power to pervert patriotism and intensify it by demonizing other groups is potent. Trump’s fabulism targets immigrants as a way to appeal to neurotic and psychotic voters who made bad personal life choices — failed to graduate from high school, had kids without first having jobs and husbands, got into drugs or booze too deeply, refused to work hard, whatever — and are profoundly unhappy. Trump, like all demagogues, is a master manipulator of pathological politics — the politics of projection of one’s own failures upon innocent people.

That is why Trump is to be feared, as well as despised.

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India: Great Expectations


In 1991, under pressure from the IMF, India opened some industrial sectors to private companies and removed several licensing requirements. Private cellphone operators, banks, and airline companies started to appear. Soon, private banks were so customer-friendly that they would send someone to your home to help open an account. If you wanted more than $400 in cash, they delivered it free of cost. If you had a complaint, an employee would come to meet you in person within hours — wearing a tie, even in sweltering heat. Mobile phone companies provided outstanding service and, within years, at an enviable price. They delivered my SIM card to my home. If you wanted a new car, you did not have to worry about going to their showrooms. They came to you. Local airlines served great food and drinks, and were manned by bubbling youths full of passion for success. Foreign companies looking for competitive, English-speaking young people set up their operations in India.

Today, much of this lies in ruins. You have to keep chasing these private banks. Their websites are unfriendly, and they deduct money from your account without first informing you what they are about. An account holder stays away from credit cards, unless he really needs them or must show off; yet he still gets credit cards sent to him with yearly fees charged to his bank account, all without his approval.

The Indian government is a vicious, insensitive, passionless, totally corrupt, utterly stupid, and spineless organization, made up partly of psychopaths and partly of crooks, from top to bottom.

Airlines are marginally fine — with sulky services — as long as your baggage doesn’t go missing or a delay doesn’t make you miss your connecting flight. When my baggage went missing, so did the sleek-looking customer agents, for no one wanted to take responsibility. I recently discovered that the biggest mobile company now has no customer service number where you can talk to a live person. You must visit their office. If you deposit cash after your SIM was slated for disconnection (which of course you would not have been informed about), it will have disappeared into a black hole, from which a refund is virtually impossible unless you waste a horrendous amount of time. If the front-line agent has some figment of humanity (which is quite a rarity), he will tell you not to try getting your money back, for he might see the pain you would suffer trying.

Meanwhile, foreign companies started to realize that the costs of doing business were much higher than they had anticipated. They found that looks were deceptive. The English-speaking employees lacked skills, productivity, work ethic, and curiosity. Call-centers started to move to the Philippines. India stayed at best a back-office hub.

On earlier occasions, when I faced problems with Indian companies, I would report them to consumer forums, or write in to the complaint sections of the media. But I soon realized that despite any compensation I received, I spent so much time fighting the insensitive ears of these private companies that the project was cost-prohibitive. These days, if the money involved isn’t much, I forgive and forget, a sign of greying hair and loss of idealism. If what is involved is substantial, instead of fighting in consumer courts, I look for the most efficient strategy. If the Indian company is a subsidiary of a foreign company, I start by calling their CEO's office. When the Indian arm of a Korean refrigerator company refused to do anything about a problem, by calling their Korean office I got a new refrigerator. When a subsidiary of an American company gave me a faulty air conditioner and did nothing about it, I called their CEO in the US. I told his secretary that I would call twice a day to ensure that I got to speak with the CEO. Then their Indian arm worked so well that even the best anywhere in the world would have been impressed. But I have digressed.

In a mere few years, private companies became more like state-owned companies. In some cases one prefers state-owned companies, where at least a bribe does the job. Why?

In general, the "profitability" of Indian companies, particularly the big ones, is a reflection not so much of wealth-creation but of political backing, of their ability to find loopholes in regulations, and of outright theft, often from the poor section of society.

How things go wrong

The Indian government is a vicious, insensitive, passionless, totally corrupt, utterly stupid, and spineless organization, made up partly of psychopaths and partly of crooks, from top to bottom. Most have very numb or dead brains. They exist in dirty, unhygienic, and terrible environmental conditions, for it is they who do the cleaning. I can recall very few encounters with bureaucrats or politicians in which a bribe was not demanded. Moreover, you must grovel and beg in front of these (figuratively and literally) diseased people. Even then there is no guarantee that they will do the job.

I remember that on many occasions the bribes were not about approving something, but just to release my files so that I could take them myself to the next diseased creature. Only a citizen whose mind has not been destroyed and numbed would not feel humiliated by what he goes through at government offices. Not only is the bureaucrat after money, but he relishes the act of demeaning citizens, in a corrupt attempt to make up for his deep-rooted inferiority complex and self-hatred.

Demeaning others leaves the Indian bureaucrat feeling good about himself, at least for the moment. The irony is that all this makes him seriously sick, physically, mentally, and spiritually. His children go astray and he never understands why. As you discover reading The Lord of the Rings, in a tyranny, there is no single tyrant. Everyone is tyrannized by everyone else; everyone's spirit is subdued by everyone else’s. A bureaucrat must sit with people of his kind, who scheme against one another, forever wallowing in the rotting sewage of envy, hatred, and a strange kind of showmanship. In reality, however, they have nothing to show but impotence, for they never create anything useful or productive. They, their wives and kids, and even name-dropping relatives, show off their status in an exaggerated way, through noise, heavy-handedness, armed goons in costumes, and big cars with sirens.

Not only is the bureaucrat after money, but he relishes the act of demeaning citizens, in a corrupt attempt to make up for his deep-rooted inferiority complex and self-hatred.

A casual observer might believe that all you have to do is get rid of such bureaucrats. All you have to do is to change the party in power and streamline regulations and remove corruption through an empowered constitutional authority that politicians cannot touch.

Why then why did private companies fail to sustain their proper character?

The problem is much deeper than an observer might imagine. It is a problem that cannot be reached by the typical libertarian prescription of reducing the size or composition of government. When the prescription is applied, things don’t not turn out much better; and the improvement certainly does not last.

What most people fail to understand is that the state is little more than the sum total of the collective mind.

In India, even a perfectly created product has a very short half-life. My new gym has grown old within months. The dust piles up; the equipment rusts, rather rapidly. My new car earned a big dent, the day I bought it. Every vehicle gets smeared with dents. I don't know anyone who hasn't had several injuries and close calls with death. Day-to-life faults happen with amazing regularity, a frequency that could never have been imagined or statistically expected. The most resilient equipment burns away if you do not think of using a surge protector, for the electricity company will increase the voltage by misconnecting the wires at the main poles. Normal cars need to be redesigned to ensure that they work because, for example, there is almost universal adulteration of petrol. Refrigerators that are designed to keep working as long as they are plugged in stop cooling when water condenses and freezes in their air-pipes as a result of frequent electricity cuts.

Every time you take anything for repair, even a minor one, you get a patch-up job. You are looked upon with amusement if you ask for a good, clean job. No self-respecting workman would want to have anything to do with you, irrespective of the money you offer. Expediency is the mantra. If ever there is a serious repairman, he needs immense cognition to isolate the problem. The others patch whatever they can get away with patching. When you tinker with a system or an individual piece of equipment, trying to correct the problem, you often create more problems, for your tinkering — however innocent it may be — undoes the other patches. This situation exists not just with equipment but with absolutely everything in life. Most Indians waste a very large part of their day putting out existential fires. My five hours of no electricity today, in what is among the best neighborhoods and those most catered to, are one of my smaller worries, for at least I know what the problem is.

So what is the deeper problem?

Unfortunately, but predictably, the bureaucrat described above is merely a reflection of the larger society. He is the tip of the iceberg. This is always the case, but what most people fail to understand is that the state is little more than the sum total of the collective mind. The visible state — the government — and its tyranny is a symptom of the underlying problem: a society that breeds and sustains the statist poison. Individual Indians will decry corruption, but virtually everyone will pay a bribe to gain an unfair advantage over others or take bribes by rationalizing it away. Even written contracts have no value. It is considered fair game if someone steals your money and gets away with it. Most people will not rent their property, for they fear it will not be returned. Most people, even the guy on the street, have a perfect prescription for how I should live my life and will offer it to me unabashedly. Respect for others as individuals and their properties is a completely alien concept. This, combined with fatalism (a product of a superstitious mind that is immune to the concept of causality), is the reason behind the chaos on the roads and every other area of life. I contend that the Indian road is a visual representation of how the Indian mind works.

You cannot have a small government in a society in which everyone wants to control everyone else's life, where no one can be trusted to do a job properly, where the concept of how to make money is not wealth-creation but manipulation and theft. You cannot avoid building a large and corrupt police force in a society where the individual cannot be trusted. You cannot stop a complicated structure of regulations and government in a society in which individuals cannot think straight, clearly, or rationally.

If someone wants a real, sustainable change he should work in the arena of critical thinking and individualism, not on imposing superficial Western ways.

A tyrannical government is a product of a tyrannical, corrupt, and statist society. Even before the society changes, it is the individual who must change. A free society is unsustainable without free-minded individuals. Those who want real change must work on the root: the individual.

The general totalitarianism, indolence, dishonesty, lack of work ethic, confused thinking, irrationality, superstition, and lack of respect for other people have too much momentum on their side to let private companies stay good. The initial euphoria, mostly of a drunken kind, a catharsis, lasted for no more than a few years. What you culturally see in India is not different from what the West was like perhaps 500 years back. India's problems cannot be dealt with unless the society has gone through the reformation, enlightenment, and scientific revolution that happened in the West.

What differentiates the West from "the Rest"

For vices to be replaced by virtues — the way in which a rational individual perceives them — the concept of reason must take precedence. For those who do not think by means of reason, for those whose culture is not based on it, the vantage point from which vice and virtue are considered is very different. For such people, touching a low-caste person to help him might be a sin, and forcefully occupying the property of a poor person to build a temple might be a virtue.

Lacking appreciation of all this, the US government — assuming it was well-intentioned — spent many years lavishing its resources in attempts to bring democracy, the rule of law, etc., to societies where such constructs have mutated back to what they originally were. Those truly interested in bringing a change must understand that outside the West, the mainstream's way of thinking and conceptualizing the world, its way of imagining and perceiving the world, and its resultant aspirations and motivations are driven by undercurrents that are essentially pre-rational. It is the undercurrents that must be changed. They must, indeed, be replaced by reason and individualism.

The problems of India are extreme, but they aren’t just India's problems.

In my travels around the world, I am reminded of this again and again: there is the Western civilization, which values the individual and the concept of reason; and there is the rest, the area of the world in which most people haven't a clue about what individualism means or, if they have a clue, abhor it, even after hundreds of years of interactions with the West and even after the advent of the internet, easy information, and cheap traveling.

Reason and individualism are a rare fruit, a very expensive one. Without it, democracy, the rule of law, and regulations against excessive state power have limited and mostly unfavorable effects. That is the problem of India today.

And not just India. Most places outside the West are in a mess, living a contradiction, having some material development but lacking the necessary basis in reason and individualism, and hence of ethics. Even the West has increasingly lost these concepts. This might be making the world an extremely unstable place. But, again, I digress.

If someone wants a real, sustainable change he should work in the arena of critical thinking and individualism, not on imposing superficial Western ways, trying merely to reduce regulations or reduce the size of the public sector.

The future of India

With China slowing down, Russia failing to impress, Brazil in stalemate, and the economies of the West in stagnation or decline, the focus of those looking for economic growth has moved to India.

Despite producing some of the largest numbers of so-called scientists, engineers, and so forth in the world, India is an extremely wretched country. Relatively speaking, a huge amount of economic growth has taken place since 1991, when it is believed that India started to open up — from GDP per capita of a few hundred dollars then to $1,625 today. In my view, the date when India started to change economically was a decade earlier. India had started opening telecommunications to impress visitors during the hosting of the Asian Games in 1982. This in turn opened channels for an easy import of information and technology through the telecommunications cable. Things developed from there. But now that the low-hanging fruits of imported technology have been extracted from the tree, India is stagnating again.

The mainstream media disagree, strongly. During the past year, the euphoria of the old days has returned to India. The stock market has recently been the highest ever. Foreign institutional investors are flocking again. They see India as the next China, ignoring the fact that India is one of the rare countries that hasn't had an event to shake off entrenched interests, social habits, and patterns of thinking during the past many centuries.

How Modi can change a country of 1.25 billion is something that no one really wants to think about, for these are times of euphoria.

Deaths of hundreds of thousands every year in avoidable calamities of course haven't triggered any shakeup, and hence cannot be called revolutionary. Also, it pays to remind ourselves that the so-called independence movement in India was a political event. As a rule of thumb, a political event is an active avoidance of introspection. India's certainly wasn't a cultural movement or even a shakeup. In a way, it was the antithesis of a shake up. Before that, entrenched interests had participated in the revolt against what came to be known as the Bengal Renaissance, which the English supported. Democracy allowed the basest of elements to rise to the top, making entrenchment worse and a possibility of a shake up more remote and entangled.

India's newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, is behind today's grand hopes. Everyone is looking at him. Alas, Indians are so badly trained (and unable to think straight and clearly from the perspective of reason) that supervising a mere few of them often feels impossible. How Modi can change a country of 1.25 billion is something that no one really wants to think about, for these are times of euphoria. Hence, the cycle starts again.

There are far too many hopes about this deity. Modi's deification is perhaps the most visual symptom of India's problems: the society looking up to someone or something external to bring salvation. Today's youth have far too many material expectations, taught them by the TV, but not enough productivity. This might be a very dangerous cocktail in the making. Even if it isn’t, I see no way for India to experience meaningful change unless it gives up its irrationality and superstition. I see nothing on the horizon that is capable of teaching critical thinking to the youth.

For those who care to imagine, India may be, culturally and intellectually, where China and Russia were in the late 19th century. Then, India was indeed going through its own renaissance — the Bengal Renaissance — until it was nipped in the bud by half-baked, uneducable people (Gandhi, Nehru, etc.) who went to study in England and learned nothing more than what their irrational minds could accept: intellectual rationalizations for socialism. They neither got nor were capable of getting even get an inkling that what had made England great was reason and individualism. A bottom-up renaissance was corrupted into a top-down design to change India, the so-called independence movement.

At some point, India has to pick up the threads where it left them, with the premature end of its renaissance. Would that require it to suffer what China and Russia suffered in the early 20th century? It shouldn't, and I would hate to see that happening, but is there any other possibility that human history shows?

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Modi Demystified


It has been a year since Narendra Modi was inaugurated as prime minister of India. During that year, he has spent a lot of time traveling around the world, including the US, Australia, France, and Canada. I was hoping against hope that one of these Western nations, seemingly so conscious of human rights, would arrest him for the role he is alleged to have played in the massacre of Muslims in 2002 and ship him off to the international court. They didn't.

Until early last year, several Western countries, including the US, had imposed travel restrictions on Modi for his alleged crimes. But Modi's sins have now been washed in the holy water of democracy. So much for those Western countries’ fervently declared position never to compromise on morals.

It is not possible for many Indians to imagine a future achieved by constructive, rational steps. As a result, they look for a magic wand to take India to a prosperous future.

During Modi’s visits abroad, local Indians gave him a hero's welcome. The Indian flag and anthem and a deep sense of togetherness, joy, and warmth dominated the proceedings. He attracted an historically unprecedented 18,000 people when he appeared at Madison Square Garden in New York. Meanwhile, Indians living in India are said to have found a new sense of confidence, vision, and hope. Investors, economists, journalists, intellectuals, and politicians around the world appear to be in awe of Modi, looking up to him to make India the next China. The Indian stock market has done very well. The IMF believes that India will soon exceed China in growth rate.

One out of every six human beings living in India, so a real change in India would be path-breaking for humanity.

Modi is the first prime minister in almost three decades who has come to power with a full majority, gaining the ability to institute legislative changes. He had already created an impression of competence by supposedly demonstrating his capabilities in Gujarat, the province he had headed before.

So, why am I so stuck on Modi’s alleged crimes of the past? Should we not let bygones be bygones? Why not worry about the larger good and let the hope that Modi has instilled in everyone carry us forward?

Let me explain.

Hysteria among Indians is a routine phenomenon. They latch on to some new hope or disaster, their feelings completely unsupported by facts or reason. It pays to remember that Indian society is not driven by or even understands the concepts of the sanctity of individuality or reason. It is a society based on a hodgepodge of beliefs, traditions, religions, and superstitions. Given this, it is not possible for many Indians to imagine a future achieved by constructive, rational steps. As a result, they look for a magic wand to do the job, to take India to a prosperous future. The result is that they forever look for a new deity to lead them.

People who operate only through emotions and feelings do not have to reflect on their past beliefs, to reason and dissect why their hopes proved erroneous.

It is not the backwardness of the poor people that worries me the most, but the utter failure of the middle class to unhinge itself from irrational thinking and provide intellectual leadership.

The last prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was rightly assumed to be a puppet of Sonia Gandhi, the dynastic head of the Congress Party, which has run India for most of its so-called post-independence, democratic days. Singh was universally seen as indecisive and his ministers were considered corrupt. He was regarded as incapable of changing the course of India. Alas, this was the general perception when he left. In earlier days, however, he had been the hero of India. He was the person believed to have started the process of liberalization in India. In those early days he was seen as a genius technocrat.

People who operate only through emotions and feelings do not have to reflect on their past beliefs, to reason and dissect why their hopes proved erroneous. Almost every inauguration of a new prime minister within my lifetime has been met with massive euphoria, with everyone, particularly the so-called educated class, looking up to him as a magic wand. By the end of each term the memory of whatever they were so euphoric about at the beginning has been forgotten.

While it is true that Modi has the majority in Parliament, the first majority since 1984, the irony that the major media has declined to discuss is that his party got only 31% of the total votes, a result of the votes being split among too many parties. Modi derives most of his power from the middle-class, the so-called educated.

If they truly loved India or cared for its poor people, they would have seen India’s continual wallowing in irrationality, superstitions, and lack of enlightenment.

He has also given a new sense of identity to the confidence-lacking Indian diaspora. Its members have found new pride in Hinduism, so much so that fanatic elements are increasingly influencing curricula related to Hinduism in the US. They cannot stop talking about how great India is. My question for them is why they left India or why they don’t return if they really think India is such a great country. Why should they crave American passports or show off their American residency when on visits to India? Alas, in the absence of reason, not having done any introspection, they fail to realize that behind the facade of pride in India and Hinduism is a narcissistic craving for a sense of identity and a desperate plea for respect.

If they truly loved India or cared for its poor people — or if, again, they could reason, instead of supporting or rationalizing lies that look good about India — they would have seen India’s continual wallowing in irrationality, superstitions, and lack of enlightenment. The middle class in India is no different from other classes. Using WhatsApp, they send out religious hymns with Modi’s name in place of a god’s.

In practice there is not much change at the ground level, except for a palpable increase in religious intolerance and Hindu fanaticism, which some elements in Modi’s party share or support. Rumors about “love jihad” have recently been the talk of the town; the assumption is that Muslim youth have been systemically trained to seduce Hindu girls. There has also been an increased movement against the consumption of beef. Recently a relative of mine got a visit from one of the Hindu fanatic groups for supposedly insulting Hindu gods. The police prefer to be bystanders on such occasions.

One piece of legislation that Modi is after is called a land acquisition bill. A very large proportion of middle-class Indians have no problem with forcibly acquiring the land of poor farmers to enable India’s industrial development, helping corporations get cheap and easy access. This, in essence, is what the bill is about. The act might even speed up the process of infrastructural development, but at the price of individual rights. India's middle class — those who live in India and those who live abroad — are among the most heartless and apathetic people I have known. They claim to be for the free market, but what that means to them is actually seizing land from poor people for the larger good, where the larger good, in their imagination, is what helps the middle class.

Religious intolerance and fascist policies carry real risks of blowing up and becoming uncontrollable. Modi is a simpleton — and, like his middle-class supporters, he is prone to designing a society according to his own image, from the top down. He does not understand the concepts of “unintended consequences,” “uncertainty,” and “non-linearity.”

They claim to be for the free market, but what that means to them is actually seizing land from poor people to help the middle class.

Reason, justice, and respect for the individual must come to the forefront if India is to change. But the time for that hasn’t come. I never had any hope from Modi or his fanaticism. But, at the root, the Indian middle class — those who live in India and those who live abroad — have failed India. They have failed to educate themselves in critical thinking about India’s problems. What skills in argumentation they possess have been used for rationalizing the country’s backwardness. They have been a failure at leading India’s largely poor and superstitious society.

Indeed, for now, in the world arena, Indians have won respect. They have an increased sense of identity. They are a proud bunch. They have hopes. But this is all shallow; nothing real underpins it. Modi will most likely fade into oblivion in a few years. Eventually, as in the past, most people will forget the euphoria and will be looking for the next deity.

I await the day when the Indian will look for the hero inside himself.

But for now, India is not the next China, not even remotely.

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Do We Lack Impartial Media?


Recently I saw a webpage that told the story of a veiled Muslim woman complaining, at the checkout counter of a supermarket in Canada, about Veterans’ Day and Canadian involvement in Iraq. The story ended with the cashier asking the Muslim woman to go back to Iraq, the place she had emigrated from. The cashier even offered to help her pack and finance her ticket back.

It took me no more than a minute to figure out that this was a fake story. The same story, with the scene changed to the US, Australia, and the UK, has been posted during the past eight years on many websites made for the gullible.

There are enough TV channels for people to access information: why don’t they look for balanced reporting?

Within hours of its posting, a couple hundred thousand people had “liked” and shared the Canadian story. Responses, mostly from Americans and Canadians, spewed hatred for Muslims, with a strange combination of extreme arrogance and utter ignorance. “Leave my country. Just go,” said one. My feeling of unease was no different from what I get when I meet Muslim or Hindu fanatics.

Ten years back, I had lunch with a well-known public-policy analyst in Vancouver. In his view, nations have so many conflicts because people do not have access to full information. They are force-fed what entrenched interests in government and big media want them to believe. He told me that our job is to disseminate information in the most balanced way we can, to fight corrupt interests.

My argument was that there are enough TV channels for people to access information: why don’t they look for balanced reporting? He went on arguing that the alternative channels are not popular enough for people to access; our job is to help these alternative media improve their standing.

His charisma and experience convinced me to agree with him.

On another occasion, however, I had a talk with a scholar in which I was able to present a different view. My idea was that there are a large number of people who care nothing about philosophy. They care about their 9-to-5 job, evening beer, and twice-a-week sex. I had no exact number, for there are no statistics on it, but I claimed anything between 50% and 70% fell into this category. These guys don’t have bad intentions. They just want to carry on their lives unhindered. If not provoked and indoctrinated, they don’t have many views of their own. They normally do what the authorities tell them to. They believe what they are asked to believe. They go shopping and buy small cans of Coke — whereas, in their position, I would buy big bottles from Costco. I have nothing against them. Part of me even envies them, for their capacity to live in the moment without worrying about the future.

There is another perhaps 5% to 10% of the population that would have belonged to the above, except that they developed a sort of activist mindset and a high sense of the self and its “rights.” If they went to the university, they never studied; they spent all their time partying and drinking. They never really understood what research is. In a democracy, they have views and truly believe that they matter, irrespective of whether the people who hold them can produce a rational analysis or not. Soundbites are their philosophy. They never bother to look at the major contradictions that lie just below the surface of their ideas. Suffering from a sort of impotence, they also carry hatred toward people who are better off than they are. In an ideal world, none of them would have been admitted to the university. They would have saved resources and allowed the flow of wisdom to be less polluted. But the cocktail of their ignorance and arrogance allows them to speak up very confidently in public. They have the psychology of Marxists, even if they don’t call themselves Marxists. They are modern collectivists but ironically tribal, always with an enemy in mind. They are the ones who “liked” the above story of the Muslim woman in Canada. These are the kind I call fanatics, rabble-rousers.

The fanatics are the agents setting the theme and tone of society’s emotions. They decide who is next to be hated, based on simplistic soundbites of climate change, communism, capitalism, people in faraway places, etc. They don’t really get anything personally out of their unfocused, unexamined agitations; they are pawns in the hands of the warmongers, politicians, lobbyists, pursuers of corporate interests, and so forth, who contribute some of the 5% of clinical sociopaths in the population. Alas, they also agitate and affect the opinions of the 50% to 70% who are basically uninterested in politics and in philosophy.

The scholar convinced me that these people — sociopaths and fanatics — were mere products of their circumstances and that all we needed to do was provide them with love and understanding, to nudge them into a rational way of thinking.

And yet . . .

I grew up in the small city of Bhopal in India, under a socialist system. There were a couple of newspapers, both of them private but for all practical purposes controlled by the state, and two radio stations, both operated directly by the government. I had no concept of what television was until my last year of school. For all practical purposes the outside world did not exist. Our access to information was rare and so extremely difficult that we had developed extreme competencies in looking for rumors, analyzing them for inherent flaws, and filtering out what was likely the truth. After some event occurred, it was often days before we saw the official news reports, but we had usually worked out what was happening with a very high level of accuracy.

There are a large number of people who care nothing about philosophy. They care about their 9-to-5 job, evening beer, and twice-a-week sex.

Today, despite hundreds of TV channels, smartphones, WhatsApp, Facebook, etc., the reality hasn’t changed much. In Bhopal, those who don’t care still don’t know. Those who think they know, but don’t know, look for information to rationalize what they want to believe in — as they did before. The proportion of those who really want to know the truth still know it, and this number hasn’t changed despite proliferation of information.

During the last decade, the situation in Vancouver hasn’t changed either.

I am back to my initial position on whether the media is responsible for our lack of information and our social conflicts. Depending on what our paradigms and worldviews are, we either look for the truth with curiosity to change our views, add to them, and give them more nuances; or we look for what helps us rationalize what we already believe in, unprepared to go through the pain of changing ourselves. Big media and big government may be crooks, but they are merely symptoms of our failure as a society to be eternally vigilant.

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Hong Kong: Democracy and Liberties


As I write (October 15), protestors in Hong Kong are still trying to make the city more democratic and to wean it off Chinese government influence.

Protestors were seen cleaning up after themselves and even helping out the police with umbrellas during downpours. Indeed, HK is one of the most civilized places I have been to, and I visit several times a year. Despite its congestion, people respect your space and are hard-working, making it one of the freest, safest, and most competitive places in the world.

China itself is a communist dictatorship, or so it is believed. When the UK transferred the administration of HK to China in 1997, the world was convinced that China would destroy HK’s liberties. Between 1997 and 2003, the HK property market fell between 30% and 50%, and in some areas even more. A mass-migration happened to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK.

Democratic pressures lead to consistent increase in the size of government, as the majority insists on getting more and more from the pockets of wealth-generators.

By 2003, the realization had set in that the Chinese Communist Party had no intention of destroying HK’s liberties. HK continued to boom and stayed as one of the freest places in the world. China not only did not flood HK with continental Chinese, as had been suspected, but it maintained a visa regime like that which had existed before they took over: even today it is Chinese who need a visa to visit, not Indians, the stark enemies of China. Those who had left HK for good started returning. Businesses, the stock market, and the general economy boomed.

Within HK, you could speak, shout, and write against China and the Communist Party, on the streets and in the parliament, and still find yourself feeling as secure as you would have in a similar situation in Canada or the UK.

International observers — from social democrats to believers in the free market — sacrificed their integrity when they refused to admit that their forecasts about what China would do with HK had been proven wrong. They refused to express respect toward China for how well it had maintained HK. Even a criminal deserves fair treatment.

But should HK not get democracy, more liberties, and freedom of speech?

People’s understanding of democracy is utterly twisted, in an Orwellian sense. “Begging the question,” they treat liberty and democracy as synonymous. As defined, “democracy” is a system in which the government is elected, in some form, by the majority of people. By itself the concept says nothing about institutions of liberty and the size of government.

The fanatic believers in democracy, despite the common failure of democracies around the world — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, and more recently in Libya and Egypt — refuse to see the shallowness of their New Age religion. They refuse to see that democratic pressures lead to consistent increase in the size of government, as the majority insists on getting more and more from the pockets of wealth-generators. This invariably leads to overall reduction of liberties and relegates the majority to the culture and mentality of beggars.

The bazaar of bribes was conducted openly, without an iota of fear. People were groveling and pleading. The bureaucrats were demeaning these people and shouting at them.

But what about the freedom of speech and liberties that democracy promotes? As a student in my university in India, I could be beaten up without any moral hiccups if that was what the majority decided. These days, I podcast interviews of people from around the world, to discuss cultures. Most of my contacts feel flattered and are happy to talk. The country with the highest refusal rate for interviews is democratic India. In fact, the rate is close to 100%. In India, you can speak against systemic corruption, as long you do so in vague, broad terms, although what really matters in any fight is to pinpoint corruption of specific institutions. Hardly an Indian will talk to me about specific corruption.

Institutional corruption entangles people, for they must be a part of it even if they hate it, if they want to survive. Last week, I was in a government office in India. There were more private “facilitators,” to help navigate the corruption, than bureaucrats. The bazaar of bribes was conducted openly, without an iota of fear. People were groveling and pleading. The bureaucrats were demeaning these people and shouting at them. Where are liberties and freedom of speech in the world’s biggest democracy?

Should it be so difficult to understand that democracy and liberties are not synonymous?

If you want freedom of speech and other liberties, you must fight for better institutions, preferably private and non-democratic and hence unpoisoned by the majority who care less for virtues and more for material pleasures.

Or let’s consider the world’s second biggest democracy and the most passionate proselytizer, the land of the free, the USA. Americans can talk freely about broad, amorphous subjects. But can they talk about specific ones? How many people can claim to speak their minds openly about race, native Indian issues, the sexual orientation of others, women, etc.? And how many fail to speak freely because they fear they might get into the no-fly list or in the records of the CIA or that an unhappy government might initiate IRS audits? When at American airports, I make sure I don’t utter certain words — even in an innocent sentence — to avoid having a SWAT team descend on me. The lack of freedom of speech has become so institutionalized in the minds of Americans that they don’t even realize what they don’t have.

In comparison, non-democratic Hong Kong is a freewheeling place where people have the freedom to say what they think. There is hardly a country anywhere in the world better in comparison. Only those prepared to fool themselves or incapable of deeper thinking conflate freedom of speech with democracy.

Another way in which the international society, the secular but fanatic believers in democracy, has lacked integrity is their failure to recognize that some of the best improvements in liberties and economic growth have appeared in non-democratic countries: HK, China, Singapore, and Macau. Korea and Taiwan grew the most when they lacked a proper democratic system. So did Japan and Chile. I struggle to find a nation in recent times that has begun to succeed under democracy.

Our lack of integrity is not just a standalone vice. It detaches us from seeing the truth, from weighing the situation properly and assess what must be done to improve society.

But given the liberties and higher intellectual environment in HK — as I concede above — should its people not have the right to vote freely for their own government? Aren’t the students and people of HK — as I concede above — among the most civilized people anywhere?

It is an error to believe that what people say is what they want. The fever of democracy has now been sweeping the world for a few years. This is not a demand for more liberties or improvement in human rights, as they seem to demand, but in essence a demand for a magic wand, to get something for nothing.

People should fight for more liberties and an even smaller government. But “democracy” will take them in the opposite direction.

Collectives and mass movements are based on such desires and it is an error to expect higher ideals from them. Ready to follow unexamined romantic ideas, students of HK are supporting leftist elements. While a parliamentarian, Leung Kwok-hung, a Che Guevara lover, shouts and protests against the Chinese regime openly and without fear while he is in HK, I wonder if he would allow the same liberties to others if he came to power in a democratic Hong Kong.

One of the worst political disasters of recent times has been to give the vote to students. However good they might be, they simply lack the life experience to understand the relationships between ideas and, if they do, to weigh them based on their importance. They lack the experience to comprehend life in its complexities. Formal education at best is about learning the alphabet of life. But life must be lived and experienced to create prose from this alphabet. Moreover, education around the world, including HK and Singapore, indoctrinates students in what must be accepted as beliefs. And it is the “progressive” agenda of those in the West and their wishy-washy Marxist ideology that is now a matter of faith among students around the world. HK’s recent movement is heavily influenced by this.

So, what should Hong Kong do, if not fight for more liberties? HK has perhaps the smallest government in the world and is among the freest societies. Even then it’s worth reducing the size of its government, one hopes to nothing. Yes, indeed, people should fight for more liberties and an even smaller government. But “democracy” will take them in the opposite direction. Moreover, fighting on the street is always a wrong start, for it presumes that the protestor can infringe on other people’s liberties, to somehow gain larger liberties for everyone. Our path must be in sync with our goals. What one sees in HK today is the path backwards.

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