Are Poor People Happier?

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Some people believe that those living in utter poverty, in the wretched parts of the world, know best how to smile and enjoy life. “Poor people,” they say, “live simple, contented lives, with fewer worries and distractions.” Some of the best-known spiritual teachers — Stephen Covey, Wayne Dyer, etc. — have talked about greater happiness, deeper connections with the earth, and higher levels of spirituality among the poor societies they have visited. Many celebrities (John Lennon, Richard Gere, etc.) and business leaders (the late Steve Jobs, for example) spent extended time in India to seek spiritual enlightenment.

To a casual observer, all this may look very reasonable. But the reality is completely different. And we’re not talking about a minor, insignificant error: such beliefs seriously affect what we mean by progress (Is poverty better than prosperity?) as well as the public and financial-aid policies we adopt in relation to poorer societies, often with horrible consequences. Even within this strand of erroneous views there are two schools of thought. On one hand there are people who want to restrict all developments in “primitive” areas “to preserve their languages and cultures,” whether those societies want development or not; on the other there are people who want to impose democracy on these societies and flood their poor people with cash, because “they deserve a better material life, their fair share.”

So what is it about poor societies?

Some people living in big cities cherish a romantic notion about rural places within their own area. Romantic, and mistaken: it is often a huge error to presume that rural people believe in simple living, have a higher sense of community, are closer to nature, are friendlier and more compassionate, and are physically more active and healthier.

I have been to scores of the world’s poorest countries, and I have spent extended periods there. I have done several spiritual retreats in India. I have found poor people very hospitable and generous toward me. But one must live there long enough to understand what is behind the facade. One must ask whether poor people are, indeed, happy.

A wretched life is survivable only on the foundation of numbness. Early in life, very poor people learn to switch off feelings, to avoid sensing the nonstop pain of poverty and tyranny. Those in hunger lack an interest in philosophy, a sense of right and wrong, or an aspiration for higher meaning in life. Their lives are driven by expediency, not morality or reason. They relieve the stress of living under tyranny by passing it on to those more vulnerable. They have, quite rightly, one overpowering obsession: survival. Poor people process the world through dogmatic beliefs and faith.

To poor people, a visitor is a novelty, a reason for catharsis, a much needed escape from their mostly wretched existence. The visitor provides them with a sense of comfort, a tacit knowledge that they are not in competition with him for resources. But visitors (and readers of visitors’ reports), beware: it is hazardous to jump to any conclusions about the character of a poor society and its state of being, simply because of a short, smiley encounter. Anyone who calls poverty spiritual is misled, shallow-thinking, or condescending.

* * *

I must expect some readers to respond that I am “over-generalizing.” They fail to comprehend that we always generalize. Was Saddam Hussein a bad guy? Indeed he was. But that is a generalization. In parts of his life, he was a good guy. He was a hero for people from his community. We might say that politicians are corrupt or that bureaucrats are lazy. That does not mean that good politicians cannot exist or that you’ll never find an efficient bureaucrat. Similarly when I talk about poor people, I am referring to the average.

* * *

But aren’t people in poor counties free from the “depression” felt by people in the richer, developed world? Yes, but for a very wrong reason. Poor people just don’t have the time (or the future) in which to feel depressed. On the surface of their existence they create all possible noise, chaos, and smell to keep themselves distracted, to avoid examining their inner selves. If they did find a reason for self-examination, they would emerge extremely frustrated. History shows that a lot of social revolutions happen, ironically, as people emerge from hand-to-mouth existence — the inertia of pre-rational thinking does not necessarily change even after they have started becoming prosperous.

Creating policies based on erroneous assumptions, either to aid poor countries or to change their regimes forcefully, has had disastrous consequences. If we really want to be an impetus for change, we must accept facts as they are, objectively, even if they counter the instinctive sympathy we feel for the weak.

Are the meek inheriting the earth?

In today’s age of technology, poverty does not come easy. Most poor people are poor because that is what they deserve. It is a result of their spiritual poverty, of their failure to imagine abundance and a win-win society, of a sinful state of thinking and worldview in which envy, tribalism, irrationality, and fatalism dominate. It is with their mental paradigms that they elect their leaders. Those in positions of power indeed are tyrants, but see what happens when the underclass is suddenly elevated to higher positions. You should normally expect worse.

Why else did Iraqi institutions built at the cost of trillions of dollars (including the money spent removing a tyrant) collapse like a house of cards within months of being left to themselves? It is just very hard to change the human mind, and without changing that, there is no hope. The removal of Saddam Hussein was at best a result of extraordinarily naive thinking. There is no escape from drudgery until people individually wake up.

Poor people are very materialistic, if you understand that “materialism.” Material acquisition is their obsession, a result of their minds being tuned only to survival. Moreover, when they start earning a surplus — and when they become nouveau riche — their worldviews don’t change easily and may not for several generations. A volcano of crudeness and rudeness erupts. And why venture to exotic countries to understand this? Look into your own backyard. Have you ever wondered why some in the poorest communities in your area have the most expensive cars? Look for information about those who won hundreds of millions in lottery tickets. Most of them end up worse than where they started, with unpaid bank loans, drug addiction, and wrong company.

* * *

A lot of confusion is created by using terms improperly. Some people tend to use “capitalism” in place of “materialism.” While they are not parallel terms and hence not strictly comparable, in essence they are often antonymous. “Materialism” has its roots in addiction to material acquisition and “capitalism” in individual liberty. In my experience those who seek personal freedom often lack any obsession for material acquisition. And one can live in utter opulence and still not be materialistic, if material acquisition is not the driving force in one’s life.

* * *

In the South African capital of Johannesburg, one is awed by Lamborghinis, Jaguars, and other very expensive cars, mostly driven by those who were very poor not long before, but got easy access to cash because of redistribution policies. Those who thought that this money would have gone toward better purposes have been proven wrong.

In my backwater city in India, where cars and houses were traditionally modest, signs of prosperity are now the same as signs of bankruptcy: people buy Audis and BMWs on loans they cannot afford to pay. Alcoholism among women, slum-dwellers, and rural people is on the rise, rather rapidly. A culture of self-denial (owing to the socialistic past) has rapidly mutated into one of pleasure-centeredness. Ironically, the switch was easy; it merely required a change of rules — there was no time-consuming, painful critical evaluation, for such a concept does not exist in the culture.

* * *

One might ask where Indian spiritual teachers emerge from. The reality is that spirituality is a rare concept in Indian society. Religions teach fatalism, dogmas, and superstitions. Magical stories of kings and queens and the myths that go with them grip the mind very early in life and combine to cripple people from thinking rationally. There is too much of materialistic expectation in the concept of the afterlife developed from dogmatic religion, making indoctrinated individuals very resistant to change. The corrupt leaders and sociopaths who benefit have entrenched themselves extremely well, over hundreds of years; and this entrenchment is not going to go away easily, for the sufferer and the tyrant are often two sides of the same coin. In such an ecosystem, those with an interest in spirituality are outcast — J. Krishnamurti, for example — and hence tend to gravitate to certain pockets of protection or interest, mostly catering to American and other Western followers.

* * *

But aren’t Chinese and Indians thrifty? Don’t they have huge savings? Haven’t the Chinese provided trillions in credit to the developed world? Consumption of Louis Vuitton and other exotic luxury goods — brands that I cannot pronounce or remember — is exploding in China, Thailand, Malaysia, and so on. The Confucian culture of China, a culture that encourages saving, is mostly a myth that prevails among China bulls (and I am one, but for a different reason), a retrospective rationalization for China’s successes of the last three decades. Not too long back, the Chinese were seen as spendthrift, lazy, and unhygienic.

* * *

Macau today is a much bigger gambling and sin city than Las Vegas, and growing. An upcoming hotel will soon have the biggest fleet of Rolls-Royces anywhere in the world. The cost of a suite for one night will be $135,000. Each suite will have a private access, perhaps to provide the ultimate in hedonism. I don’t decide what people should do, but I do wish they used their newly minted money for better purposes. However, I have invested some of my money in these pleasure centers. I will leave the reader to worry if I am a hypocrite.

* * *

What does this mean for the future?

What will human society look like in the future, as it continues on the path of economic growth and technological revolution? If poor societies are not really spiritual and deep-thinking, the trajectory they will take and the influence they will have on the larger society as they become richer and more globalized will be very different from what it would have been if their poverty were a result of nothing but their political institutions.

For a long time, I thought — very erroneously — that poor societies would use their initial excess cash to invest and provide for personal development. I had made the same error that I now blame others for.

In reality, poverty would almost instantly disappear were the poor capable of strategizing their lives, of looking at life rationally with the long term in mind. A visit to malls in Asia convinces me that the growth of luxury goods and high-end services will continue to trend upward. As soon as people have enough to eat, they start to consume rotten junk food, and their brand consciousness kicks in, making them spend a disproportionate amount of money on status goods. They must own a Louis Vuitton bag or drive an expensive car, even if it means sharing a room with several other people.

I have devoured with great pleasure the books of Jared Diamond, in which he attributes the success of the West to “guns, germs, and steel” and those of Niall Ferguson, in which he argues that beginning in the 15th century, the West developed six powerful new concepts or “killer applications” — competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic — allowing it to surge past all competitors in the East. But have all these concepts not been available to the rest of the world for at least the past two centuries?

Did Cambodia (where a large population was killed in the civil war), Mao’s China, and vast parts of Africa not use guns for self-defeating purposes? Despite the fact that these poor people had suffered from huge tyrannies, the first thing they did when given the power was set-up worse a tyranny. The truth is that the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution never really happened outside the West, and without those historical revolutions the “killer applications” may be copied but are not understood and do not stick. The guns and the steel have horrendous consequences. Societies outside the West, without an intellectual infrastructure of rationality and ethics, lack the eyes to understand what made the West great; and it isn’t clear that the West still remembers its own moral underpinnings.

You cannot help poor people by artificially giving them power or by merely bringing a regime change to democracy. You can have a hope only if you can inculcate the concept of critical and self-critical reason.

There is nothing glamorous about poverty. Poverty is mostly a reflection of inner emptiness, irrationality, and the paradigms of pre-rational days. Poor people not only have no clue what spirituality means, but lack the awareness, or even the time or patience, to understand it. Those who are keen on getting rid of poverty must do the emotionally hard work of understanding what lies at its roots.




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Election in India, World’s Biggest Democracy

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Mahatma Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilization:
“I think it would be a good idea.”

The biggest democracy in the world has started an electioneering process for the next federal government. This massive exercise runs from April 7 to May 12. Euphoria has swept the nation. Foreign Institutional Investors (FILs) are extremely optimistic about India’s future. The Indian stock market has reached its highest ever level.

Comparing India's low growth rate with China's high one, many experts believe that in democracies, growth must be slow — but steady — and eventually very strong. Is India’s moment of very strong growth arriving?

Narendra Modi of the seemingly right-leaning Hindu nationalistic party, BJP, is widely expected to be the next Prime Minister. Before dissecting Modi — to understand the current nature of Indian sociopolitical thought — let’s have a look at a recently emerged party that came out of nowhere aspiring to rule India, won a major election, but then slipped and broke its back, and ended up playing a major role in crystallizing Modi’s prospects.

That new party is the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP). Its key proclaimed interest has been reducing corruption in India. They would like to install a massive new government department with tens of thousands of new bureaucrats with “impeccable” integrity to oversee the conduct of the (rest of the) government.

The more complex a society becomes, the more it needs decentralization of power and the free market.

Those with any experience of India know that it is virtually impossible to find a single honest bureaucrat; moreover, you must constantly deal with extremely dishonest people in the society, which seriously lacks work ethic and integrity. One must struggle with dust and dirt everywhere, for cleaners don’t clean and sweepers don’t sweep. Nothing is done properly, but with expediency and a patch-up mentality. The environment is a disaster. Any concept of quality is conspicuous by its absence. Offering extra money to workers does not help; it merely results in more skipped days. Animals rot and people wallow in filth and disease. Only someone utterly lacking in empathy would not weep at the lack of dignity that even animals must suffer. I wept today, for I failed to get even my servants to treat our dying dog with some basic decency. The vet does not see any value in protecting his eye before spaying antiseptic on a wound right next to the eye.

Can Indians conceptualize what corruption really means?

AAP made a lot of noise and demonstrations against corruption and came to power in the state of Delhi in November 2013. A lot of young and middle-aged educated acquaintances of mine support AAP. They shout against corruption. But then a moment later they have no problems giving a bribe, not only to get a passport or a driving license, for which bribes are necessary, but also to gain an unfair advantage over others. They will worship a cow, garland it, and offer it freshly made food, prostrate themselves before it, sing religious hymns, and lovingly caress its neck. Then soon thereafter, once the ritual is over, pick up a thick, heavy stick and slam it hard on the back of the cow, to make it leave.

The biggest voting block of AAP was the “educated class,” taxi drivers, and housewives. You must constantly haggle with taxi drivers in Delhi. “Anti-corruption” was the taxi drivers’ way to get AAP to stop the police from interfering and extracting bribes for overcharging. Middle-class women voted for AAP because it promised cheap or free water and electricity. These two segments had at least a partly rational, albeit dishonest, financial interest in mind. But the “educated class” failed to connect some very simple dots.

The anti-corruption movement (witness what “holy cow” means in practice, as shown above), was steeped in hypocrisy and irrationality. Deep thinkers might find this unbelievable, for to them it should create such massive cognitive dissonance that the protagonists would be forced to stop at least one pattern of action: either hit the cow or worship it. In reality, there is no dissonance, for such people process the world through pre-rationality. Even a very high-level education can survive on the foundations of irrationality, if what is learned is accepted as a belief, on faith, through rote learning.

AAP soon found that it could not meet the heightened expectations of the masses. People believed that anti-corruption was a magic wand to get free stuff. Moreover, they wanted others to stop being corrupt, but still wanted a free license to be corrupt themselves. The AAP government fell a mere 49 days after coming to power.

Indians now want a strong leader, the latest fashion among voters lacking in rational moorings and a symptom of their keenness to deify someone, hoping to generate top- down growth without effort, on this occasion through leadership rather than any reduction of corruption.

The history of post-English India has shown that the country has done best when its government was weak. Two Indian prime ministers, Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv, were assassinated in the ’80s. That left the federal government very weak. This weakness, along with a few other circumstances, helped entrepreneurs unleash business activity in the early ’90s. But that lasted just a decade. Socialism reared its ugly face again, for India had never addressed its fundamental problems. It liberalized for a decade, not so much because it saw value in doing so, but because it was cornered into a place where it had no other choice.

The rudderless system that was by default moving in the right direction has now been adrift again for a decade.

Today, the work ethic is weaker and corruption is worse. A decade of distribution of free TVs, bicycles (which can be sold off for alcohol), free grains, and guaranteed government work at higher-than-market wages means that it has become difficult to find workers. With a very high level of uneducated, untrained, mostly rural people, the last thing India needed was people who did not want to work. A heavy sense of entitlement has set in, worse than what was there before.

India’s failure to comprehend causality results in its doing more of exactly what made it a wretched place.

Even in respect to very basic goods, the Indian market is flooded with products from China. While economists might claim it makes no difference whether the economy is oriented toward service or manufacturing, the reality is that factories help society become more rational, for the workers can visually and mentally experience what causes what effects. It teaches them rationality and a sense of causality.

Now to dissect Modi . . . Narendra Modi, chief minister of the state of Gujarat, is a product of identity-lacking, rich, nationalistic, Indian lobbyists in the US. They prefer a romantic relationship with India — from a distance. Gujarat has done relatively well. But that is not because of Modi, but because of the fact that Gujaratis are all over the world. They have brought capital and competencies into Gujarat over the past two decades, in the way that Chinese in Taiwan and Hong Kong brought them into China. Gujarat is a relatively entrepreneurial place anyway, and a reasonably safe place too.

Gujarat would have done relatively well even without Modi, and perhaps much better without him. Alas, Modi has been able to claim credit for growth in Gujarat. He has found a sympathetic place in the hearts of those — particularly in the West — who are worried about Islamic fanaticism.

Under Modi’s government there was a massacre of 2,000 Muslims in 2002, while those in his party roamed around the street unhindered, with impunity. Men were killed, pregnant women’s abdomens were slit open to remove their fetuses, and children were burned alive. Girls were raped and then mutilated. Houses were burned. The US still blacklists Modi for a visa, for his “alleged” offenses. Europe has only recently allowed him in.

Modi will prove a very divisive figure in a nation where 13.5% of the population is Muslim. People will soon realize that he has no magic wand to set India on a path to progress. A strong leader cannot create wealth, even if he were a good guy. Wealth must be created through hard work and systematic thinking.

Technology is advancing very rapidly around the world. Society, as a result, is becoming extremely complex. Any complex system needs distributed intelligence. The more complex a society becomes, the more it needs decentralization of power and the free market. Otherwise, stresses will keep building up in unknown corners of society, to blow up the brittle, totalitarian political structure. India certainly does not need a strong leader.

Indians have very superstitious and irrational ways of processing the world. For now, India’s social problems are increasing. India’s failure to comprehend causality results in its doing more of exactly what made it a wretched place. Perhaps the slow buildup of stresses in the system will make the political system implode one day, starting the process of letting people see causality.

But I hope that Indians — in whatever shape the country’s political geography takes — will one day realize that growth, peace, humanity, spirituality, and prosperity cannot be founded on a strong leader, but on a society of rational, free-thinking individuals with character.




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Bhopal, 1984

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The Bhopal Disaster of 1984 was the worst industrial disaster in the history of the world. It was caused by the accidental release of 40 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) from a Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant located in the city of Bhopal, capital of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. UCIL was a joint venture between Union Carbide USA and a public-private consortium of Indian investors.

When the gas leaked, all safety devices — water spray, scrubber, and alarms — failed to function. None of the employees of UCIL were affected, but there was no evacuation plan or mechanism to alert the citizens of Bhopal; and there was no suggested “antidote.” The leak killed thousands outright and injured between 150,000 and 600,000 others, at least 15,000 of whom later died from their injuries. Some sources give much higher numbers of fatalities. Tens of thousands and their next generations continue to suffer.

When constructed, the UCIL factory was in an area exclusively earmarked for industrial development and was a considerable distance away from the populated part of Bhopal. As time went by, slums developed in what had been a “green zone.” A few months before the incident, Arjun Singh, chief minister of the province, had given legal titles to those slums, which were his vote-bank. The slums were small, and were constructed of mud walls and tin roofs. No water or sewage facilities existed. The people who lived in these slums were the most affected by the gas leakage.

Very early in the morning of December 3, 1984, I was awakened by incessant honking and sirens.

As I write this, 29 years after the incident, the factory, now in disrepair, has been under the direct control of the government for over 15 years, but it has yet to be dismantled and cleaned. To research this article, I visited the factory. I entered the premises, with no barriers or security to stop me. Children were playing around. The roofs were falling apart. There were still bags of substances lying there. As one of the documented victims, I even tried to collect the money due to me, just to experience how the system was working. I did that five years ago but procrastinated about finishing my article, for reasons I will explain.

A lot has been written about the conduct of UCIL, but little attention has been paid to the conduct and character of the state and people of Bhopal. It is clear to me that the state washed its hands of all responsibility. So did the people.

A superficial observer might see the tragedy as merely one of the most visible features of a land of catastrophes. Yet its origin was in the human mind and its development depended on the specific defects of a collective worldview.

Dystopian 1984

My parents’ house is only a block away from the highway in suburban Bhopal. Very early in the morning of December 3, 1984, I was awakened by incessant honking and sirens. Noise and lack of personal space are an essential part of life in India. My brain would have flawlessly filtered out the noise and let me sleep, had it not identified an unusual flavor in it.

We had recently been witnessing horrible riots. About a month earlier, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been killed by her Sikh bodyguards. Early in the year, Indira had sent army tanks and commandos into the Sikhs’ most sacred temple, although their mission could have been achieved by simply disconnecting the water supply. Indira had run a brutal and murderous regime in separatist Punjab, a predominantly Sikh state, but she had the "moral" support of most Indians. What followed her murder was a pogrom against Sikhs around the country, organized by the ruling Congress Party. Sikhs were raped and burned alive in Bhopal. Their properties were destroyed. The servile armed forces and police were mostly silent spectators.

My acquaintances affirmed that the Sikhs deserved what they got. When the stories came out that the police had pulled the fingernails out of some people, against whom there was no evidence, most of my acquaintances seemed to have no moral qualms about it.

Asking myself what new was happening on the morning of December 3, I went to the rooftop of my parents' house to check. There were thousands and thousands of people on the highway. Cars jammed the roads. I had never seen so many cars; there weren’t many in the city, and those that existed were mostly owned by the government. Every self-respecting bureaucrat had a siren on his car. The cars were all going in one direction, and with a very strong sense of purpose: out of the city, as fast as they could. This was clearly an exodus. Winter mornings in India are very smoggy, from biomass burning for heating, cooking, and Indian cities’ preferred way of disposing of roadside garbage. What I smelled, however, was not the normal smoke, or the ever-pervading smell of India, which has scores of sources, including the rotting feces of the majority of Indians who still go out in the open.

Only many hours later did All India Radio announce a minor, insignificant gas leakage in Bhopal. By this time, hospitals were overflowing, hundreds had died, and human and animal corpses littered the streets.

A cold sweat broke out on me. My legs felt numb. This too was something we experienced quite regularly in life. Even under normal circumstances, nerves were at the breaking point, particularly the nerves of those who tried to live by reason and evidence and a sense of causality and who did not have the warped instinct of relieving tension by perpetuating it. Each premonition of something bad evoked a blurry sum of earlier, unpleasant memories. Human beings have an amazing capacity to block such memories, but the crux of the incidents still survives in the subconscious, influencing much of our behavior and personalities all our lives.

That cold morning of December, standing alone on the rooftop, I knew something terrible was afoot. Normally, however, such challenges would never lead us to live by the alien concept of a more fulfilling and productive life. The challenge was to preempt personal destruction in a society in which nearly everyone considered it his duty to run other people’s lives, a society in which reason and objectivity had absolutely no place. It was a life of tug-of-war, of wasted energies and unnecessary sufferings. The mode of discussion offered “expediency” as a supreme “moral” value. It was based on rhetoric and soundbites. Anything could be rationalized away, for nothing was held by philosophical anchors. The mindset of the people was rooted in the medieval period and incapable of communicating on the grounds of logic, reason, and evidence.

And now a very major crisis was in progress.

Gas leak!

I woke up my parents and took their radio — an unlicensed, smuggled one — to see if Mark Tully of the BBC, or the Voice of America, or Deutsche Welle had some news. These were our only sources of real news. Alas, Bhopal, a city of a million people, was then relatively unknown, and the international organizations did not have their tentacles there. All India Radio (AIR) was playing the music of state-funded musicians. Only many hours later did AIR announce a minor, insignificant gas leakage in Bhopal. The announcement was lumped together with irrelevant and marginal items. By this time, hospitals were overflowing, hundreds had died, and human and animal corpses littered the streets.

A half-dead family of six, friends of my dad, arrived from their place very close to the Union Carbide factory. They brought in the first news, about a gas leak. In the afternoon, we heard a rumor that the factory had been set on fire by the families of the victims and was leaking a much higher quantity of the gas, and that the fire was spreading to the nearby, massive petrol tanks of the state-owned companies. I thought that something akin to a nuclear bomb was in the making. This rumor made logical sense. The conduct was what one might expect from the people of Bhopal: their first instinct would be to set Union Carbide on fire rather than help their families or remedy the problem. Another exodus began, one far larger than the one that occurred in the night. We had no other choice but to join the herds.

AIR did not have any news in the afternoon, for the “irrelevant” news had already been announced once. By this time, our political leaders were safely in the higher-altitude resort town of Pachmarhi, about 200 km away, where all hotels were owned by the government. Earlier in the night, when I was watching from our rooftop, it was to this town that the cars with sirens and flashing lights were taking our utterly spineless and irresponsible politicians and bureaucrats. They had hijacked whatever small emergency services we had. It is important to note that ambulances mostly did not exist, as they don’t even today.

The conduct was what one might expect from the people of Bhopal: their first instinct would be to set Union Carbide on fire rather than help their families or remedy the problem.

Once settled down in Pachmarhi, the official class started issuing self-righteous, brave instructions. They decided that there was no need for the people of Bhopal to evacuate, so they issued orders to petrol stations to close. Our telephones, as usual, were not working. Moreover, all out-of-the city phone calls had to be made manually, using an operator of the state-run telephone company. Even on a normal day, he was difficult to find. That day and for several weeks thereafter, he had gone missing. Tens of thousands of people were now arriving, sitting on the rooftops of trains, hoping to get information about their relatives. Everything that could go wrong was going wrong in that overcentralized system.

For months thereafter, the government was administered from the distant resort town. Even after our rulers returned, their food and water continued to be imported from faraway places. For over a year, the state continued to give us minimal information, if at all. We lived like helpless victims in a war, ever cautious and ever nervous. I am confident that this incident would have stayed out of the news were there no multinational company involved and had the state not realized that there was a opportunity to benefit from it.

For a couple of decades from that day, the sound of sirens would make my heart pound and my palms and armpits sweat. Indeed I am finishing this article after much procrastination, with my psyche revolting against my efforts to relive those days.

The immediate aftermath

For many days after the incident, I worked as a volunteer in government hospitals. There was a serious shortage of doctors, as most had run away. Hospitals were manned by student doctors. Every space was occupied, with several people on the same bed, people on the floors and in the corridors, on the roads leading to the hospitals, and in the parks outside. There was no one to look after them; they were dying miserable deaths.

We were given a bunch of different tablets to distribute to those dying. I asked a doctor on duty how I should decide what to administer. He responded with complete equanimity, “Give whatever.” Later we ran out of them all. Either way, except for a couple of VIP rooms with dedicated resources for the well-connected, these were hospitals in name only. The VIP rooms were empty, because the VIPs had escaped the city unscathed.

The Bhopal incident would have stayed out of the news were there no multinational company involved and had the state not realized that there was a opportunity to benefit from it.

For a few days I worked to collect information about those missing. What struck me most was that so often if someone’s daughter was missing she was not even mentioned. Indians at that time had no concept of getting compensation for a calamity like this. The state-owned insurance companies hardly paid anything, even to victims of road accidents. A few days after the incident, when people got to know that there might be compensation involved, they started mentioning their missing daughters. It took me many years to understand this attitude. For the same people, a daughter missing for a night was suspicious and not acceptable to the family. We collected the people’s information on scraps of paper, which I am sure never went into any official records.

What went deep into my teenage heart during those initial days was that most people behaved deplorably. People of Bhopal had killed and raped Sikhs. Of course, only a small minority had actively participated, but not for lack of interest, only for lack of “courage." As I have said, most that I knew gave their intellectual support to the anti-Sikh pogrom. That day in Bhopal when the gas was leaking, drivers ran their cars over other people without blinking their eyes. I wondered how, for those in such misery, thought of a possible illicit relationship their daughter might have had during the night as more important than her wellbeing.

Our utterly spineless and irresponsible politicians and bureaucrats had hijacked whatever small emergency services we had. It is important to note that ambulances mostly did not exist, as they don’t even today.

My "help" at the hospitals was a complete waste of time and energy, and emotionally draining. Disgusted, I stopped volunteering. It was obvious in my mind that given the individual mindsets, the culture, and the institutions, what was happening was nothing exceptional. The Bhopal gas tragedy was a product of our karmas.

I had never known a life without fear. I still vividly remember the fear that the blackouts during the Indo-Pak war of 1971 generated in us, when I was only four years old. Then came famine. Through most of the 1970s, even our relatively well-off, well-connected family had to depend on rationed sugar and oil or on the black market. Indira appointed herself a dictator in 1976 and instituted emergency powers in the hands of the police. My elders lived in constant fear of the warrantless arrests the police could make. One of my relatives had to pay several thousand dollars in bribes for the crime of owning an imported cigarette lighter. Our family and others had to melt away precious gold coins of major historical value, the only alternative being to deposit them at a government office for no compensation while taking the risk of possible arrest. Then the problems of terrorism started in Punjab, in Kashmir, and in the northeastern provinces. There was a constant state of tension with Pakistan. We lived a life of continual, amorphous, chronic anxiety.

Were the people of Bhopal going to reflect on their deeds and thoughts, their irrationalities and superstitions and their worldviews that had placed a huge brigade of rude and uncultured pests in positions of power? Would they see the causal link between their worldview and the spontaneous emergence of extremely corrupt institutions? Would their medieval thinking give ground to rationality? A major tragedy has a possibility of focusing people’s minds. Was the gas tragedy going to make people see how their dependency, totalitarianism, lack of pride and self-respect, their expediency with no moral underpinnings, and their lack of respect for others had generated nonstop catastrophes and had created fissures for sociopaths to rise to positions of power?

Extreme distrust of the state

Eventually it became clear that the Union Carbide factory would cease to exist. It was time to empty some of the bigger chemical tanks. When the time came, the state told us that the process was going to be flawless. The “brave” politicians and bureaucrats, of course, went to the resort-town of Pachmarhi, to watch the event from a safe distance. But on this occasion, people refused to trust them. Bhopal, a city of over a million people, was a ghost town for several days. The Indian army, which has a major base close to Bhopal, and which did show up during the aftermath of the gas tragedy, was brought in to police the streets.

My elders lived in constant fear of the warrantless arrests the police could make. One of my relatives had to pay several thousand dollars in bribes for the crime of owning an imported cigarette lighter.

The Union Carbide tragedy shook people up. They had seen, with all the nakedness, the harms that the state causes, harms that in the West are usually hidden behind a softer façade. People in Bhopal had seen the utterly irresponsibility of a state that had monopolized the crisis management machinery and then hijacked it when the crisis erupted. Society realized that behind all the brave sounding talk of the state were extraordinarily spineless and timid people, with absolutely no sense of individual responsibility. “They are worse than animals,” people would say.

Over those months, I saw people becoming increasingly anti-statist. There were open discussions about making bribery legal, making it a mere transaction cost rather than a huge impediment. People frequently discussed the possibility of privatizing not only industries but particularly law and order, and crisis management machinery.

More of the same

Within months Bhopal faced another wave of social turmoil. On this occasion, the Indian government increased the scope of its affirmative policy for lower caste people in educational institutions. Riots erupted in Bhopal and in the whole of the province. The increase was designed not only to distract but to offer stolen crumbs to those who had suffered most, to make them cling to the idea of government as their savior. In the meantime, the opposition political party, BJP, was strengthening its political position by calling for construction of a Hindu temple at the exact location of a mosque in the town of Ayodhya. This was to lead to another series of nationwide riots. When I was living in the UK in 1992, one of the top news items I watched on the BBC one day was Hindu gangs freely roaming the city of Bhopal. On this occasion, Sikhs were on the side of Hindus! The people of India were extremely gullible and could be manipulated in whatever way desired by the sociopaths running the country.

Bhopal was fortunate that the UCIL was owned by an American company. Had it not been a foreign company, not a penny would have been paid to the victims. To get compensation from Union Carbide USA, making an utter mockery of the sovereignty of India, the Indian government took the case to an American court. The American court (figuratively) threw the papers to the floor. Social pressure against Union Carbide in America was the impetus for the payment. An amount of $470 million dollars was paid to the Indian government, which accordingly passed a law, the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act of 1985, to usurp all the money, appointing the state as the trustee of all the claims and at the same time taking away individual people’s notional right to file cases against Union Carbide. Only a part of the money was to be distributed.

The state insisted that the people of Bhopal line up outside its dirty offices, manned by abusive and repulsive bureaucrats, to collect about $4 every week. The total paid was about $500 to those who did not suffer significant physical, visible injuries. I did not want to humiliate myself and did not see the worth in lining up to collect a mere $4 a week. But in an attempt to understand the state of affairs, and in order to write this article, I went to that office to claim my money. The office proved itself by far the worst I had ever seen in my life. Given that hundreds of thousands of people had walked that space, begging and groveling, for $4 a week, it had developed a Stalinist aura, perhaps worse. When the head of the department entered the office, it was as if a curfew had been declared. Everyone was expected to stand up and stand still. I stayed sitting.

After much cajoling the babu looked at my document. But in his file my name had been erased and someone else's had been overwritten. The corrupt office had stolen my due. Despite valid documents in my hand, I had no chance of getting my money unless I paid a bribe. (I have no intention in using this article to claim my $500. If however this article leads to an investigation, I will donate twice as much to an organization that looks after the gas victims.)

Bhopal was fortunate that the UCIL was owned by an American company. Had it not been a foreign company, not a penny would have been paid to the victims.

It seemed at one point that the people of Bhopal would fight for a smaller, more responsible state. But given their groveling character and readiness to sacrifice any values for small scraps of money, the state, ironically, became only bigger. They now had a monstrous new Department of Gas Tragedy. The guy on the street, alas, does not rebel, because he lacks integrity. When he is victimized, he does not challenge those in power. His instinctive reaction is to get into a position of unearned power where he himself can victimize others. It is the triumph of a deeply embedded psychology of “might is right” and the absence of a sense of justice.

India continues to be a land of catastrophes. In 2012, over 143,000 people died on Indian roads. In India’s mostly non-moving traffic, there are 100 deaths for every 100,000 vehicles; in China there are only 36, and in the US, only 15. On average, seven people die each day on the railway tracks, just in the city of Mumbai. Only recently, 115 people lost their lives in a stampede not too far from Bhopal.

Rationality has no place here. The state will not change until the medieval mind has changed. Despite our overt claims that we would like it small and free of corruption, the state will never go away until we realize our own personal contribution to feeding it.




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The Problem of “Voter Ignorance”

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At Cato Unbound, libertarian academics Jeffrey Friedman and Ilya Somin argue over the reason for voter ignorance. They agree that voters know pitifully little of political candidates and questions. Somin says it’s because voters are making a rational decision not to learn more. Friedman says it’s not a rational decision, but because voters think they know more than they do.

Both say it’s either-or. I don’t think it is, or that it much matters.

In the classic manner of debaters, each wants to define the other’s position narrowly and leave the indeterminate territory to himself. For Somin, Friedman’s position is that voters suffer from “inadvertent error.” For Friedman, Somin’s position is that voters are “deliberately underinforming themselves.”

Start with Somin. “Inadvertent” is a loaded term. It implies a voter who is trying reasonably hard but just messing up, again and again. That’s not really Friedman’s position.

If voter ignorance were “inadvertent,” Somin writes,“We could probably [reduce it] simply by pointing out to people that they are overlooking potentially valuable information. Just as warnings about the dangers of smoking convinced many people to quit, and warnings about the dangers of AIDS and other STDs increased the use of contraceptives, so warnings about the dangers of political ignorance and suitably targeted messages about the complexity of political issues could persuade inadvertently ignorant voters to seek out more information.”

The voter knows surprisingly little. To explain this is not to explain a positive thing.

Actually, the kind of political information Somin would want voters to have is complicated and detailed, whereas the information people absorbed about tobacco and AIDS was bumper-sticker simple: Quit smoking. Use a condom. The comparison is not apt.

On to Friedman. His terms “deliberately” and “underinforming” for Somin’s position are loaded, implying a voter who is consciously choosing to do what he knows is a poor job. And that’s not really Somin’s position.

Friedman tries to sink Somin’s “rational ignorance” with pure logic. He writes:

If voters can plug into Somin’s formulae even a vague estimate of the benefit of their party’s or candidate’s victory, then they must think that they know enough about this benefit to be able to base their vote on this knowledge. Somin and other political scientists may think that voters should know a lot more than they do, but voters seem to think, even in Somin’s account, that they know enough that they can roughly guess who to vote for. And that’s all they need to know if they are to falsify rational ignorance theory, for, according to the theory, they should be deliberately underinforming themselves. But if they did indeed deliberately underinform themselves (by their own standards), then, of necessity, they wouldn’t be able to calculate the benefits of voting, because they wouldn’t think that they could predict the benefits of a given candidate’s or party’s victory.

In other words, “rational ignorance” is an oxymoron. Friedman, too, is drawing a sharp line around his opponent’s position, making sure that common sense is outside it. But he is trying to win by definition.

This isn’t about definitions. It’s about why people do what they do. Well, think about average voters. It’s true that they make decisions on limited data (as do we all). They often don’t maximize the use of the data they have. I knew a journalist who made his livelihood thinking about public questions. He voted against John Kerry because Kerry reminded him of stuck-up frat boys. (At least that’s what he told me.) That’s not much of a reason to choose a president, but it’s common enough. Pollsters will tell you that many Americans vote for the candidate they think “cares about people like me” or is “not phony.”

That voters engage in this sort of Holden Caulfield-style ratiocination is not going to change. Is it “inadvertent”? To a certain extent. Is it “rational”? In the way Somin uses that word, sometimes. Most people know far less about public policy than the candidates they’re electing will need to know, and it’s not worth it to them to learn more, because they have other things taxing their brains. Do they know they don’t know a lot, as Somin says? Yeah. Do they think they know more than they do, as Friedman says? Probably, and for some of them, certainly. Are they “deliberately underinforming themselves”? Deliberate overstates it for most of them, just as rational does. Remember what the choices are: Kerry or Bush? Obama or Romney?

Friedman argues that Somin’s position requires that people understand their vote won’t decide the election, and that most voters don’t understand this. I think just about anyone will admit this if you corner them. But they don’t think of voting in those terms and they resent you cornering them about it. They are small-d democrats, proudly part of a country where the collective voice of the voters does count. As Friedman points out, they have been told since kindergarten that voting is good and that good people vote. It is part of who they are.

Does the Friedman-Somin dispute matter? Friedman says you can make a better case for a libertarian society if voters are ignorantly ignorant. If they’re rationally ignorant, he suggests, maybe you could make the state more powerful, and give voters more reason to pay attention to politics. In other words, people are not paying attention to A, B, C, and D, so let’s pile on E, F, G, H, and I.

Makes no sense to me.

Somin’s argument, above, that the ignorance Friedman posits would be easier to fix does not move me, either. It’s not going to be fixed either way. It’s a permanent condition.

Here is where I end up. The voter knows surprisingly little. To explain this is not to explain a positive thing, like why he drove to the grocery store at 11 p.m. Thursday night. Here you are trying to explain why he did not do a thing, and there are a million reasons. He never thought of it. He was tired. He doesn’t like to read. He does, but he wanted to read up on the marijuana trade, or disposable razors, or the new trucks instead. He was rationally ignorant. He was irrationally ignorant. He was stoned. He assumed wrongly that he knew enough. He didn’t care whether he knew enough. His wife got sick. His dog got run over. He ate refried beans.




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Critical Thinking

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Government is the froth that floats on the surface of a fluid. That fluid is the culture. The dirtier it is, the dirtier the froth it generates.

As a kid growing up in India, I always found that local goons, tyrants, sociopaths, and freeloaders emerged spontaneously, almost in direct proportion to the quality of the social environment in which they appeared. If you got rid of them, they soon reemerged. There was no way to avoid the emergence of goons, unless the underlying culture was addressed. This was invariably true, even if a vast majority of people opposed those goons, for the existence of goons is correlated not with people’s conscious views about them but with people’s own character, with the general culture.

As American society degenerates, its politics degenerate in direct proportion. Improvement in culture must precede any improvement in the quality of our politics. I have no prescription for how to improve the culture, but I do have an opinion about how people are mentally enslaved.

I have been to about 60 countries and have lived in four of them. Other people travel the world to see the world. I travel the world to use it as a mirror, to understand myself. Twenty-three years ago, when I left India for the first time, I decided to stop eating Indian food. I stopped having Indian friends. I did not want to have anything to do with India. I hated it.

Alas, I have left India but India hasn’t left me. I am still recovering from the indoctrination, conditioning, and irrationality of the culture I grew up in. This has been the case despite the fact that I have revolted against authority and irrationality for as long as I can remember. That is the grasp of indoctrination on the psyche.

Government is only a symptom of the problem. The real problem is within the society, which is extremely superstitious and irrational.

People often think that the problem of India is its government. Sane investors and Western institutions keep insisting that India should focus on some very simple, basic issues: build up infrastructure, make the bureaucracy more responsive, control inflation, remove unnecessary regulations, provide better schooling and primary healthcare, and better law and order. They believe that addressing these issues would have an extremely high-leveraged effect on the Indian economy. But while these policy suggestions appear simple and rational, they never stick.

Even in these days of technology, more than 50% of India’s population has no access to toilets. People must go in the open to defecate. A rational investor might think that investment in some very basic communal sanitation would yield significant results in months, if not weeks. But this never happens. The same rational person has been saying for over two decades that given democracy and an English speaking population, India will eventually overtake China. The reality is that not too long back India had a higher per capita GDP than China. Today, an average Chinese is four times richer than an average Indian. And the Chinese economy continues to grow much faster than the Indian.

The problem is that the so-called rational person, often blinded by political correctness, looks at India in a very superficial way. He fails to understand the philosophical underpinnings that guide the Indian society.

The situation is not too dissimilar to that of a health fanatic suggesting to an obese person that he must reduce his sugar consumption and smoking. To the fanatic, the prescription looks easy and simple; to the obese person, it does not. It is hard for the prescription to stick unless the obese man addresses his deeper problems. Moreover, if the fat man does stop consuming sugar and smoking, the health fanatic will soon be likely to discover that the target of his advice is now consuming other bad things — more alcohol, more carbohydrates, more something. For the problem truly to be addressed, one must go to the source. Similarly, what look like simple policy prescriptions that India must follow consistently fail to produce results.

The problem of India is not its government. Government is only a symptom of the problem. The real problem is within the society, which is extremely superstitious and irrational.

A lot of what you and I perceive as corruption is not what the Indian society sees. Morality is relative, and mostly based on expediency. There are common expressions in India such as “you can only scoop butter with a crooked finger,” which is basically a rationalization for crookedness. Another is that “Dharma [religion] is for the temple.” This suggests that you can forget about morality once you are outside the temple precincts. Indeed, India has never been through the age of reason or the age of enlightenment. In many ways the mindset is still very medieval. It is grossly lacking in rational philosophical anchors. To top it all, Indian culture seriously discourages critical thinking, thereby ensuring that dogma and superstition stay in place.

One of my earliest memories is of being slapped by my teachers for asking questions.

In a relatively capitalist country such as America, rational people can see what causes what effects. The more socialist a society becomes, the more the path from causes to effects becomes convoluted and difficult to understand. The minds of those who grow up in such a culture are an entangled web, embedded with corrupted instincts. If you become aware of your own mental tangle — which is very, very unlikely — and you try to undo the damage, you cause yourself more mental difficulties, because every thinking pattern that you try to straighten out conflicts with several others, and you must suffer for decades dealing with it.

One of my earliest memories is of being slapped by my teachers for asking questions. During the winter season, my school, instead of starting later in the morning, started even earlier. In winter I had to wake up at four in the morning, for no apparent reason. If we enjoyed any particular subject, the teachers ensured that the enjoyment would not last. They would beat us for exactly the same reason that led them to praise us on another day. If one kid did something wrong, the teacher would beat everyone. To avoid this, if you told the teacher who was the wrongdoer, she would beat you for snitching. And then of course we could be beaten for not snitching, on a later occasion. This is not just about the teachers but about how people in the surrounding society interacted with one another.

You grow up utterly confused and cloudy in your thinking, with an uncertain sense of causality. Your mind then becomes capable of absorbing all sorts of garbage, irrational and contradictory beliefs, and superstitions. Your eyes and senses no longer experience the truth as they are designed to see it.

You are forced to respect authority, not virtues; and the result is you become incapable of differentiating between right and wrong. You become extremely gullible. You speak what sounds good, not what is true. Speaking the truth for the sake of speaking the truth was a revelation to me when I arrived in the West. Our elders told us always to speak the truth, in the same way in which they gave us the concept of not worrying about the concept of morality outside the temple, and we parroted the saying, because it sounded good. But it had no significance apart from making us hypocritical. Critical thinking was washed away in dogma and authority.

The system cripples you mentally. Even if a vast majority of superstitious and hypocritical people consciously oppose the state and how it is run, it will still exist, for the anti-nutrients that feed the state do not come from people’s vote but from their character.

Adults face the same system as the children. A collectivist system — as in India — detaches people from the consequences of their actions. The feedback people receive in their interactions with society contradicts the truth of how the world works, because the costs get socialized while the gains do not. Trickery and heavy handedness seem to work, with those at the receiving end having no recourse to retribution. Bad behaviour goes unchallenged and never registers in the core of one’s being as “bad.” Real wealth creation in such a system feels like an unnecessary hassle with little economic advantage to be gained from it. From an individual’s point of view, time and capital may be better spent elsewhere. Political connections and “bribes” look like much more efficient ways to make money.

You become dull, apathetic, and mostly non-thinking. A trillion fights keep happening in your brain, with no rational means of resolving them. You are left with no confidence, because everything you see or believe is a floating abstraction, often in conflict with what your senses appear to tell you.

Indian brains are imprisoned by authority, American minds by political correctness.

It is important to distinguish the collectivism of Mao’s China from that of India. In China, the individual and his survival was in conflict with the state. In contrast, in the case of India, collectivism has been made a part of the individual’s DNA. In such a society, what individuals tend to do is exactly more of what created the original problem. Indians are very impervious to rational suggestions, and one must expect to face massive verbal attacks if one tries to extricate them from their mental slavery.

Judging from the way in which societies have historically worked, at one point India must collapse under the weight of its irrationalities and break into smaller pieces. Of course, this transition will not be easy and not without huge strife. Some of it has already been seen in the religious strife that rent the country at independence, and that still manifests itself, sometimes in acute forms.

Some might think that what happens in India will never happen in the US.

To respond to that I must again go back 23 years, to the time when I first arrived in the West. The airport was a happy place. The immigration officer addressed me as “Sir.” I looked around to make sure that he was addressing me. How could a government officer not treat me like garbage? In those days airport security was courteous and prompt for most Western people. But what would have been impossible to imagine then is now common and acceptable. Security now has no inhibitions about asking even old ladies to strip off their clothes. And alas, people gladly do that. In Canada, where you don’t have to take your shoes off before going through scanners at airports, most people do anyway. In just 23 years, I have seen North Americans increasingly groveling before the ever-more-mindless bureaucrats.

Western people endlessly worry about real or perceived discrimination. They worry about segregating their garbage and about ensuring that they buy so called fair trade coffee. They discuss the issue of sweatshops in faraway countries, about which they have absolutely no clue. “Everyone should have the right to free healthcare and a living wage,” they say. Political correctness forbids Americans to discuss any possible fallacies in these one-dimensional views.

How the Indian grows up muddled in thinking is different from how the American psyche is being muddled — but assuredly it is being muddled. In India we were made unreasonable by fear, irrational feedbacks, and mental self-numbing. In America, the self-esteem movement wants adults to provide “positive feedback” to kids even if they are not doing well. Doesn’t this confuse their understanding of causality? Aren’t they made irrational, in a feel-good way? Through love and warmth, kids in the West are, for instance, induced to swallow politically correct positions on the environment — something they don’t have the data or the competence to understand. Doesn’t this impede critical thinking? Indian brains are imprisoned by authority, American minds by political correctness.

Orwell’s 1984 is likely the later stage of collectivism, as is the case with India, but Huxley’s Brave New World is likely the earlier stage, as is the case in the West. The mental virus that afflicts Indians now increasingly afflicts those in the West.

Apathy has rapidly sunk its deep roots here. What is happening to Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning has been reduced to an orgy of public entertainment. Irrespective of the merit of their cases, should Snowden return to the US to face “due process” when Bin Laden was killed and dumped in the ocean and when the prison at Guantanamo Bay continues to run? Similar cases a few decades back would have probably have brought a change in the US government. Even civil libertarians talk about why the NSA should not be spying on American citizens or why the president should not have the right to pass executive orders to kill Americans. But, what about non-Americans? Are they not human beings? Are their lives and privacy not important? Try discussing these issues, and Americans will start going around in circles and start responding irrationally, not unlike the way Indians do. “Due process” and “the rule of law” were seen as very fundamental to the Western civilisation. In an era of expediency, they are still much talked about but are getting increasingly diluted in their moral essence.

Americans are impressed when they hear that many women in the poor parts of the world do not have a sense of self or of an independent existence. They do not reflect that they themselves are slaves for more than half of their lives, paying taxes and following stupid regulations. They fail to see any connection. It is so easy to see the slavery of other people but not your own.

Collectivism is increasingly present in the DNA of those in the West. Individuals in the West are likely to keep doing more of exactly the same things that created the initial problems, slowly retracing their steps, back to the medieval period. Will the West become another India? I would not be surprised at all.

It is so easy to see the slavery of other people but not your own.

Obama and Bush, however criminally minded they may be, are only symptoms of problems. The problem lies in the current state of the Western culture. In my view the danger is not the tens of trillions of dollars of Western governmental debt but the process of cultural degeneration in which reason and evidence are replaced by dogma and unverified belief systems are protected by a lack of critical thinking.

Lack of liberty is the result of a lack of freedom within our minds. Our conscious search for liberty will be futile if we fail to address our deeper mental constructs. Only a rare human being would claim not to want to be free, yet many people who claim to want freedom exist in wretchedness and slavery. The good thing is that bureaucrats and politicians, the purveyors of collectivism, are often lazy and stupid. They have no power that the culture does not give them. They will wither away or take to begging on the streets if we as people give up the virus of irrationality and take to critical thinking.

/div




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Why India Doesn’t Change

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Recently, a federal cabinet minister in the Indian government, Pawan Kumar Bansal, was charged with taking a bribe of $160,000, via his nephew. The bribe was allegedly paid by an official of his own ministry. Were Bansal, within his own limited sense, rational, he would have started mobilizing his friends and bribing the news agencies, to avoid legal entanglements. Instead, he was found feeding a goat that was about to be sacrificed. It was a ritual to seek divine intervention.

To be elected a member of Parliament, Bansal must have been well perceived in his constituency, which is among the richest and most educated in India. The voters must have found him rational enough to be their representative. To be elected a top-level minister, he must have found acceptance among the majority of his political party, which rules the lives of 1.2 billion people. The prime minister must have found him charismatic, influential, and intelligent enough, or at least powerful enough to be a top-level minister, working daily on issues with serious influence on the direction India may take. Rising to the top in politics requires one to pass through umpteen filters. The fact that Bansal attained such a high position gives a glimpse of the psychology and character of the Indian body politic, its irrationality and medieval thinking.

I have almost never met a public official in India who did not ask for a bribe. But only a very rare public servant ever gets into trouble, and that happens mostly because of extreme stupidity or sheer bad luck. The investigative agencies are themselves totally corrupt, so they must find themselves cornered before they do anything. Even when the evidence is obvious, court cases simmer for several decades: eventually people die, or forget; witnesses change their stories, either because they are tired and want to end their court visits or because they lose their sanity under the pressures of an insane system; and prosecutors and judges keep changing. This is not just a result of financial corruption. The roots go much deeper.

There were riots in India in 1984, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The cases against the alleged culprits are still going on. Among people in government, there is apathy and lack of passion for what one does. Most of the job “satisfaction” public servants get is not from doing their job but from showing off their power, using it to obstruct and create problems for people. It is a very warped mentality that is not just about bribes (which in a narrow way is still a rational expectation) but is mostly a result of deep-rooted irrationality and the demands that irrational minds create. Indeed were bribes the only problem for India, it would have merely added a layer of cost to society, not made it stagnate or simmer in perpetual wretchedness.

Only a very rare public servant ever gets into trouble in India, and that happens mostly because of extreme stupidity or sheer bad luck.

I believe that the state is simply a visual symptom of the deeper social problem. The “anti-nutrients” come from the surrounding society. The underlying morality of this society — seen from the perspective of my own experience — is not that of “right or wrong” based on reason and evidence. Instead, motivations are often driven by astrology, circular thinking, superstitions, narrow tribal affiliations, and a completely erroneous understanding of causality, an understanding that results from medieval thinking with little or no influence by the scientific revolution. When I was in engineering, it was not uncommon for hordes of students to travel long distances to visit exotic temples or enact weird rituals to help them pass examinations. One must ask what happens elsewhere in society, when the top engineering students are so superstitious.

Industrialization was imposed on India before the country had time to go through a phase of the age of reason and enlightenment. Partial acceptance of reason has made Indians extreme rationalists, solidifying their superstitions. For example, a very good electrical engineer recently told me that touching the feet of the idol in a temple results in a flow of electricity through your body that is extremely beneficial to you, transferring to you the wisdom of the god by electrically changing the connections of your neurons. Educated people often take extreme pride in how our ancestors — the ancestors of Indians as expressed in Indian mythologies — had airplanes and time machines.

What about Indian spirituality and religiousness? Don’t they control people’s corrupt behaviour? I am an atheist, but I do understand those who see religion as a means of spiritual solace. But for Bansal, and a lot of other people in India, religion has nothing to do with philosophy or spirituality. It is about rituals conducted for material benefits, either in this life or in the next. It is about materialism, materialism, and materialism.

Recently a group has gained very high visibility in fighting against corruption. This group has been asking its followers not to pay their electricity and water bills, to force the government to reduce the charges. No thought is given to where the loss-making public sector company will get its money from. These people should have fought for the public electricity company to be privatized and to allow competition to work. But that is too much for their feel-good fight against corruption, in which some obscure fountain of wealth will provide for the shortfall. Visible, financial corruption is truly the tip of the iceberg. It is deep-rooted irrationality that is the true problem.

Most of my Indian acquaintances talk against corruption. But in their private lives not only do they pay the bribes they have to pay to conduct legitimate business, but they are more than happy to pay to get an unjust advantage over others. Despite the rhetoric, financial corruption has actually increased in India. And it has much deeper roots than most people realize. If he were truly rational, the hapless Bansal would certainly not have wasted his time on the goat, but the age of reason has not touched his thinking.

India’s problem is not just a lack of personal ethics among those in government. By itself, financial corruption would add only a certain, limited cost to the economy. It is the fundamental irrationality that keeps India from gaining traction, from being able to build its way out of wretchedness.




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The Brain, Explained

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"Don't think, feel!" Bruce Lee's character exhorts his young son in Enter the Dragon (1973) as he teaches him to trust his instincts while learning to fight. By contrast, Ayn Rand favored "Don't feel, think!" when she wrote, "People don't want to think. And the deeper they get into trouble, the less they want to think." Like Plato, Rand proudly privileged reason over emotion. But which is the better approach for making decisions, Lee's feeling intuitively or Rand's thinking rationally?

According to Jonah Lehrer in How We Decide, they're both right. We humans would make better decisions if we understood how the brain reacts to various stimuli. The frontal cortex accesses different tools within its complex regions and uses that knowledge to choose when we should react intuitively and when we should figure things out rationally. Using fascinating real-life stories, studies conducted by respected psychologists and neuroscientists, and an entertainingly accessible style, Lehrer explains how the uniquely human frontal cortex sorts it all out and helps us decide.

For instance, Lehrer considers how quarterback Tom Brady surveys the position and forward direction of 21 moving players on a 5,000-square-yard playing field, anticipates where everyone will be next, and decides where and how fast to throw a football, all in less than two seconds, while other players are bearing down on him. Brainwave studies have shown that there isn't time for him to process the information and make a rational decision. The neural synapses aren't that fast. A quarterback's decision is made intuitively, through the part of the brain controlled by emotion. As Lehrer quotes Brady, "You just feel like you're going to the right place."

Lehrer also demonstrates what causes athletes, performers, public speakers, and everyday humans like you and me to "choke" on tasks for which we are perfectly prepared and skilled. He tells the stories of opera singer Renee Fleming, golfer Jean Van de Velde, and others to demonstrate the point. The problem comes from overthinking a task that the body has learned to perform instinctively. In short, the brain gets in its own way, as the reasoning synapses block the path of the emotional synapses. "A brain that can't feel can't make up its mind," Leher concludes (15).

Of course, mere feeling isn't sufficient for making the right decisions. A potential juror who says, "I can tell if someone's guilty just by looking at him" is more dangerous than a crook with a gun. Lehrer provides equally fascinating examples to demonstrate when the rational part of the brain needs to be in control. For example, he tells the compelling story of firefighters who tried to control a raging forest fire in the Rockies in 1949. When the blaze jumped a gulch and began racing toward them, most of them tapped into their brain's emotional side and tried to outrun the fire.

The captain, however, evaluated the situation rationally. He quickly took into account the dryness of the grass, the speed of the wind driving the fire, the slope of the hill they would have to run, and their unfamiliarity with the terrain on the other side of the crest. While his emotions screamed "Run!" his reason said, "Stop. Build a fire. Destroy the fire's fuel, and then hug the ground while the fire passes over you." He was the only man to survive. None of his young firefighters followed his lead. Today, building a firebreak has become standard training procedure because of this incident. But at the time, Captain Dodge's brain created the escape route entirely on its own.

Modern scientific tools, such as the MRI, electronic probes, and EEG, have made it possible to see exactly what the brain does when faced with a choice, a risk, or a dilemma. "Every feeling," Lehrer writes, "is really a summary of data, a visceral response to all of the information that can't be accessed directly" (23). This means that you and I will make better choices if we understand which parts of the brain to access for different tasks, and how to satisfy or tone down conflicting stimuli.

For example, one study asked subjects to memorize a list and report to someone in a room at the end of a hallway. On the way the subjects passed a table where they were invited to take a snack. Those who had a long message to remember — one that required them to remember seven things — usually chose a piece of chocolate cake, while those who only had one or two things to remember tended to take a piece of fruit. The practical application? When the rational brain is working at capacity (and according to psychologist George Miller's essay, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," memorizing seven things seems to be the capacity), the emotional brain takes over, and the chocolate cake is irresistible. When the rational brain has less to remember, it can overrule emotion and make a wiser choice. No wonder we overeat and fall prey to other temptations when we have too much to do.

So when should we think rationally, and when should we act impulsively? Lehrer ends his book with several practical suggestions.

First, simple problems require reason. When there are few variables to consider, the brain is able to analyze them rationally and provide a reasonable decision. But when the choice contains many variables — as when one is buying a new house — "sleep on it" and then "go with your gut" really is the best advice. Overthinking often leads to poor decision making.

Second, novel problems also require reason. Before reacting intuitively, make sure the brain has enough past experience to help you make the right decision. Creative solutions to new problems require concrete information and rational analysis.

Third, embrace uncertainty. Too often, Lehrer warns, "You are so confident you're right that you neglect all the evidence that contradicts your conclusion." This is especially true in matters such as politics and investment decisions. He offers two solutions: "always entertain competing hypotheses . . . [and] continually remind yourself of what you don't know" (247). Certainty often leads to blindness.

Fourth, you know more than you know. The conscious brain is often unaware of what the unconscious brain knows. "Emotions have a logic all their own," Lehrer says. "They've managed to turn mistakes into educational events" (248–49). The reason superstars like Tom Brady, Tiger Woods, and Renee Fleming can rely on instinct is that they've been there before. Tom Brady has surveyed thousands of football fields and thrown thousands of passes; Tiger Woods has made thousands of putts; Renee Fleming has sung an aria hundreds of times. For them, the brain knows what to do, and thinking just gets in the way.

Fifth, think about thinking. Before making a decision, Lehrer warns, be aware of the kind of decision it is and the kind of thought process it requires. "You can't avoid loss aversion unless you know that the mind treats losses differently than gains," he explains. Knowing how the brain works will help us make better decisions in everything we do.

How We Decide is a book full of real-life stories, scientific experiments, and practical applications. It will help you understand how you make decisions, and will guide you to make better decisions in the future. Returning to Bruce Lee and Ayn Rand's conflict between thinking and feeling, Lehrer makes a strong case for "Think sometimes, feel sometimes. And make sure you know when to do which."


Editor's Note: Review of "How We Decide," by Jonah Lehrer. First Mariner Books edition, 2010 (Harcourt Brace, 2009), 302 pages.



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