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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Values, prices, incomes...

#A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing: Oscar Wilde.

#A sentimentalist is one who knows the value of everything and the price of nothing (I’ve forgotten who said that, but I think it fits in rather well here!)
Okay: that’s enough for one blogpost, I guess. There have been more than 1400 visits since I wrote that last one, and I have spoken with several hundred; knowing the way the word spreads, I am satisfied that several thousand people around the world now know about what’s been happening, and so I can move on (which of course does NOT mean that I shall either forgive or forget: hereafter I shall always be cold and curt with ex-Durgapur Xaverians unless they are nice people already close to me. ‘Guilty until proved innocent’! Hard luck for the good guys. Blame it on all those who have cheesed me off with their wanton lies, vulgarity and ingratitude.

Let me get back to civilized discourse again. I want to muse over the question of ‘value’ and ‘price’ here for a bit. Those who are by training economists, political scientists, historians, sociologists or psychologists might take a special interest in the subject, although the things I am going to muse about touch everybody’s lives, so any thinking man or woman (that automatically eliminates 95% of orkuters and techno-geeks, it goes without saying) might read on.

How do we value things we want and buy? That is an incredibly serious question, because the vast majority of us live by always selling and buying things (unless we are begging, stealing, looting, cheating, or living off inheritances, lottery winnings and pensions; a remarkably large fraction of mankind does live like that actually!) – whether it be some sort of ‘good’ (from food to liquor to steel, power, fancy clothes, cars, decorative handicraft or whatever) or services (as barbers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, detectives, wine-tasters, film critics, even some bureaucrats…). Some of us earn vast fortunes, some only a pittance; some have long and steady incomes, some see their livelihoods vanish in the twinkling of an eye (such as when a sportsman inexplicably loses form). Some enjoy a small or large degree of social esteem through their livelihoods (surgeons, barristers, filmstars), some are always sneered at or ignored, even if they are making socially-useful and large enough livings – shopkeepers, eatery owners, musicians (except the five-star variety), for instance; you can yourself think of many more. So how do people and their products get valued? And why is it always so unfair and uncertain? Why should Shah Rukh Khan make hundreds of times more than a good doctor, and 10,000 times more than a soldier guarding our borders painstakingly and at great risk to his life? Why do astrologers and cricketers do so much better in one country than in another; why do painters make so much in one era and software programmers in another; why does it ‘pay’ much more to be a fashion model posing for underwear (even if you are a highschool dropout) than to be a schoolteacher with a university degree who dresses decently doing a gruelling, thankless job day in and day out supposedly ‘building the nation’s future’? Why does an average hooker make only a bare and undignified living, while her cleverer sisters who do virtually the same thing on the silver screen bring in the moolah by the sackfuls? Why does Baba Ramdev become a celebrity tycoon doing the same stuff that old Koley-sir has done at least as sincerely in my little town all his life, and got nothing for it?

That it is not an easy question with pat and indubitable answers will be evident enough to those who have read the interminable debates of the great ancient Roman jurists, or the enormous mental gymnastics performed by no less an intellectual titan from medieval times than Thomas Aquinas to figure out what may be called a ‘just price’, or the vast and futile effort of Karl Marx to define or give a sufficiently rigorous proof of his ‘labour theory’ of value (see Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development … I said this post is not meant for nerds with nothing but algorithms in their heads, didn’t I?). Economists in the so-called ‘neoclassical’ tradition (the tribe which has dominated the field since the late-19th century, ever since they learnt the pretty tools of the calculus and matrix algebra, and who have been having a field day ever since computers were commandeered in their service to crunch very sophisticated mathematical models with which they can make molehills out of mountains) have skirted the issue by saying that things get valued according to the interaction of supply and demand in the market (a very clever but cynical representative of that tribe, Paul Samuelson of MIT, once said “teach a parrot to say ‘supply and demand’ and you will have made an economist out of him”). Given initial endowments (how much money and power the players – both consumers and producers – are starting the game with), technology and availability of natural resources, they insist, prices will settle at a ‘fair’ level in a utopian situation they love to call ‘long run general equilibrium’ (I call it utopian advisedly, though I am simply too tired to go into all the arcane math involved which I swallowed two decades ago, and I don’t want to bore the lay reader here with proofs): fair in the sense that producers earn no more than ‘normal’ profits (the minimum that will keep them in business), workers get paid according to their productivity (not quite – the pundits talk about ‘marginal revenue product’, which is not the same thing exactly, but for the purpose of this essay I shall avoid the nitpicking…), and consumers don’t get cheated either, because they have to pay only what it ‘costs’ (I repeat, I am not talking like a pundit, though there’s much more to it than meets the eye here: professionals, please bear with me).

When it is pointed out to them that 1) all this applies only to ‘long run equilibrium’, which can never be shown to happen at any given moment in real time (besides, the doyen of all 20th-century economists has said 'in the long run we are all dead'!), 2) mathematically it can be proved to happen only under a set of absurdly restrictive assumptions about the kind of ‘reality’ (in terms of the nature of markets and properties of the algebraic functions) involved, and 3) even then, they cannot avoid acknowledging that initial rich-poor differences (which are usually due to highly unjust historical/geographical conditions – such as being born the son of a poor tribal in rural India, or being a well-connected citizen of one of those few countries endowed with most of the oil reserves of the world – upon which the players have no control) greatly determine who gets how highly paid, and so under the system the rich-poor gap is bound to get ever wider, statistically speaking, so the system itself is grossly unfair under the best of assumptions … well, they hem, and haw, and skirt the issue, and mutter among themselves that you are not a nice person if you bring up such rude questions in polite company (barring a few oddballs like Hazel Henderson and Amartya Sen and Md. Yunus, mainstream economists are all like that! - that's what my most beloved economist, John Kenneth Galbraith of Harvard fame, used to laugh about: see, for example, Economics and the Public Purpose). Professional economists as a rule come from middle-class or affluent backgrounds and are never in their own lives bothered by poverty, so questions relating to poverty and all related miseries are unfashionable with them, and besides, do not ‘pay’ (as being a high-class consultant with businesses like Morgan Stanley or Citibank, or an adviser to a prime minister pays. This dismaying realization, by the way, was the most fundamental reason why I quit economics, despite knowing I could have a very paying career in it, having been a topper in a reputed university and in touch with several Nobel Prize winners once upon a time!)

So if the philosophers and economists cannot answer me, and yet the question keeps vexing me (it vexes me much more today, halfway through my life, than it did as a college student long ago), whom do I turn to? Big businessmen, showmen and politicians don’t care – they are too busy firefighting and profiteering in the real world to bother – the nerds are of no help, because the question itself doesn’t make sense to them; the average layman habitually talks through his hat, or tries to push his pet prejudice (like the theory of the parent or guru or political party he has always sworn by) down my throat, and makes me sick. But why do such incredible differences in values and prices occur, and persist? Why should a building contractor make much more money than a scholar (say an astronomer or a historian)? Why should a great French or Spanish writer be lionized around the world, while a great Bengali writer dies in obscure poverty? Why should a call-centre ‘executive’ have the privilege of being snooty because she makes more money than, say, someone like Ramkinkar Baij or Bismillah Khan (a matter of greater/rarer ‘talent’?!) I need to understand, and I am having a hard job of it.

A great deal depends upon luck (kismet, karma, whatever you call it): this much I know. Babe Ruth would probably have gone abegging in India, as Sachin would have done if he had been born in China. Cricketers in India can aspire to be millionaires; not so hockey players, but nobody can persuade me that cricketing needs more talent, or that that kind of talent is much rarer than hockey, hence much costlier! You might get trained in a profession that had seemed very pedestrian and unpromising and wake up one day to find that demand has gone through the roof, and people are falling over themselves to make you rich (feng shui advisers and cyber hackers are cases in point): how big a fortune you make will depend then only on how hard, fast and long you can work. A person with the innate talent for being a great software programmer might have starved in the 19th century, as a medieval artist who was so brilliant at calligraphy and illuminating manuscripts that he was courted by kings might starve today. That is a thought that might sober me up if I grow too vain about my ‘accomplishments’: I myself, a private tutor coaching youngsters in English, would barely make a living in England, and perhaps become a (dollar-) millionaire in Japan! A lot depends on a particular feature of ‘talent’ which is a combination of drive, total ruthlessness and derring-do. My wide study of the lives of great entrepreneurs has convinced me about that: they find or create niche markets for themselves, get a monopoly on those markets, and make vast fortunes as long as the sun shines, regardless of how many people they are ruining and impoverishing in the process, or how much harm they are doing to the natural and social environments (think of Microsoft’s business strategy, or that of the Colombian drug cartels, or those who have become rich as Croesus with contracts to mow down huge tracts of the Brazilian rainforest). Much depends on government fiat too; witness the hefty pay hike given to all babus by the Sixth Pay Commission in India recently: their salaries are definitely not determined primarily by ‘market forces’ in any country, and look, every public sector bank clerk in India can afford to buy a car today, which was unimaginable even a decade ago! A lot of people don’t even make much money quickly, they make their piles simply by slogging on for donkey’s years – Warren Buffett is a famous contemporary case in point, but I know hundreds of people who have done the same thing, albeit on a much smaller scale. On the other hand, the lot of a landless agricultural labourer in India was miserable a hundred years ago, and it continues to be miserable today, though I know enough such people personally to assert that I have seen far more decency and culture and even skill among them than I see in the average I.T.-‘expert’. All this I know, and yet… there’s something that I cannot put my finger upon, but it keeps bothering me. Can anybody help?

Why do some people make so much more money than some others, nice people, hardworking people (even in officially ‘egalitarian’ countries such as the erstwhile Soviet Union and contemporary China)? What haven’t I learnt yet? What career counsel should I give my own daughter, besides telling her to hone her language and math skills, widen her GK, work hard, be patient, take calculated risks every now and then, always keep her eyes open - and pray?
P.S.: Would some kind and clever reader please email me an appropriate cartoon to go with this blogpost (something darkly satirical, like the Calvin and Hobbes strips?)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

I wish I had resigned sooner.

Orkut recently suggested I might wish to visit certain communities, including one called St. Xavier’s School, Durgapur. Out of a mild curiosity I did look up some of the discussions on the forum. Here’s a link to one of the threads where many old boys have been chatting up on some of their ex-teachers:
http://www.orkut.co.in/CommMsgs.aspx?cmm=58333&tid=2427235200363965200

And now, here are a few things I noticed:

1. Very few of these people can write three correct English sentences in a row free of spelling mistakes. In my day they would have been dismissed as unfortunate illiterates: these days of course they fancy themselves as both educated and gentlemen, seeing that so many of them have become, or are in the process of becoming, you got it – doctors and engineers.
2. They tag themselves as ‘Masters of Tomorrow’, though to the best of my knowledge no Xaverian from Durgapur (including humble me) has ever done, or even dreams of doing, anything positive that will put his name on the first page of a national newspaper. Any comments from all the budding Einsteins, Tagores, Sachins and Steve Jobs-es whom I haven’t met?
3. While criticizing lots of things about their school, hardly anybody has offered any sensible and constructive ideas about improving it, leave alone suggesting that they actually do something about it. Even while praising some teachers (such as the erstwhile physics teacher Mrs. Malini Ramdas, with whom I was on friendly terms), they cannot think of saying anything beyond ‘she was my favourite teacher… she made physics look easy’. That’s coherence and articulateness for you.
4. I find it remarkable just how crude their sense of humour is in general, and how disgusting the things they find laughable: sniggering at this teacher’s breasts, for god’s sake, and about that unfortunate teacher’s uncomfortable habit of frequently and noisily clearing his throat; referring to some teachers (old enough to be their parents) by their first names, and distorting the names of others! Some people call me rude and offensive, but I wouldn’t dream of talking about my old teachers that way, and that too on a public forum, where everybody from those teachers themselves to my current teachers/employers/parents/spouse/children might be reading. I’m sure it says a great deal about both the cultural level and the I.Q.s of these creatures. I happen to know lots of maidservants, petty shopkeepers, rickshaw wallahs and coolies who are both far wiser and far more decent than they. I am going to draw the attention of many teachers of Xavier’s to this community, of course, and many parents I know, as I have already started doing with the several hundred pupils whom I currently teach; I know now what sort of creatures I should never dream of considering as a future son-in-law, and I am sure that the thousand-odd-visitors per month at my blog will have lots of things to say about it (I know perfectly well that much of it will be senseless abuse, but alas, it will be effort wasted; they will not be posted on my blog as comments, and I have an employee who routinely deletes trash from my mailbox, so I will never even see them). I have already written to a few favourite old boys about it, and I was dismayed to see the kind of lame half-hearted apologies/rationalisations they offered on behalf of their friends, or the way they argued that they were helpless: they believed that they neither had the time to lodge vehement protests against this sort of vulgarity, nor thought that they could make any difference.
5. I shall of course not deign to waste my time taking cognizance of the kind of foul garbage these creatures have spewed about me in particular, since I know that vulgar and cowardly morons cannot have ‘opinions’. However, I must put on record that the only regret I have in my life today is that I didn’t resign from this cesspool many years sooner (I resigned, yes, as I had resigned from two other jobs earlier in my life: nobody 'sacked' me or 'kicked me out' as so many folks delight themselves by imagining – by existing governmental rules no teacher in the position I was in can be dismissed unless he is caught red-handed stealing or assaulting somebody or some equally heinous crime). And, finally, that despite my well-known opinion about the man who has been headmaster for the last nine years, I must say that in this instance he is quite justified in saying everything he has lately said about ex-students: from what I have found out about the ex-students, I feel he has been very mild and self-restrained in expressing himself!
P.S.: June 14 - in the four days since the above was posted, this blog has been visited nearly 400 times already, and I have personally communicated a gist of the contents to several hundred people locally: current pupils, their parents, and some teachers. My purpose is served. The moderator of the said community on orkut has meanwhile seen it fit to remove some of the most disgusting comments there, but whatever still remains is quite sufficient to give people who had no idea a very good estimate of what kind of folks ex-Xaverians are. To help them a little further, I have published one or two poisonous comments I have received on this blog itself. I'm sure any unbiased reader will be both surprised and puzzled by the blind and intense rage that obviously lies behind such comments, especially when juxtaposed with the other kind, the supportive and sympathetic comments written by polite and sane old boys and girls (whom the whole tribe of abusers instantly dismiss as 'sycophants'. You can't speak well of anybody without being called a 'sycophant' these days: you are 'strong and civilised' only if you can rave and rant and vilify like drunks and madmen!)
Where does this rage come from, then? With some people whom I can recognise, I know the reasons well: this one was scolded in class for using a dirty word, that one had his answerscript seized and rejected for cheating, a third had not been admitted to my tuition, another had been told that he must not expect special favours because his father was so-and-so, or because he routinely scored 90%-plus marks in mathematics. The manner in which I had upbraided them obviously still rankles, sometimes more than a decade later (and I have a hunch that the ones who remained most timidly silent in class then are the most noisy and macho abusers on the net now!). But on the whole the biggest reason is that unlike any other teacher, I used to endlessly underscore the point that they could not expect me to call them successful and admirable merely if they became doctors and engineers somehow - they needed far higher and rarer qualities (like courage and charity, to name just two) to impress me. That put-down is something that lots of people never manage to get over!
True criticism is an art that must be preceded by great cultivation of mind. It should be sternly factual, rich with example, logically coherent, and entirely free of malice. Indeed, genuine criticism actually helps me to improve myself, and I am thankful to countless nice people who have done me that favour. Only those who have no real criticism to offer but burn with helpless anger and jealousy, and those who are simply too dull-witted to know the difference, confuse criticism with abuse. I can call anybody any names I like - abuse always bespeaks far more about me than about the man I am abusing! Thank you, all you abusers, for telling me and my numerous friends of all ages (including folks older than your parents, who used to have a different, better opinion of Xaverians earlier) what kind of folks you are. Go ahead and call me some more names! You haven't offered some good ones yet - greedy, lecherous, effeminate, ignorant, lazy, sycophantic... why not those too?
P.P.S., June 15: I just came across the following article on the Net courtesy gmail:
Though this is in connection with Facebook, the lesson therein (starting from the title itself) could be an eye-opener for a lot of culturally-challenged ex-Xaverians. So also, I daresay, the discussion on the following thread in my own community in orkut:
Final update, June 25: One current Xaverian has found the courage and felt the need to protest against the pervasive culture of indecency. See http://worldniladri.blogspot.com . I hope he gets the kind of encouragement he deserves. That can still persuade me that stupidity and vulgarity are not the hallmark of most Xaverians!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Global crises, websites of interest

This post may not have any direct connection with the subjects on which I have been lately requested to write: I shall ask all those good people to bear with me some more. It may also not be as coherent and incisive as my usual posts, because I have been rather distracted of late, and overworked, and half killed by the heat, and besides, a lot of thoughts have been rambling in my head, and it would take a very long post and too much time to get them organized into the kind of order I like. Nevertheless, I think the thoughts are important enough to jot down, and the interconnectedness will suggest itself to informed people who read closely enough.

Oil prices going through the roof, and human responsibility for global warming becoming almost irrefutable, and growing food scarcity, and China (now both the world’s leading producer of steel and biggest emitter of greenhouse gases) being rocked and embarrassed on the eve of the Olympic Games by violence both natural and human, and educated city-bred parents being suspected of killing their children to hide the skeletons in their own closets (the Aarushi Talwar incident) while hundreds of millions of supposedly educated young people keep themselves permanently anesthetized into believing that the world is fast ‘progressing’ because mobile phones keep getting snazzier yet cheaper, and new and ever more swanky shopping malls keep mushrooming all around them … what is really a wonder is that so many people still cannot see the connections (my old boys living in Calcutta have told me that power cuts have become far more frequent ever since a vast new power-guzzling mall came up in the south of the city)! When Meadows and Forrester of the Club of Rome wrote the Limits to Growth report in 1972 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limits_to_Growth and other links available through Google) about the inevitable end of the endlessly high-growth economic orthodoxy that ruled the world, they were mostly pooh-poohed, even by scientists who were all agog over the Green Revolution and quite sure that they would keep finding ever new oil reserves forever, or at least believed that the predicted disaster was comfortably many generations away. When I commented in the mid-80s on that report in The Telegraph of Calcutta, lamenting that the “insane, half-conscious conspiracy between ignorance, greed, fecundity and technology” was sure to spell disaster for all mankind, few bothered, for India was then girding up her loins for the economic growth-leap that would catapult her into the world’s big league of producers and consumers (as she is now rapidly becoming), and any advice of slowing down was anathema to everybody. Even when some directors started making movies like Mad Max and Waterworld and The Day After Tomorrow, they were (perhaps with a little secret unease?) dismissed as doomsayers and panicmongers. Warnings were not heeded, because neither politicians nor economists nor the world’s ruling plutocrats could ‘afford’ to think of alternative paradigms, and far too many had in any case drugged themselves into hallucinating that technology would keep fixing all problems as they arose in the course of mankind’s pursuit of limitless material prosperity on a planet whose resources were essentially and unavoidably limited (Kenneth Boulding had coined the term 'spaceship earth': who cares to know today?).

What I see happening all around me would be funny if it were not infinitely sad. Parts of mankind are beginning to wake up suddenly to the vast and imminent danger ahead. As proof, Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth has become a runaway hit, R.K. Pachauri has been given a Nobel Prize, and all kinds of very unlikely people are waking up to the need to really think out of the box (not the way techies and management junkies mindlessly mouth that piece of jargon). In this context, I should like all of you to visit three sites listed below:

http://www.theElders.org/,
http://www.resurgence.org/, and
http://www.justfortheloveofit.org/

the contents speak for themselves.

I find it funny that even folks like the flamboyant billionaire businessman Richard Branson are now extolling the essential virtues of Gandhian philosophy:
see http://www.resurgence.org/magazine/article1-Legacy-of-the-Mahatma.html

Though a microscopic minority (including geniuses like Tagore and Einstein) thought in his own time that Gandhi had something of supreme importance to say, most (including ‘disciples’ like Nehru) thought he was hopelessly old-fashioned and out of touch. People like Schumacher (Small is Beautiful), Capra (The Turning Point) and Amlan Dutta (The Gandhian Way – a book I reviewed in 1987) tried to draw our attention, but failed almost hopelessly. Maybe mankind needs looming disaster to wake up? Or will it still be too little and too late? – Remember, last year was the first in recorded history when the Arctic Ocean was entirely ice-free in summer!

Since I know from rather bitter experience that a lot of readers like to shoot their mouths, I would like to see evidence that anybody who comments on this has first taken the trouble to read the articles, books and website contents I have listed above. Otherwise, ask questions with an open mind, and be ready to mull over the answers, however strongly they trouble your prejudices. Nobody, for instance, who hasn’t read a single serious book on Gandhi (and doesn't want to, but is still quite sure that Gandhi was a fool) ought to comment here.
P.S.: I thought this post would be appropriate for World Environment Day.