Friday, August 27, 2010

(Not So) Free Association


Read this.

Which is as good a time as any to remember that the thespian in question, this leader of a large Middle Eastern country with a finger on the nuclear button, is this (YouTube link) fellow.

Wonders will never cease.


Large poster at Teynampet signal. Beaming countenance, saffron robes, Afro.

"I am in you. You are in me. Blah blah blah."


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On The Economics Of The Madras Autorickshaw

Netizens of Bangalore have apparently gathered under the banner of Meterjam. In their own words:
ecause strikes need a strike back! We're tired of meter that always reads more than it should, drivers who refuse to ply and demand return fare whenever they want. And if all that wasn't enough, now we have to deal with strikes too, any time the 'unions' decide!

Everyone is holding the janta to ransom. How much more will we pay? It's time to turn the tables.

So on 12th August, shake your head and say NO if an auto driver offers a ride!
If the Bangalore fellows can evoke such a reaction, the reputation of the Chennai auto fellows will possibly set off something like the Long March. At least in Bangalore, they'll pretend that the meter is jammed, there won't be a return savaari back from just the place you want to go to and so on. In Madras, there's no pretense. The meter is just an ornament, a pro forma declaration of intent to provide transportation.

When the subject is broached with the average Madrasi and the average visitor to Madras from those delightful orderly places ("In Bombay you know, the autowallah will even give back Rs. 0.50 in change, you know."), you will find a small vein near the temple start to throb in an alarming fashion. Invective gushes forth; destinations are suggested for auto drivers that make a Siberian gulag seem like Mylai Karpagambal Mess; summary public punishments are proposed that leave the entire Saudi ruling class gasping in admiration.

The Meterjam fellows are definitely entitled to protest, more power to them. There is however, one problem. Why, the anguish?

Most of the people I know who crib about this state of affairs are honest Joes and Janes, strong believers in the glories of such things as Private Enterprise, Free Markets, "easier" Labour Laws, Libertarianism and so on. And yet when faced with this particular example of private enterprise, there seems to be a problem.

After all, what goes on during your typical Madras auto haggle? You quote a ridiculous (to him) price, he quotes a ridiculous (to you) fare, you do the +10/-10 dance for a bit, some emotional appeals to honesty and conscience, and finally either you agree, or both of you move on. Isn't the price of a thing (or service) that magic number which the consumer is willing to pay and the provider is willing to accept? I submit to you that the Chennai auto haggle is the closest thing you will ever see to a scene from "Atlas Shrugged"! Whence cometh the moaning and groaning?

Thinking about it differently, what if all techies were forced by law to work for Rs. 15,000 per month as salary (50% above meter if they put night-outs!)? No more performance based incentives, no more premium for being smarter or knowing more or being willing to do boring and distasteful jobs. Nice, no? So why are you complaining about Manikyam?

One objection I've heard when I've framed the issue in this manner is that it's still not truly a "free market". In a truly free market, anyone would be allowed to operate an auto, there won't be barriers to entry into the business and so on, and this will be a "fair" system and whatever price point results is the "fair" price.

The argument has merit, but I'm not buying it entirely. My feeling (admittedly un-verified/-verifiable) is that even if into that heaven of freedom this city awakes, the cribbers will crib about how auto drivers are colluding to jack up prices etc., as long as they can compare it to the "fixed price" systems in other cities.

To conclude:

1. Madras (and such) are the only places that have truly free and fair autorickshaw service markets. This is closer to the free market utopia that we're all so keen on, than all other "fixed meter" places. You might want to try and remember this the next time you begin to declaim on such matters.

2. Shut the fuck up, pay up, and enjoy the ride.

3. You may perhaps have noticed these other strange long contraptions with numbers etc. on the road. In the alphabet of public transport, if you can't stand 'A for Auto', the next best bet is 'B for the fucking Bus'. Try taking one ever so often.

4. Also, if you stand straight and look straight down towards the floor, right above it, most of you will find 2 columns, banana tree trunk like. They are called "legs". The remainder of this proof is left as an exercise to the discerning reader.

5. That's all.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Tony Who?

Tony Judt died. His name had registered very peripherally a few times, but I had never read anything by him. The flurry of obits and other pieces over the last few days made me root around for more information.

Among the highlights from the New York Times obituary:
Mr. Judt (pronounced Jutt)...began as a specialist in postwar French intellectual history, and for much of his life he embodied the idea of the French-style engaged intellectual.

An impassioned left-wing Zionist as a teenager, he shed his faith in agrarian socialism and Marxism early on and became, as he put it, a "universalist social democrat" with a deep suspicion of left-wing ideologues, identity politics and the emerging role of the United States as the world's sole superpower.
His views on Israel made Mr. Judt an increasingly polarizing figure. He placed himself in the midst of a bitter debate when, in 2003, he outlined a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem in The New York Review of Books, proposing that Israel accept a future as a secular, bi-national state in which Jews and Arabs enjoyed equal status.
Strangely (maybe not) there was no hyperlink to the essay in question, but it's easy enough to find.

What a punch in the stomach piece of writing this is! Went into my head like a lance etc. It is worthwhile to put aside whatever you are doing now and reading this one carefully. American statesman is going to have to tell the truth to an Israeli prime minister and find a way to make him listen. Israeli liberals and moderate Palestinians have for two decades been thanklessly insisting that the only hope was for Israel to dismantle nearly all the settlements and return to the 1967 borders, in exchange for real Arab recognition of those frontiers and a stable, terrorist-free Palestinian state underwritten (and constrained) by Western and international agencies. This is still the conventional consensus, and it was once a just and possible solution.

But I suspect that we are already too late for that. There are too many settlements, too many Jewish settlers, and too many Palestinians, and they all live together, albeit separated by barbed wire and pass laws. Whatever the "road map" says, the real map is the one on the ground, and that, as Israelis say, reflects facts. It may be that over a quarter of a million heavily armed and subsidized Jewish settlers would leave Arab Palestine voluntarily; but no one I know believes it will happen. Many of those settlers will die—and kill—rather than move. The last Israeli politician to shoot Jews in pursuit of state policy was David Ben-Gurion, who forcibly disarmed Begin's illegal Irgun militia in 1948 and integrated it into the new Israel Defense Forces. Ariel Sharon is not Ben-Gurion.
The Palestinian-Israeli problem is just too depressing to think about, and this article doesn't make it any easier. Nevertheless, it does present future scenarios in stark relief, and a jolt of clarity is definitely in order.

[Aside: An eminently readable history of the conflict is to be found in Sowing the Wind.]

Sorry to have missed you when you were alive Mr. Judt, and more power to universalist social democrats.