The Human Cost of Zoning in Indian Cities

scep1_corporatetower_1Read my article “The Human Cost Of Zoning” on FEE.org. I hope zoning in the third-world gets more attention with essays like this. I am glad that Financial TimesTyler Cowen, Alex Tabarrok, ACI Scholarly Blog IndexOrange County Register,  Urbanomics and economist Ajay Shah blogged about this article. Quartz shared it, and NYU Stern School Of Business’ Urbanization Project, Marron Institute,  and Brandon Fuller tweeted it.  Continue reading “The Human Cost of Zoning in Indian Cities”

In Search Of The True Indian

I met him three years ago, somewhere near North Block. As a rule, I refuse to meet people in the three-dimensional world. I made an exception for him because he once tweeted that I am the most beautifully idiosyncratic Indian writer. “Now, this is somebody who has good judgment. He understands my work, unlike the half-brained slobs I see every day.” I told myself.  We shall call him “Indian”. I do not want to name him and shame him. But, when I think about the “nature-nurture debate”, it is hard to get this fellow off my mind.

When I met him, he said that he “loved” a quote on my wall:

“We all talk about clarity and sanity all the time, but the truth is it’s very dangerous. True clarity and sanity won’t allow you to do anything — it will just make you jump off the building.

I have my doubts. I am the happiest person I have ever known. My hypothesis is that most people find it difficult to get out of their beds in the morning because they are sad. It is sadness which doesn’t allow them to do anything. They are sad, but they do not see the world half as clearly as I do. This was red flag enough.

He was unbearably depressed. I found this bizarre. When I said that I found this hard to believe, he said, “I know that it is strange for a very young man to be so depressed, but this is how I feel now.” I asked him whether he was a victim of “office politics”. He said that “office politics” is not the only source of misery. There are many other. This was news to me.

He said, “I don’t think you are trying to make a point on your blog. It is always along these lines, ‘I said this to her, and then she said this to him.’ But, what comes through is the absolute pettiness that emerges from the interactions between half-anglicized Indians.” The depressed are refreshingly frank.

I tried to cheer him up saying that a Masters from UChicago will take him very far in this third-world city where people are quickly impressed. But, he said that he studied something pointless. I reassured him. He will tower over everybody like an Albert Einstein in newsrooms in Delhi where journalists have IQs in the range of hockey scores. But, he did not budge. He is useless. Pedagogues had as much as said so, in that almighty piece of paper.

It was then his grandfather called him on the phone to ask whether he took the bananas in the fridge. He said, thinking long and hard, “Strictly speaking, that is not true.” He lived with his grandparents. His grandparents and mother were doctors. But, when she was young, his topper-type mother married a never-do-well from the hills. Before his mother jilted this Pahadi idiot who never did an honest day’s job, he was crawling.

On the first day of every academic year, his teachers at Modern School asked him what his father did. He couldn’t stand this diabolic torture. When he was a child, he said, “My mother (Softly) is a doctor (Emphasis added).” Soon, it dawned on him that he could not get away with it. He learned to say that his father was in “import-export business”. But, one day a girl walked to him and said cheerfully that her father was in “import-export business” too. He did not know what to tell her. When he was twelve, he decided that enough was enough. He walked toward the teacher, leaped and whispered in her ears, “My parents are divorced, and my father doesn’t do anything.” That did it for her.

My girlfriend once told me that her schoolmates asked three questions whenever she joined a new school, “In which part of Delhi do you live? What does your father do? Which car does he drive?” In all the cosmos, nothing mattered more to them.

He was bright, but he barely graduated high school. His mother (presumably an enterprising woman) decided to ship out and live in a ghetto in the UK where his grades did not bother anyone. I asked him how he managed to get into a school in the UK. He laughed and asked me whether I was living under a rock for long. “This is the age of decadence. Educational standards have been declining throughout the world.” When he was ejected from University of Chicago at the age of 25, he resembled his father. He had no desire to work.

He said, “Your prose is very ‘westernized’. But, if you like western thinkers so much, why don’t you live in the west? Without living in the west for a few years, you will never understand the west.”

I said that there was no conscious attempt to “deracinate” myself. I do not see things this way at all. The best books are ‘western’. I haven’t really bothered to read Indian writers for the same reason I have never been on a social networking website created by an Indian. This did not convince him. He sighed saying that he did not know that colonialism spawned people who have such dichotomous lives.

He attributed much of his depression to being compelled to live in the west. He loved Nirad Chaudhuri—who loved the west—and Pankaj Mishra, who, for all ranting, still prefers to live there. When I said that we have such fucked up lives, he sighed, “But, Pankaj Mishra is having a swell time, with his British wife and everything.”

Tired hearing that a passage of Nirad Chaudhuri is enough to take libertarianism out of me, I bought Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. I read the first few dozen pages before throwing it away. It was written in the sort of pedantic prose a school headmaster turned out of a public school hundred years ago would have written.  

The west was a nameless, faceless enemy. But, after a decade in the west, Indian streets had become unbearable. “I hate walking the streets because I do not like seeing these lower class people. I never go out, but when I go to the super market, the guy at the counter talks to me. I find that really oppressive”, he once said. He did not like his grandparents either. “My grandmother is so primitive. She is not westernized. I pray for her to die so that I can live in this house with my grandfather.” he said. The feeling was mutual, because he looked like his father.

His preoccupation with the west colored his perception of everything around him. Whenever he spoke, it was along these lines:

“My grandfather does not know why I lock my door when I am alone in my room. Indians do not understand the concept of privacy.”

“Theory is a western concept.”

“Morality is a western concept. Indians do not even know what “morality” means.”

“Did they understand you? I am sure that they did not. Indians do not know how to reason with each other.”

“Why do these people stare at me? Is it because I am westernized? I smile and make eye contact. I haven’t seen Indians doing that.”

But, despite everything, he loved the idea of India. Everywhere, he searched frantically for true Indianness.

The David Friedman Interview

I met David Friedman at Starbucks in Connaught Place, the Central Business District of Delhi. Starbucks, which exemplifies the age of aesthetics, tends to maintain consistency in look, feel and attitude across the world. But, its store in Delhi’s premier market reeks of traditionalism, with bare cement interiors, local crafts and furniture. The Connaught Place market, though somewhat dilapidated, is one of the most expensive office spaces in the world. Starbucks, which does not have many outlets in India, bought space here because as per its brand values, it cannot afford to open stores where the catchment area does not justify the investment. The young men and women who listened to Friedman consuming expensive retail space without consuming the expensive coffee epitomize India’s leisurely café culture. It is hardly surprising that Starbucks does not have many outlets in India.

Economist David Friedman is one of the most creative minds of our times. Friedman studied Physics at Harvard and Chicago, and has never taken a course for credit in economics or law. But, the finest of minds vouch that Friedman’s class on legal systems is the best economics course in the world. David Friedman is the son of Milton Friedman, the 1976 winner of Nobel Prize in Economics, and economist Rose Director. Rose Director was the co-author of Milton’s best-selling book, ‘Free to Choose’ and sister of economist Aaron Director who was instrumental in the development of the Chicago School of Economics.

Read the whole interview here.

In Defense Of The Cynical Politician

ArvindKejriwal2While speaking to the public, politicians usually “wimp out”, whatever the ethical aspects of the matter, there is nothing unusual about this. There is no successful politician on earth who has not done that, in one way or the other. Although, it is disputable whether Kejriwal’s economic philosophy is sound but, it is indisputably true that every shrewd politician keeps his sensible views to himself. If Kejriwal speaks the truth, and nothing but the truth, he would soon cease to be a politician. This is true of politics, not just in India, but across the world. Such is human nature. Such is the nature of politics. The median Indian citizen is touchier than the kings and queens of the past, but he expects his political representatives to wear their heart on their sleeves which is not fair. there is near unanimous agreement that Kejriwal knows very little, if anything at all about economics and political philosophy. But, the Delhi legislative assembly elections have proven beyond reasonable doubt that he knows a great deal about electability. Arvind Kejriwal is the living proof of the wise dictum that politics is not about policy. In a sane world, people would have found this bizarre, but this did not really annoy anyone, expect some gentlemen in the upper levels of the society. What bothers the people in a democratic society is the glimpse of a skeleton in a politician’s closet, though every successful politician has many in his ever-growing collection.

Read my column in DNA 

New Year’s Baby

Today is my birthday. I was a New Year’s baby.  What did I learn in all these years? A lot. I was never a lazy boy. 

The most radical shift in my thinking in 2013 has its roots in an encounter over a year ago. It was an afternoon in December I interviewed Tyler Cowen. I knew that Tyler is a colleague of Bryan Caplan, and has an astronomical IQ. Bryan influenced my thinking more than any other intellectual, of past or present. I had not read much of Tyler because I found his views too anti-capitalistic for my tastes. But, I pulled a few all-nighters and read all the books of Tyler that I could lay my hands on—except “Create Your Own Economy”. 

I remember that day. I was late for the talk, but I was being instinctively fair. I stood there on the stairs, watching the girls in the registration counter. A very young girl held a pen close to her chin. She looked like a doll. I asked her, “But, it was supposed to begin at 3 O’ Clock.” She said, “It was supposed to begin at 3, but some people who are supposed to come are caught in a traffic jam. It will begin at 3:30.” It began at 4. I once told her that I will write about her in my darling novel. Since then she has been annoying me saying that she wants to see what I had written about her.

After the talk, I walked down. While I was drinking coffee alone, on a table, I saw the PR girl of CCS entering the room. She stood near the door, her eyes flitting around the room. Then she walked to me, and started talking. I thought, laughing inside, “These PR ladies. They have such sharp eyes.” They can spot their prey in a room full of people, in the fraction of a second. I do not know how they do it, but I know that they do it. When they want me to plug their boss, the PR lady is sweet and talkative. But, her boss is grim and joyless. I tell myself, ‘My novel will profit’.

Unlike the typical Delhi intellectual, Tyler was extremely well-read—and a decent fellow. For instance, he did not lose his temper, or walk away when I disagreed with him. His books were among the best that I have read, but he was still too moderate to interest me much. But, it was only in January I read “Create Your Own Economy”. It was on Asperger’s Syndrome. When I read it, everything that happened in my life fell into place, after a lifetime of not fitting in. I spent the whole year thinking about it. 

Breaking Down The Walls Of Pettiness

We should erect a wall.

The clock struck twelve, and she turned silent. After a long pause, she said that the new regulatory framework in the UK would make it almost impossible for her to stay there. I felt that this could be one of her usual pranks. I went to sleep while she said, “Shanu, Say something. Tell me that this is nothing—that there is nothing to worry. Please. Say something like that.” After turning in my bed for long, I woke up, wanting to know. What she said was true. A piece of legislation had made it very hard for her to realistically find a job in the UK after college. She did not know it for months.

We had studied in the same city once. Before going back to college she had worked with a reputed multinational corporation. The first time I had found her murderously angry was when she found that her dinner was stolen. When I told her that such things do not affect me much, she said, “Shanu, I am a student. I live on a limited budget. I will have to go to bed hungry tonight.” It happened often. After finishing college, she once told me that she wanted to work as a sales girl in a shop in London because she is keen on understanding many things. And I was silent.  Continue reading “Breaking Down The Walls Of Pettiness”

Kerala’s Riches & Rapes

God’s Own Country

If God is a superstition, so is the mystique of the benevolent state. Plain men who are blinded by envy, ignorance and resentment do not love the truth. But, they do not want to be left groping in the dark either. They want something to latch on to. They long for substitutes for the truth. Superstitions are such substitutes.

For centuries, the brightest minds have rejected God. But, it was ear in and ear out for most men. For thousands of years, the best economists and political philosophers have argued against government tyranny. But, it was ear in and ear out for almost everyone. 

Why? Most people are innately predisposed to hate liberty. They are the sheep. They have no self-respect. They need someone to lead. Is it surprising that even high IQ academics like Paul A Samuelson wanted to believe that the Soviet Russia will overtake the United States? Many apparently intelligent men of his generation believed just that.  When their grand experiment collapsed like a house of cards, they had to swallow their pride and admit meekly: “But, we need not go too far.” Prejudice is a disease that cannot be cured by education. Continue reading “Kerala’s Riches & Rapes”

The Hilarious Case Of Manu Joseph

Manu-Joseph
I am not delusional. So, I can see delusions very easily.

My favorite novelist would have called it fate’s sense of fitness, but for a while, I did not know that I was working in the same building in which the only Indian writer who had impressed me works in. Mr. Manu Joseph. Mr. Joseph edits the Open Magazine.

If there is anything I regret about my life, it is that my detractors were not very smart. My capitalistic detractor never touched my masterpieces. But, the concept of private property was alien to my anti-capitalistic detractors. They played with them like monkeys playing with a garland. But, what differentiates Mr. Joseph from my other detractors is that it would be an understatement to say that Mr. Joseph is capable of learning.

I do not want to deny that I have had reasonably smart detractors—like Mr. Maheshwer Peri, the publisher of the career Magazine I worked with. He once had fourteen magazines. But, after he bankrupted the Outlook Magazine group, he was left with a fourth-rate magazine edited by some imbeciles ejected from JNU. He is precisely the kind of man people of so-called intelligence would call a “philistine”. Continue reading “The Hilarious Case Of Manu Joseph”

The Limits Of Persuasion

I think I know who is Cla.

A Facebook friend once told me that when she reads the comments on her wall, she feels like paying for their education. I did not disagree. I often read her wall. An Ayn Rand fan who recently landed in Delhi told me: “You cannot reason with these people.” True. I had learned this the hard way.

It is not open to argument whether that the greatest problem mankind faces is stupidity. Sentimentalists might tell you that it is “world poverty”, but that is a red herring, and merely a symptom of this deeper and more important problem. But then, they would also tell us that the problem doesn’t exist, and that we are all equal, wouldn’t they? Continue reading “The Limits Of Persuasion”

We Don’t Need No Education

I’d die rather than go to school.

Unlike many neurotic college-dropouts who help themselves feel better by repeatedly listening to Pink Floyd, I haven’t felt like defending myself too much. I haven’t written anything much on unschooling. Even if I did, I know what many of you would think: “Sour grapes!”  I do not wish to deny that there is some rationalization involved in me liking steve jobs who slept on the floor, returned coke bottles to buy food, and walked several miles once in a week to get one good meal at the Hare Krishna temple after dropping out of college.

My favorite businessmen were never Mittal’s and Tata’s of the world, but men like Mahesh Murthy who dropped out of college at 19, and ended up with a net worth of hundreds of millions of dollars after doing many odd jobs like being an announcer at Indian railway and selling vacuum cleaners door to door. Even though my teens were largely wasted, my favorite fictional character is not the one-dimensional ubermensch Howard Roark, but Gail Wynand who walked into the office of a fourth-rate newspaper at sixteen, and asked “Can you spell anthropomorphology?” to the editor who inquired “Can you spell cat?” I couldn’t get through most fiction works I have read, but when I read that Howard Roark was kicked out of architecture school for insubordination, I was in seventh heaven. I went on to read it eighteen times-but wait, I am still counting.

I have always hated schooling, though in early childhood, it was a truth I would dare not admit. I was expected to say that I loved it- that the “emperor has clothes”.  When I was in school, the whole world looked like an air craft into which hordes of barbarians rushed in to press buttons at random, with the self-righteous conviction that they are entitled to act on their whims and fancies. Many feel that anything goes as long as they had a mushy rationalization, or an argument from authority! When I studied libertarianism, the essentials were not hard to see: What politicians and bureaucrats do to decent human beings is not much different from what adults often do to children. If we strip libertarianism down to a postcard, that is all there is to it. Once this retrospectively obvious fact is understood, the whole theory behind unschooling will fall into place.

I still remember the day I joined LKG. My mom came with me to school, and left me unarmed in a room of nearly fifty children, most of them crying and whining. I remember a child coming near the door of the classroom and peeping outside. Separation from their parents is a source of intense anxiety, helplessness and confusion for most post-toddlers.  My class teacher was a very young Gujarati lady. I have always wondered why she enjoyed punishing the soft child that I was. I am not lying. She actually did it for no valid reason. I am grateful to God for the fact that her behavior was far from the norm. Others at least made up some ridiculous reasons to punish kids.

When I was walking back home from school the first day, a child started crying. Some older kids were amused and said in a singsong voice: “Shame, Shame, Puppy Shame!” It all reminds me of some torture chamber now. I once stumbled upon my class teacher when I went to the beach with my parents. She gave me some cashew nuts and asked me to say “Thank You”. I, of course, said “Thank You”, with a shy smile on my face. I bent my head and stood there staring at the sands of the beach. When I occasionally looked up, behind her, I could see the tides rising and falling while the evening sun set. At that moment, all I wanted was to escape from her and the beach. Even after two decades, I cannot get over my crush on her.

Separation is a great source of anxiety, helplessness and confusion for post-toddlers.

In school, I was always in a state of confused bewilderment. When I was in first standard,one day I started off from home without my school bag because I was told that the school will be having an Arts festival. When I entered the classroom, my class teacher asked with a sarcastic smile: “Oh, you’ve come over here to enjoy the breeze? Where is your bag?” I looked at her with my eyelashes up, with deep sadness in my eyes-and then I looked at my empty shoulders. Somewhere those tender shoulders have failed me. I felt alienated from my school-bag and for once I grasped the intimate relationship between sarcasm and alienation. Somewhere the premises do deeply interconnect.

I was upset the whole day. I had to sit idly when other children frantically took notes. But, did I simply sit there enjoying the breeze? Did I cry like a sissy? No. I didn’t. I wouldn’t even have even been able to bring myself to write about me if I had done so! I would have been mighty ashamed of myself today if I had done so! Instead, like a good boy, I listened to each and every word she uttered and committed them to my memory. It became a life and death issue for me. “In all the cosmos nothing mattered more than this”. While traveling back home in the auto rickshaw, I tried to repeat those words to myself, lest I forget them. When I reached back home, the first thing I did was to write it all down in my note book with my sharpened HB pencil. When I was finally done, I did have my lunch.

When the classes began the next day, with uncontrollable anger, she asked me to come to her desk with my notebook. I was painfully shy, and said nothing. She opened the notebook only to see everything that was taught the last day written in clear, cold letters. She hugged me tightly. When she gave my mother the progress report that year, below everything, in the personal remarks column, it was written: “Photographic memory”. I started having a crush on her too.

I am by no means indulging in malignant self-love. My point was that I learned something that day. “When there is a will, there is a way”, or “the virtue of tireless hard work, teeth-clenched determination, and merciless devotion”. These are lessons a child will never learn in a classroom. These are lessons which a typical teacher will never even begin to understand. It should come from within. I think these are traits which are almost impossible to manufacture. Either you have it in you-or you don’t.

Conscientiousness is something which the school cannot teach. School can only signal it, and then only imperfectly. When someone tells me that he forgot something important, I think that it is hardly deserving of sober attention. I see such people everywhere. When I was in my last job, I noticed that some of them came at noon, left in the afternoon and looked here and there when tired annoying others. H.L. Mencken was certainly right about the average Joe: “The world gets nothing from him save his brute labour, and even that he tries to evade.” Yet, instead of feeling bad about themselves, they felt policed and persecuted. If natalists can be caught thinking of mandatory sterilization, it is hard to blame others.

As Bob Wallace writes: “A neurotic, taking too much responsibility, feels too much guilt; a character disorder, not taking enough responsibility, doesn’t feel enough guilt. A joke about this is that dogs are neurotic because they always think it’s their fault; cats are character disorders because they always think it’s your fault.”  Rana Dasgupta nails it so well: “In the Indian psyche, you dissociate yourself from the bad things you have done, and then they’re not yours anymore. This isn’t a guilt culture. That’s why you can never make any accusation stick to a businessman or a politician. They won’t even recognize the crimes you’re accusing them of. They’ll probably have you beaten up for insulting them.”

I think Delhi-ites are cats.

The whole city is infested with character disorders. Schooling if anything, reinforces such character disorders.

One day, our 1st standard class teacher left us all alone in the class room and went outside. A child made a mess near my desk by pouring a bottle of ink. When she came back, he pointed his finger at me and said cheerfully: “He did it!” In between, he leaned forward to whisper in my little ears with a chuckle: “I am so clever.”. I wondered how such evil can even exist on earth. How could he do this to me? The upside was of course that I had come to grips with the concept of backstabbing.

Luckily, it looked like she didn’t believe his words. He was told that when he points one finger at me, three fingers are pointed at himself. So, he ended up cleaning up the mess he himself has made. I rarely had to right the scales of justice as reality often took its course. I was happy that like many who later played on me, he fell into a ditch he himself dug.  I sat there with a smug smile on my face.

School doesn’t value perseverance. If you do well, at most you will be called a good boy. When I topped my class when I was in 4th standard, my parents noticed that I didn’t smile when I took the progress card from my class teacher. They also noticed that the class teacher didn’t smile. My mother scolded me: “There is no need for you to be so smug about it. You should know that no one else opened their text books this year!” I believed it. It felt so good.

When I was 9, my father was transferred and I moved to another school. It was completely beyond me why the teachers who interviewed me demanded that I define indefinable terms like “parrot” and “peacock”. It was obvious that they didn’t belong to the profession, and should never be allowed to have anything to do with little children.

My class teacher in 6th standard hated me with some passion. She once told my mother: “I do not care whether he studies or not, but he should learn to be audible.” One day, I heard her reading a line from a short story aloud: “She was so proud that she even refused to talk to her neighbors”, with her fishy eyes fixed on me. I felt as if a lightning had suddenly struck me: “God, what is this old lady trying to tell me?” When she once threw me out of the class as my voice was not loud enough for her, I stood there listening to crows croak.

Some teachers were crushable.

She once found my eight year old brother guilty of some mischief. His crime: He listed all the boys and girls in his class on a piece of paper and matched them up. She was fuming with anger: “What has this boy done?”. She warned in her trembling voice that he will be expelled from the school if he persists in such immoral behavior. One day, while rolling my eyes listening to her blabber, I noticed one thing: She had hearing aids. Everything suddenly fell into place. Her anger was all the more understandable to me when I recently heard a woman say: “Shanu, I am fifty and deaf. Please speak a bit louder.” I had more serenity by then.

Though I was almost over religion by then, every morning I caught myself praying for her early demise. My mom was disturbed by all this. She often said: “Your attitude is not for your good. It will never do anyone any good. You shouldn’t hold anger in your mind. Matha, Pitha, Guru, Deivam. ” Such rationalizations lacked even the slightest plausibility to me even then. When I grew up, I learned to philosophically reject the concepts of forgiveness and unearned respect. More than a decade later, I read in an Orkut forum that she was finally taken to the graveyard. I was filled with immense delight as my childhood dream has come true. Better late than never!

After all, God will not be mocked!

To me, school was a “Hobbesian jungle”. We were punished for horrid crimes like talking to each other, not bringing the text books, and failing to memorize poems. Many of them were hypersensitive. When a nine year old boy asked a newly married teacher whether she enjoyed her first night, she wept and ran out of the classroom. I am almost certain that he didn’t know what he was talking about. I think children should go to school instead of the neighborhood candy store only if they like being scolded, smacked and ordered around by these nasty women. If there are any good aspects of schooling, it could be enjoyed without going through the whole process. Irrespective of whether it is private or public, schooling is eight hours of jail sentence a day where one is forced to learn what he doesn’t like to learn, and socialize with all those unwanted types. Fourteen years is a hell of a long time. I am still not over it.

I do not think that I should degrade myself by even debating the issue of corporal punishment. What we hear are the arguments of some brutes who lack the nerve to stand up for what they believe in. If we push on, at the end the real truth comes out of their mouth, and we realize that all the twists, obfuscations, contradictions, non sequiturs, equivocations, complexities, tricks and intellectual acrobatics were intended to hide this plain naked truth, the shabby unspeakable secret, the secret shame of savages who have never risen out of the archaic practice of doing good to children through force. If they want to hit a child, they should have the grace to admit that.

If I could press a button on my desk which would get anyone who has ever raised his hand against a child in a horror chamber, and have them tortured till death, mercilessly and brutally, the only reason I would not press that button would be that I would be starving to death in a world where most of the mankind will be missing. Otherwise I would have pushed it without hesitating a bit, with the largest grin anyone has ever seen on my face.

When I was ten, my parents decided that I needed some “help” in learning Maths. I was sent to a private tuition centre which I loathed as my reason told me that I do not need nobody’s “help”. Every day, after school, I would walk back home, and my mom would take me forcefully to the tuition classes. One day, she had to stop my bus and take me out of it to lead me through the ‘right path’. After sulking for months, I left the place never to return. The day she gave up, I heard her telling a friend: “He thinks that it is beneath him to learn from others. He has an attitude problem!”

One day, when I was walking through the hallways of my school, a senior asked me how much I scored in my Maths paper. I said: “46/50”. He then asked me how much I scored before taking tuitions. I reflected for a while and said: “45/50”.  His face lit up. He said: “So, that explains it. One mark is not worth all the trouble.” He was right. I was glad that I found some agreement in him, an agreement which is often hard to come by. My only regret was that I had a crush on a 13 year old girl who studied with me. I later saw her in a temple. She was praying with her eyes closed, wearing a long skirt which is not too unlike the one often seen in Malayalam movies. I looked at her folded palms and bare feet. She didn’t see me.

One of my fondest childhood memories is that of reading the travelogue of an Indian researcher in Spain. In his delightful manner, he tells us what happened when a teenaged blonde in the house he stayed was soon to be blessed with a cute baby. His landlord wanted the author to find out who shared the responsibility. I couldn’t extort any sense out of the landlord’s request. I had believed that babies were simply born. When I asked my mother what the author meant, she slapped my hand, snatched the book and said: “I have told you an indefinite number of times that this is not meant for children.”  When I was in Junior High, I felt that I was beginning to understand. A classmate told me that the great Mahatma Gandhi and even our parents were guilty of this fundamental sin.

In Junior High, my classmates used words which fell harshly upon my delicate sensibilities. They were glad to be taught by teachers with well-developed bosoms. Our school was near a college. When I was 13, I used to walk through the corridors of the college with a friend who would often say with great sadness: “We stand no chance. But, I see nothing wrong in checking them out. Come, let us go!” He believed in flouting the norms of conventional morality, and held that Bill Clinton was a much persecuted man, unnecessarily so. On a rainy day, when we were waiting for our bus, an elderly man wanted to know which bus will take him home.  This boy showed him the way in a cheerful manner uncharacteristic of him. The moment the man boarded the bus, he started laughing uncontrollably and said: “But, I do not feel bad at all.”

Awww.

I was 13 when I flunked the Math paper big time. 3/50. When I got the progress card, I lacked the nerve to show it to my mom. I dropped it on my desk and went out to play, hoping against hope that she would see it. What followed was unspeakable! I shall not get into all that. As Bryan Caplan points out, twin and adoption researches suggest that there is much merit in the “sissy” point of view that children should be treated tenderly, and largely left alone: “If your children’s future success is largely beyond your control, riding them “for their own good” is not just wasteful, but cruel.  The sentimental view that parents should simply cherish, encourage, and accept their children has science on its side.” As much as I didn’t know it then, when I wanted to be treated tenderly and left alone, I had science on my side. I had hard research on my side. But, I was not listened to.

After Junior High, I never really went to classes. I enrolled in an Engineering college which I almost never attended. After bunking classes and flunking courses for long, I dropped out. When I started working, I didn’t have a degree, though I acquired one which demanded zero effort. It didn’t hurt me to the point that I will go back and change the decisions I have made along the way.

I often hear many argue that they value what they learned in school, and the friends they have made there. And of course, some teachers were nice. (Yes, nice. I would very much love to see all of them boarded on a flight in which the pilot is just a nice, likeable guy. It would be quite a scene.) To cut it short, their arguments amount to this: “You are such a big loser to have missed out on all the fun we had in school.” I can only paraphrase Rambo, “What you call home, I call hell.”

It should be obvious that what they like is not school as such, but the whole package which comes with schooling. A school is typically better than simply sitting at home and watching “Tom and Jerry”. If someone is stupid enough to believe that school teaches you something which you cannot learn otherwise, it is always the person whose rational faculties are not fully developed.

Whenever I ask people whether they use much of what was taught in school or college, they invariably answer: “No”. Do they remember much of what they learned in school? The answer is again, “No”. Yet, they are all convinced that without schooling, they would have been selling ladies’ socks in the Green park market. My roommate is an Assistant manager in a Dry-cleaning company. I am not sure, but, it is safe to assume that his knowledge of the dry-cleaning business is as deep as my knowledge in fluid mechanics. Someone who studied Computer Science and Marketing and finally end up barking “Citibank” will in all likelihood believe that college made him what he is. When asked to explain themselves, they will hem and haw, “I think I studied logic, reasoning and analysis at IIT. There is a lot of number-crunching and problem solving. I didn’t like it much, but at least I finished engineering. (Unlike you, loser!)” The fact that logic, reasoning and analysis can be learned elsewhere studying what really matters is some ultra-sophisticated reasoning which has never occurred to them.

Centuries of research in educational psychology and “Transfer of Learning” literature suggests that the argument that you are “learning to learn” in college is rather spurious. There is a short term effect learning has on IQ, but it fades out soon. All things considered, no one become a better banker by studying computer science in college. One can be much better off learning Banking itself. Students forget much of the Computer Science they have learned in college, if they have learned anything at all. More importantly, much of the Computer Science you learn in college is useless for any job in any case. The situation is much worse in Math, liberal arts and physical sciences for almost all students. Who seriously believes that differential calculus or business cycle theory will help a typical student who is at his best good enough for subaltern jobs?

So why are employers credentialists? Bryan Caplan answers:

“Suppose you’re interviewing a smart guy, without a college degree, and he offers you a money-back guarantee. You might think “What a great deal” and accept. But then again, you might start thinking “What a weirdo. What’s wrong with him?” And this, I propose, is the stumbling block to lots of worthwhile innovations. A person with an unconventional idea may have a point, but is also unlikely to be “normal.” He may not fit it with other people. He may have problems with authority. He may be deviant in more ways than one!

Confession: I’m one of the weirdos. I flout all kinds of social conventions. I wear shorts and flip-flops in the winter. I carry a funny cushion around wherever I go. (Don’t ask!) I laugh at inappropriate times. So outside of the best weird economics department in the world, who wants to hire me? If you hear me out, I think I’ve got some good arguments for wearing shorts and flip-flops in the winter. But even if I convinced you, you would probably hesitate to hire me, especially for a “real-world” job. My failure to conform in dress significantly raises the probability that I will fail to conform in more substantive ways. And even if you decide I can wear shorts while everyone else wears suits, what if a client sees me? He may start to think the whole firm is weird.”

I am also one of those weirdos. When I came looking for a job in this Magazine, I didn’t take my resume as I couldn’t see how it would help me. I haven’t bothered to write a proper resume. I got my previous jobs and assignments without such hassles. In any case, how does it even matter? The editor looked at me and said that I should be much more sensible in my communication. I later heard that she told another editor: “He was so weird”. When I went for the interview, he asked sarcastically: “Have you taken your resume and all?”, and then said that he doesn’t need it. If I have it, I can keep it with me. I do not blame them at all, as Economics explains this phenomenon so well. She later said that she interviewed many stupid people the last day and had no reason to believe that I would be any different. Now, this is what economists call “statistical discrimination”.

I have good arguments to support almost everything I do. But even if others listen, it is highly improbable that they will even be able to see my point. As employers have limited time and resources, they rely on some “statistical discrimination”. A college dropout is less likely to be a worthy hire. The same goes for a weirdo. If someone is both (as in all likelihood he is), his resume goes into its rightful place: trash bin. So, normalcy and a college degree signals that you are someone smart enough to get the job done, but conformist enough to be a likeable co-worker and stay focused . In low-IQ, low-paying jobs, the person should be lazy and stupid enough to settle for it, focused enough to get it done, and at the same time willing to work for a pittance. A rare combination, indeed!

I have never had a liking to be taught-and I will be really surprised if someone genuinely likes it. I do not think this is the way children learn, or should learn. The best way to learn a subject, of course, is to pick up an entertaining book and read, branching out in all directions. Only a book can set forth a subject in a coherent, complete and systematic manner. An erudite teacher who can be of some help to students is all but a matter of mathematical probability. If a student badly needs a teacher, I think it is always the kind which cannot learn.

Bryan Caplan has an interesting question for people who believe that students are in college for learning.

“Why do students rejoice whenever a teacher cancels class? From a human capital standpoint, students’ attitude is baffling.  They’ve paid good money to acquire additional skills.   Employers will judge them by the skills their teachers impart.  But when the students’ agent, their teacher, unilaterally decides to teach them less without the slightest prospect of a refund, the students cheer.  How bizarre.  Would a contractor jump for joy when his roofers tell him they’re taking short cuts on the shingles in order to go drinking?”

The hard truth is that however hard they deny, deep down everyone knows that college is all about that piece of paper they will have at the end.

As Bryan writes:

“The best education in the world is already free of charge. Just go to the best university in the world and start attending classes. Stay as long as you want, and study everything that interests you. No one will ever “card” you. The only problem is that, no matter how much you learn, there won’t be any record you were ever there.” So, why doesn’t anyone make use of it in the name of noble pursuit of knowledge?

One of my pet research projects is to see how brainwashing can work on people. Of all the nonsense masses believe in, nothing is more ridiculous than their unshakeable belief in schooling. To most Indians, there is only one path to success: Engineer-MBA-Anonymous. It sets the bar way too low, but like Manu Joseph, I will readily concede that the path of the average Joe at his best is far better than the path of the average Joe at his worst: Sociology-Salesman-Anonymous. There is only one path to national progress: More and more “investment” in public schools orchestrated by the Mommy state that practices tough love. Oh, like Soviet Russia’s “investment in people”?

To lovers of public schooling, the fact that “government spending” is not “investment” is completely besides the point. Compassion should wipe out the fundamentals of Economics. Economics is not exactly a science, but some bourgeoisie prejudice which should never take precedence over the feelings of the great reservoirs of wisdom: bleeding-heart intellectuals. And it is feelings alone that matter. The fact that most imbeciles cannot read, count or even write their own name in their mother tongue after years and years of public schooling is again besides the point.

You are a wicked market fundamentalist if you think that the government should get out of the “child rearing business”. After all, the “Market is not God”. It is often said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. But, if someone believes that the government that has never delivered will somehow start delivering tomorrow with his magic touch, it is perfectly scientific and rational. His pure intentions are never to be questioned. When someone rehashes long-refuted bromides, It is open-minded reasoning unguided by politics. Instead of being called “The humanitarian with the guillotine”, he will be called “The human face of capitalism” and the “The Conscience and the Mother Teresa of Economics”. Ayn Rand was not far off the mark when she wrote that the moral cannibal who snarls that freedom is not required to maintain civilization should be given “an arrowhead and bearskin, not a university chair of economics.”

Does classroom learning even help? In a classroom, injustice is done to all students as no teacher can take into account the diverse needs, capabilities, preferences and future trajectories of students. If formal education doesn’t deliver when it comes to building skills, we would be better off if it doesn’t exist, or is at least not subsidized by the all-knowing state.

I am by no means some naïve libertarian who sings: “The free market will improve every school and child geniuses will become the rule. Our learning will make every nation drool when the Libertarians come to town.” In all likelihood, the free market will improve schooling, but that is not the point. I have no doubt that schooling and coercion are against the spirit of learning. It is also clear to me that most low IQ-low character types will not do well irrespective of the schooling process they go through. Unlike most libertarians who believe that the markets will make education affordable, I think that free markets will make the present-mode formal education completely unfeasible for most students, as it rightly should.

Sarcasm And Social Acceptability

Sarcasm and socially unacceptable behavior has nearly ruined my life in all normal ways. It has also made it incredibly amusing and funny on a deeper and much more important level.

As every human action boils down to trade, I have to admit that overall my strategy was not at all a rip-off. In fact, it was a wonderful deal, a reasonable trade-off.  I have behaved in such a manner for various reasons which are rather complicated. I would say it is often because of my honesty, good-will, benevolence, deep love for humanity-and of course, my naïve, gullible nature!

It is often said that “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit”. We also hear “A sarcastic person has a superiority complex that can be cured only by the honesty of humility.” I have always wondered whether there could be notions which are so far from the truth. How someone of normal intelligence can seriously hold any of these moralistic, “church sermon” like rationalizations is completely beyond me! Rational inquiries of moral philosophers were confined to politically correct, “mushy” virtues like unconditional love, kindness, compassion and benevolence. Even moral philosophers who took pride in their political incorrectness had confined their rigorous analysis to more worthy virtues like integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, pride and of course, selfishness. Very few have anything good to say on one of the most feared, despised, sickening, malevolent, humiliating form of doublespeak which makes people flee and shun the light of the day: sarcasm. When even apostles of selfishness like Nathaniel Branden say “Aside from cases of violent coercion, as when someone points a gun at you, you are responsible for your reactions. No one “makes” you become sarcastic”, we should know that the fate of sarcasm is bleak indeed. A bit of iconoclasm is therefore in order.

We might say that sarcasm is a “conversational scapegoat”, and unfairly so. The socially beneficial effects of sarcasm need to be defended hard. Sarcasm goes against the inflicting person, but it helps the truth reach him faster, in ways which are not too obvious. A man faces a painful dilemma when he faces deeply insulting sarcasm. He is compelled to prove his backbone by a tight slap-or he can listen silently, smiling like an imbecile thinking he is being smart & tactful. The sad fact is that it proves that he has neither intelligence nor a backbone, as the one who hurled the insult might know too well that it is true and didn’t expect a slap, precisely for that reason! I remember an instance when I hurled an insult which hits where it hurts the most-family, and the victim listened silently, not out of fear of a more public humiliation, but because he knew it was just another general, categorical statement intended at no one in particular- and because only truth hurts-and because he was a man of immense self esteem. Well crafted sarcasm puts such a person in the position of a mink that walks blindly into a scented trap. If it hurts so much, it can only be because it is true and such sarcasm deserves the highest praise, not condemnation. Given certain narrow assumptions, truth as such should never hurt the innocent. Like happiness, “Truth” should be considered an Aristotelian “chief good”, pursued for its own sake. As scathing sarcasm is often truth, it should be ranked higher. Continue reading “Sarcasm And Social Acceptability”