The news culture has long disappointed many of us who have always wanted to be writers. As things stand, journalistic writing has little artistic value. The journalistic pieces of an H.L. Mencken, Ambrose Bierce, Frederic Bastiat are “indisputably the most underrated kind of literature”, but the hot topics of the day are of little historical importance. The importance of news is all but a mass delusion. It is far more sensible to rely on the work of an eminent historian than on a reporter’s rush job. Things can wait. It is ridiculous to elevate journalism into a superior form of analysis or literature, when very few journalists in the whole of human history can be considered guilty of building rigorous systems of thought.
I tend to agree with Times of India’s new advertisement, though not necessarily in a literal sense: “Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom.” Rolf Dobelli is probably right: “I don’t know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie – not a writer, not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist, musician, designer, architect or painter. On the other hand, I know a whole bunch of viciously uncreative minds who consume news like drugs.”
Honestly, I do not know the Vice-President of India. I do not even know the Chief Minister of my own state. But, how do I care? I have never voted and never will. The reason goes far beyond the nausea evoked by the tweedledum-tweedledummer choice, but is as simple: Probability. It is obvious that I do not have a snowball’s chance in hell of affecting the electoral outcome. How are daily events of any relevance to me unless I work within the media? If someone prefers glossy pictures to such worthless bits, it is perfectly fine with me, as his time is well spent.
I will use my television as an electronic baby-sitter if and when I have a baby. “No Television for a week” is the harshest disciplining tool a tender-hearted parent can think of. But, that is about it. Someone should pay me heavily if I should read these publications cover to cover. Ayn Rand was right: “I can’t stand the columnists and editorials. It is so monstrous that to read some fool discussing seriously something like the San Francisco conference is worse than a waste of time: It is like listening to a raving maniac, and a vicious one.”
Journals and Magazines written by eminent scholars, like “The Freeman” or “The Cato Journal” are worth one’s time. But, still I think there is far more enjoyable literature to spend my time on. Anyone can read more than four dozen books a year by simply unsubscribing to the daily newspaper. If there is any problem with it, I am still not able to see it.
But, there is of course someone who evokes my most brutish passions, though I am yet to read him: the omniscient Sainath. Radical libertarians might argue that some third world reporter who rehashes the same old bromides, again, cannot be an object of “analysis”. But, I have to say that It is not the quality of the desired object that gives us pleasure, but rather the energy of our appetites.
But, if you are bitten by the bleeding-heart liberal humbug, consider this: You are having bronchitis. The doctor examines your symptoms and writes a brilliant report. The doctor is very “sincere”, fraudulently so. The report is evocative and accurate. The doctor thinks that the general public should be warned of the trauma of chronic diseases-that they should be enlightened. After all, it never occurs to the healthy that there could be a horrible thing such as a “disease”! They are from planet Mars. His views are considered an injection of hard reality into our otherwise hedonistic lives. He has a simple cure for your ailment: “To shoot you”. And more: He wants his cure to be enforced through legislation, because it would create paradise on earth. Would you seek the service of such a doctor? He is not lacking in passion or empathy. He is sincere. He is a hero by the virtue of raising the general public’s consciousness. Is it possible at all that something else can matter?
In all likelihood, you would run for your life if he is to have a say in your treatment because the cure is worse than the disease. Curiously enough, he is the court physician with a huge influence over the Mommy State. The Prime Minister Chacha Manmohan S Gandhi meets him before visiting disease-stricken regions. You are frightened by his rabid eyes. But, then you do not have much of an option, do you? Aren’t you far better off with a pretty doctor who is at most guilty of corrupting your soul by taking off her clothes if that be your wish? I think this has to be understood before trying to make any sense out of the Ad wars between “The Times of India” and “The Hindu”, and of course, in order to see through the “fraudulent concern for issues” in the Mainstream media.
The policy prescriptions of P Sainath are not too unlike what I have always heard. Virtually no one disagrees that the “Government should do something about the plight of the less fortunate.” Almost everyone agrees that the state should shell out more and more to make little Johnny read, to cure him of his illness, and to keep him clad and well fed. An overwhelming majority of intellectuals have held the same position as far as we can go back in history. The rest are just a matter of superficial details. Very few pro-capitalistic columnists in the country would disagree with it in so explicit a manner. But, there is something that distinguishes Sainath from his contemporaries: It is not his analysis, intentions or the nobility of his mission. It is his willingness to man the barricades to fulfill his mission. He does what many of his admirers “feel” that they should do. He is raucously everywhere.
Let us consider some of his arguments:
Take the “frightening” claim that the maternal mortality figures of India are as much as the total maternal morality figures of Nigeria, Afghanistan and Congo together. But, our clever reporter did not mention that the population of India is five times the total population of these three countries taken together. As many analysts pointed out, there are only two possibilities. 1) Sainath is either not smart enough to learn the concept of per-capita mortality, or 2) He is manipulating figures to scare his readers.
Farmer suicides are now quite fashionable, driving libertarians to sing, “I’m surfing the web and writing a blog. I’ve eaten heartily and will sleep like a log, while farmers are dying in Vidarbha.” The reason is simple: They are allowed to sell their land for non-agricultural purposes, and switch occupations when reality demands that they do so.But, Sainath, apparently, is pained by the “drama of millions leaving their homes in search of jobs that are not there. Of villages swiftly losing able-bodied adults, leaving behind the old, hungry and vulnerable. Of families that break up as their members head in diverse directions.”
The hard truth is that migration to urban areas is absolutely necessary for economic development. People move out and improve their lot when it makes financial sense for them to do so. No credible economist on earth would disagree with this obvious fact. It is process which materialized in developed nations several decades back. As Manu Joseph writes, “After all, a village is a petty place — filled with old grudges, comical self-importance and imagined fears.”
As Salil Tripathi points out, “Sainath also lamented that eight million people have given up farming in the past decade and many are looking for urban jobs “that are not there”. Really? As the informal sector of unorganized workers is far larger—and undocumented—on what basis can one conclude that there are no jobs for migrant labor in towns and cities? And what’s wrong with a few million farmers giving up farming? Many economists have shown that Indian farm productivity is low because the land-holdings are too small, making efficient farming unviable. There are too many Indians trying to work as farmers and many would prefer to do something else. The land is not productive; agriculture’s share of India’s wealth is declining, and the sector is not growing rapidly. A transition to services or industry is a good thing.”
Sainath often chides his readers and contemporaries for their lack of moral outrage: “Your average family is consuming 100kg less of food grain than it consumed a decade ago. Where is your outrage?” But, he is silent on the fact that the consumption of food grains goes up very little after people have crossed the level of starvation (Engel’s Law). People switch from food grains to expensive food items like fish, meat or egg when their income level goes up. When the calorie consumption of food grains comes down, it need not follow that people are undernourished. It is often an indication that people are well fed than ever–that food consumption is in fact, going up. These are basic economic facts which no writer on economic issues should be ignorant of.
Contrary to the claims of most “intellectuals”, there was a radical rise in the living standards of Indians after the economic reforms. After 1990, the per capita income in India went up from $300 to $1,700. The literacy rate rose from 52.2% to 74% in two decades, which is unprecedented in the nation’s history. Within two years after the reforms, India restored its financial stability and in the next three years, the economic growth averaged 7.5%. People suffering from hunger fell from 17.3% in 1983 to 2.5% by 2005. The six backward states of India had grown faster than the national average after the economic reforms. The improvement in the literacy rates in the poorest states surpassed the improvement in the national literacy rate by a wide margin.
Sainath and the bleeding-heart establishment claim that they are being persecuted and marginalized by the corporatist media. But, the sad truth is that almost every “idealistic” youngster in the profession wants to be his clone. Most libertarians I know thinks very highly of his reporting, even when their idol gives nothing but scorn and ingratitude in return. If you know someone who thinks that farmer suicides are irrelevant, you have found someone who is psychologically abnormal, someone who is malicious. A perceptive man wouldn’t even entertain the philosophical possibility that the mentally stable would even trifle with such a position.
In my eight years as a libertarian, I haven’t read a single free market thinker who holds the intentions that Sainath and other anti-capitalist intellectuals project on them. Sainath’s caricature of market sympathizers is a straw man. There are only two possibilities. 1) They haven’t read any genuinely capitalistic intellectual. 2) They are guilty of some deliberate misrepresentation.
Consider these facts: P Sainath is the rural affairs editor for “The Hindu”, and a Magsaysay award winner. He had won dozens of awards over the last three decades, national and international. Some of these awards were given by the rival newspapers of “The Hindu”. Sainath has a say on the policy decisions of many Indian states. Dozens of leading newspapers including “The Times of India” find space for columns on poverty and development. “Everybody Loves a Good Drought” was the No. 1 Non-Fiction best seller in India for quite a while. Manu Joseph writes that his Magazine “receives so many story pitches from foreign-returned journalism students who want to do only bleeding-heart stories—the trauma of child labour, the plight of village women and the agony of stray dogs.” I do not know whether the sane are willing to tread the path of Gautam Buddha for “respectability”, laurels and power, but it is crystal clear that his approach to reporting and journalism is very much hip and cool. If bleeding-heart journalism is a concert, it is hard to deny that Sainath is the rock star.
Whatever the merits of his political inclinations, it is simply not true that his stance does not pay in terms of positions, power or respectability. Facts tell a story that is precisely the opposite.
Now, is the media infested with “gaggles of elegantly clad and very earnest young men and women speaking breathlessly about The Market”, as the all-knowing Sainath contemptuously remarks? Do libertarian ideologues hold powerful positions in the media? Let us look at the evidence. Pro-market columnists like Deepak Lal, Jagdish Bhagwati, Nirvikar Singh, T. N. Srinivasan, Pranab Bardhan and Subroto Roy are academics based in the US. Bibek Debroy is an Indian academic. Gurcharan Das is a full time writer. Sharad Joshi is a politician. Parth J Shah and Barun Mitra run pro-capitalistic think tanks. Surjit Bhalla heads Oxus Investments. Ashok V Desai, the consulting editor of BusinessWorld and Swaminathan Aiyar, the consulting editor of Economic Times are the only pro-market columnists who have held positions of some significance in the financial press. I cannot emphasize more that none of these columnists believe that the markets should replace the government, or that the market is “God”. They at most want the government to be restricted to the largest extent possible. Almost all of them are firm believers in democracy. They are as far from the left, as they are from the capitalistic ideal. The sole exception, perhaps, is, Sauvik Chakraverti who thinks that it is about time that we “throw the rascals out”. If I am not wrong, he now writes for his own blog.
But, there is one thing that I do not understand. Free market thought is almost non-existent in India. There is no genuine opposition to Sainath and his ilk. What we have is a bunch of cowardly apologists. Yet, anti-capitalistic intellectuals are vaguely uncomfortable. They continuously assert that free market ideas are long discredited, and conjure up a scary scenario in which capitalistic intellectuals are bullying the partisans of the poor. If the argument has always been one-sided, why do they find it necessary to lay the ghost of the free market?
There is of course, another problem. Like academia and the non-profit industry, a person who is likely to enter the media is more likely to be a reformer, an activist and a do-gooder, when a decent man would prefer doing good work and enjoying the little pleasures in his life. Beneath all his pretensions, somewhere deep down he knows that he had betrayed something he never should have, and that it was his own mind. In the middle of the night when an anxiety strikes him, he stares into a vacuum and blinks.
A decent man would be more than happy to see the world reformed, and he would welcome such advances. But, he would have the serenity to know that his barbaric fellow beings are beyond reform and repair. He would have better things to do than being the “Messiah of the poor” or the “Conscience and Mother Teresa of Economics”. He would have better things to do than spending 250 days a year in rural India or walking 5,000 kilometers bare foot.
The words of the great novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand are relevant: “It’s simple to seek substitutes for competence—such easy substitutes: love, charm, kindness, charity. But there is no substitute for competence. It’s easier to donate a few thousands to charity and think oneself noble than to base self-respect on personal standards of personal achievement. They have no concern for facts, ideas, work. What would happen to the world without those who do, think, work, produce?” It is clear to me that conventional virtues are by no means a substitute for ability. Sound judgment matters far more than sensory perception. Systematic learning, thought and creativity matters far more than mere “feelings” and brute effort.
If sincerity is vastly overrated and often counterproductive, isn’t it obvious that the Problem lies elsewhere? Couldn’t the problem be still what the great H.L. Mencken observed?
“Journalists are, as I knew, mainly duds. There are managing editors in the United States, and scores of them, who have never heard of Kant or Johannes Muller and never read the Constitution of the United States; there are city editors who do not know what a symphony is; there are reporters by the thousands who could not pass the entrance examination for a Harvard or Tuskegee, or even Yale. In general, journalism suffers from a lack of alert and competent professional criticism; its slaves, afflicted by a natural inferiority complex, discountenance free speaking as a sort of treason.”
After noting that Mencken’s words are, “True in 1924 and Truer today.”, Mark Judge adds
“On more than one occasion — and I’m sure I’m not the only one — I have had to slow down for a journalist interviewing me and explain to them basic concepts about the story they are writing. These people just are not intellectuals. Many don’t even read books. They also are deeply insecure and will brook no criticism”