Archive for » June, 2012 «

Economists and economics, Sri Lanka


A discussion was broadcast on SLBC today of the planned ‘highway to the North’ – unveiled, it appeared, in the presence of the Minister of Economic Development.  Provokes the question, does it not, of what constitutes ‘economic development’, were we were to classify this project as a good example of it? Let us try to guess the responses of some selected individuals, if asked about the proposed highway. I give below mine. Your guess may be different – and we can easily verify who got it right.

All recognized economists in Sri Lanka are probably readying their statements anyway, even before being asked, for they know their opinion will be sought.

The main commentator on the radio was speaking admiringly of the Minister’s vision – who, we were told, had recommended that the engineers straighten out the bends in the charted course. This would ensure that the trip would not be needlessly slowed, he explained. Imagine the tons of fuel saved if we reduce travel time just by 5 minutes, said our commentator, lauding the minister’s astonishing insight. We may have had even more profound economic observations had the other cabinet authority on money matters not been languishing in an unconnected ministry. All this would be duly praised in the state media.

A citizen not-so-well informed on matters of economic development may have preferred to see bypasses, one way systems, flyovers, diversions or whatever else possible to ease travel past the spots of worst traffic congestion she encounters daily, over ensuring that an expressway was constructed arrow-straight. There is clearly a great deal of economic development thinking that we uneducated members of the public need to be taught. (There is still a role for economics gurus currently housed in education.)

Had we consulted that other fount of wisdom, the opposition’s spokesperson on monetary matters, what would He have said? Or what is he preparing to say? (I apologize if he has already made a seemingly thoughtful and perceptive comment of which I am still unaware. Quite likely too, for this is too big an issue for the pretentious to ignore.) My guess is that his will be a long winded piece of jargonese amounting to, ‘This is basically a good thing but bad because the timing is wrong’. (Read: Our party is not in the driving seat.) His fans who write columns on economic matters to the privately owned newspapers will expand his basic argument even further. Commissions and kickbacks going into people of the wrong party will lead to indignation and be ‘bravely’ condemned ‘despite the risk of a visit of a white van’.

The sole true left party has no economic spokesperson to ask, given its egalitarian outlook (not only regards wealth but also on expertise of any kind). We will likely have its exhausted speakers saying how all the nation’s problems (including the current demand for bigger salaries by non-academic staff of the universities, the high cost of living and, of course, dengue) could easily have been solved using the money already wasted preparing the blueprint for the expressway . When your supporters are limited to individuals who applaud the first statement you make and equally readily applaud your third statement, even if it happens to contradict your first, you lose the ability to think.

‘Representatives of the Tamil population’, including the strident gentleman from Colombo, are likely to declaim that decisions about what ‘development’ the Tamil people want should be decided by the Tamil people. They will of course be referring to the ordinary Tamil citizens. These (no longer sole) representatives of the Tamil people aren’t likely to notice the fact that the ordinary Sinhala or other citizen too has no say at all over such big ‘development’ decisions. Whether they want a straight line road right through to Jaffna or one with an occasional gentle curve here and there or no such mega road at all is not a matter that the non-Tamil citizen has a say over, either. Nor the ‘satha sivupawa’ that we talk about with such loving kindness on poya days. But the no-longer-sole-representatives notice only the powerlessness of the class they consider human – or indeed sentient.

The most powerful decision makers on issues such as these are the economists. They know what is good for us. Virtually all economists allowed a voice will commend, or at least grudgingly support, projects like this one. The ignorant public has no capacity to judge. A Senior Minister posturing as well-versed in economics has as much power to decide as, say, fifteen million citizens. What development means is known only to the club. Others must go along and be happy at being developed. What the club of economic experts considers the goal of development is never open to question. Contrary opinions are not allowed sustained exposure – whether in the state media, the private media or other channels. Does it make sense to build mega highways when we sense that fuel prices will rise so fast that only millionaires and state VIPs will be able to get enough juice in their tanks for long distance travel – even before the project is completed?  Economists know the answer. So build.

Confront our Senior Minister and raise even the mildest objection, and my prediction is that he will tell you, ‘It is because of people like you that we can’t develop this country’. He knows what development is, you don’t.




Uphill flows the dough


Money, unlike other forms of gravy, prefers to flow upwards. It climbs effortlessly uphill, from the bottoms of near-empty pockets of the poor to the tops of brimming pouches of those upstream, propelled by a mysterious anti-gravity force. And it’s been doing so with added vigour, these last few decades.


‘All to the good’, learned economists will say, while others of the discipline, equally erudite, despair. The rest of us can take our pick on whim. We can readily locate an ‘economics scholar’ to quote, whatever opinion we want bolstered.


Is life collectively better the greater the gaps in wealth among us? Or do our lives, in sum, improve as disparity dwindles? The answer is blowing in the airwaves. If we take note of economists who dominate discussion in our mass media we’d likely conclude that greater gaps in income and of wealth lead to increased social wellbeing and development. This conclusion is comforting, in that our wish to ensure the public good is so easy to realize. We aren’t obliged to do much – for capital anyway flows effortlessly towards the wealthy from the poor. All we need do is nothing.  Money, left alone, will trickle up along its natural channels and create increasing disparities among the citizenry. And we have the comfort of knowing, on the authority of the better-known and oft-quoted economists, that everybody will eventually have a good time as a consequence. Leave wealth unimpeded to do its thing, and all of humanity will be served, soon enough.


Should, on the other hand, we happen to heed certain other economists, we’d be quite perturbed. They are, fortunately, a rarer breed and not seen and heard much. So their opinions are unlikely to reach our ears. If they did, we’d feel obliged to work to reduce disparities of wealth – in other words, to challenge the natural direction of flow of wealth.


Reversing the natural upward flow of resources takes much effort and often leads to grief. This is the lesson we have learnt from studying events over the years. We know, almost by instinct now, that egalitarian societies are an utopian illusion, which, if people are stupid enough to pursue, always leads to widespread misery. We have learnt from history that allowing money to do its thing and accepting the inescapable increases in inequality is the way to lift the suffering masses out of poverty – eventually. How we have come to such an understanding merits examination. Whatever we discover about its genesis, this widespread tenet of economics will remain secure. We shall heartily defend it against heretics.


The things we dearly hold to be true and are most passionate in defending are usually the favored doctrines of dominant forces. Our intense beliefs are generally those nurtured and shaped by authorities on politics, economics and, for quite a few, religion. And the views backed by all of these establishments support increased social disparities rather than greater equity. But there is within many of us an opposing urge as well – to see a fairer world. This troublesome impulse runs counter to current mainstream religious, political and economic precept and practice – to which too we subscribe. Many of us, at the same time as we are naturally impelled to support the underdog and oppose inequity, are pleased that the urge for social justice has been tamed.


Inequality has a strong bearing on the nature and the feel of the world we together construct. Its causes and consequences are carefully examined by assorted experts but, like most other things of consequence, aren’t publicly shared or widely discussed. What we are able easily to discover are the conclusions that our handlers want us to find. But deeper realities are interesting to search for. Who controls my opinions and how? Such exploration can at least relieve the tedium of our dominant distractions.


Always questioning our own beliefs is no more difficult than continuously reinforcing them – and is certainly less boring. And there are other favorable spinoffs. We may, while making our lives more interesting, do some good to the wider world too.


I suggest that we start by questioning why we support certain political and policy actions, and not their opposite, in response to economic inequality.


Published 17.6.2012, The Nation



Violence as epidemic



Violence is a vector-borne epidemic. As in other epidemics where the vector is human, mass media are a strong engine of spread.  The spread of violence then is rather like that of tobacco and alcohol, suicide and obesity. A public health model should help.

Petty violence appears to be driven by ‘personal’ forces. We must learn now to look at the sources that make disputes surface as blows – and also as bloodless hurt. When a society is trained to express things in certain ways, it does submissively so. Watch for how we are being trained by unseen agents, overt and covert, to go for each other.

Higher up in the scale is mutual destruction by opposing sects, ‘races’ and nations. Overt and covert, planned and unwitting, human hands – and brains – stoke these conflicts. It’s no accident that deaths are mostly of the poor, on all sides.  So too the anguish and pain.

But to see it on telly, you’d think that the agony was suffered by rich ladies and gents spokespersoning for victims captured on ‘film’. And of course enhanced to move the emotionally fatigued but always benevolent global powers. Oh yes, the good fight is strongly driven from above.

All such forces can be countered by deploying the means we already use, to tackle other epidemics.






Week and days gone by


A superb week or day goes by.

In a magical day or week a new person one selects to spend time with turns out to be a delight. The ‘not new’ persons encountered also exceed their usual.  On incredible days, the way one sees life, or lives it, is challenged. On such charmed days, even a few minutes spent on television bring joy and insight.

(Six overs yesterday, left Pakistan in shambles.)


When Malinga opts to bowl, with sincere artistry

Victory is hardly in doubt

We may not find against his name

A five wicket haul.

But a win is somehow found.


Professionals must on no day rest

Doing their thing at less than best


—————————————- —————— ———————————-


Among things we do, some bring more joy than others. Benefits from a lifetime’s actions appear suddenly and in unexpected ways. If we aren’t alert, opportunities pass us by. So too if we aren’t greedy enough.


Nurture others, so they may all surpass you

and be ready to harvest the joys and pleasures

this brings


—————————————- —————— ———————————-


We can no longer sit back and let the trend persist.


Inequality is iniquitous

not only when extreme

But also when needless.


The worst forms of disparity often concern wealth.

But lots of other crucial gaps

are calculated less


Being in the highest 1%  -  of money or of wealth

May relegate us to bottom rungs

On vital other things


So where do we stand in rankings

of different kinds of lists?



—————————- ———————– ——————–



Minout and Sona are recently married but have hardly any time for each other, for they want their careers to develop fast. She is angry with him this morning as he’d forgotten to top up their car with fuel yesterday. Now they have to spend precious minutes at the filling station in the rush hour. She is never late to work, where she works terribly hard to get ahead of the other juniors in the company. Every minute in the morning is precious.


She is still angry as she screeches into the filling station. Her hostility is directed also at the strikingly handsome guy, who comes up to her window at the filling station, as she asks him to top up the tank.  The guy has a name tag on his pocket saying ‘Oyat’ and is not at all upset that she is initially rude. He flashes a brief smile at her, and gives her a seductive glance as well, while he gets on with his task. In the meantime an exquisitely attractive girl who has come up to her husband’s window cleans the glass and asks him if there is anything more he wants done. She is in a uniform matching Oyat’s and has a name tag saying ‘Mathe’. Despite their incredible good looks and seductive charm, Oyat and Mathe don’t quite capture Minult and Sona’s attention today.  The couple don’t note, or even notice, the names of these two people working at the fuel pump. It is as if they don’t even consider the gas station attendants, Oyat and Mathe, human.


Oyat and Mathe are indeed non-human.  This is Zombia.  All routine tasks here are carried out by life-like machines called ‘manoids’ (also known as zombies). Humans in Zombia work in companies and compete to get ahead in a hierarchy called ‘Management’.  The company eventually profits from tasks carried out by armies of manoids they own or control. Most of the staff’s time is spent in front of electronic devices and machines that have to be fed incessantly. Food for these devices and machines is what humans enter into them, based on their business acumen, experience and intuition. These eventually translate into what the manoids owned by the company will do.


Juniors like Minout and Sona make relatively unimportant decisions, strictly according to the guidelines set by people higher than them. Some instructions come from bosses they have never seen. But the bosses have a way of knowing whether each junior’s decisions have been of high or low productivity and profit. Humans must spend great effort to become more productive – but they are well compensated for their efforts and success. Most important is growth. Measured by the increase of profit this month compared to the previous month, growth is the agreed true indicator of success. Real achievers set weekly growth targets. Working for these targets is tiring.


When people striving all day to make their company grow feel hungry or tired, they are looked after at the workplace itself. Food can be had at the company eatery, where manoids serve their order at the desired time. When exhausted, staff may utilize the day’s quota of minutes at the staff spa. Facilities allow them to swim, meditate, do their yoga or tai-chi, jog or pit themselves against exercise machines. If a manoid is free they can engage her or him in any sport or game, order varied massages and manipulations, enjoy sex of whatever kind or indulge in any other activity of their choice. But they may not damage a manoid in any way. The penalty for damage to a manoid is heavy, unless it can be justified in a court where manoids have no representation. Prison sentences too may result from conviction.


(Prisons are run by humane officers with the help of purpose-designed manoids. They look rather different from the ones outside and are designed to implement various strategies that punish offenders in subtle ways. Minor offenders are made to sit immobile and eat all day, watching entertainment projected on large screens until their body mass index exceeds 31. (Nobody in the outside world has a BMI over 27.) More serious offenders are guided to smoke tobacco until that takes precedence over every other activity. And they are trained to hate anyone who may try, after they are released, to persuade them to reconsider smoking for the rest of their lives. They are tutored to love only the prison manoids who coached them to smoke regularly. Really serious offenders are made to spend all their time with no direct human contact. Unnoticed manoid manipulation makes them prefer interactions via electronic messages, images and feelies, over actual direct physical contact with others. Once properly trained, they continue to interact only through the internet, even after release from prison, and never speak to or touch another human directly.)


The company facilities to which staff members are entitled increase as they rise in the hierarchy. What those at the topmost levels enjoy is not even known by those below. These are said to include the privilege of controlling large armies of manoids. Not only can they have any kind of manoid they may fancy designed and delivered to them, but they may also destroy, play games with or torture vast numbers. These can be incidental accompaniments or the central element in competitions conducted against other top executives. Top rungers may indulge in manoid destruction simply as personal entertainment, and watch through remote eyes the near human creatures suffer or scream convincingly. Of course it is all good fun – manoids don’t feel anything. Technically they are beneath torture, so everything is above board too.


Minout and Sona don’t really care about the manoids that populate their world. These zombies may look and act in every way human but real people know that they are only around to provide desired services or as objects of commerce or games. Having been produced to a level of near-perfection, manoids are now considered almost a sub-species of humans – and rated far higher than real chimpanzees. Some misguided people are suspected of secretly treating their personal manoids like humans – even showing them affection at times. If there are indeed such unsavoury individuals, they make sure that their quirk is not recognized by anyone.


Minout and Sona are thankful for the good life they have and the better one they’ll soon achieve through their diligence and intelligence. Zombia, they know, is as close to paradise as we can get. And their belief in being chosen eventually to enter the real and eternal heaven is unshakeable. Until then, there are the manoids, ever present but visible only when it suits us, to entertain us in unthinkably varied ways.


But there’s a little secret that Sona does not know. Nor Minout.

It’s too easy for us, standing apart, to figure it out – but so, so unlikely they ever will.