Tuesday, August 4, 2020

a balloon ride, 10k views and some clarity

The last few days have been quite eventful. 

We went to Hunter Valley, a beautiful place, and thanks to Sravani, rode a hot air balloon. I was skeptical about it assuming that I'd be bored standing in a soaring basket for an hour but it turned out to be an amazing experience. The weather was a delight and the ride was incredible. One of the things we didn't realise until the pilot mentioned it, and which seems obvious in hindsight, is that because the balloon is propelled by the wind, you don't really feel movement. Because you're not fighting against the environment, it feels calm and reassuring. Take what life lessons you want from that. We were also thrilled to have a Masterchef-ish fine dining lunch and it was another memorable experience in its own right. Third anniversary turned out to be, despite our sour mood for not being able to cross the state, unexpectedly good.  

In other news, I sent the Cinema Kaburlu essay to Baradwaj Rangan sir as a submission for Reader's Write-in because I felt a few of his readers might enjoy watching it. He said he couldn't publish an already published work but said that he and his team liked the video a lot and asked if we were open to it being published on Film Companion South. That was an offer we couldn't resist and so now it's on their Youtube channel with over 10k views, way above anything I could've hoped for. 

More interestingly, after a brief mail from Meheranna got me thinking, I had the wonderful luck to read and discuss Isaac Singer's Gimpel the Fool in the Bangalore Writer's Workshop, and had sort of a eureka moment. Though now the write-up seems like an analysis of Telugu cinema, especially after FC posted it and the discussions that followed, what I was originally trying to understand was the relationship between myths and society. 

Why are we who we are as a people? What shapes our individual worldviews and our identities as one people? Language, geography and race seem basic but then we started identifying with others based on our shared myths- religion, nation etc. What qualities do we prize in our people, how do we process misfortune, what 'life lessons' do we teach our children? 

The fact that the most basic of our beliefs are learned came into my conscious thought after I had the immense fortune to read Erich Fromm's Man in Capitalist Society (which I haven't finished yet) and Rick Roderick's Masters of Suspicion (an astounding tour de force of intellectual history). And because I watched these films around the same time, I thought I saw patterns in them that reflected what I was learning. So I used those films to understand what Fromm and Roderick were saying. The film comparison actually started after listening to Devdutt Pattanaik compare Rama & Krishna to Rajnikanth. Then I was able to put those two together and say that:
    1. since so much of the 'Hindu' worldview (avatars, karma, bhagwan stuti, rebirth etc.) comes from our 'religious' stories- stories of gods, their devotees and the relationships of the god when s/he takes a human form
    2. since that must have percolated into the minds of writers as it does to most of us, 
Our stories (predominantly film because that's our only true pop culture) must reflect those ideologies. And we probably like them so much because they meet our expectations of what the protagonist does.

Another learning from this entire process is that though I've always treasured bottom-up, organic learning, top-down, conscious questioning also has its uses. 

Good stuff. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Justice- class 10

Notes from class

What is the relationship between theory and practice? What is the relationship between individual responsibility, with limited power,  and the obligation of justice?

There is an interweaving variable between theory and practice- that's politics.

Two facts of politics :    
    a. there are many of us
    b. we profoundly disagree
How does theory of justice respond to these two?

A theory should grant us:   
    a. all of us equal, moral standing (unlike with nature and animals where it might be benevolent but one-sided). Other people need to be treated as independent.
    b. i. we might disagree that we should treat each other independently. So everything that follows might be moot including "do unto others.." and that "I have no natural authority over you (not even I'm smarter than you, so I have authority over you)". I have been endowed by god, or birth, or something is becomes valid. This is not a political conception because it's not taking the other person's moral right or difference seriously.
        ii. and even if we agree on the previous point, the problem of disagreement becomes an even more challenging problem- To come up with a moral rule that acknowledges our plurality and difference and yet to come up with laws that all of us agree with.

Social Contract Theory from Rousseau to John Rawls.

The realm of politics is the realm of legitimacy and persuasion. It is not a domain of taking a pre-existing truth and imposing it on the world.

The problem of truth in politics is very particular- It is simply that we disagree. So we could go round in circles or undermine the other's legitimacy.

How do we agree that our world stands on equality and moral legitimacy- By acting like that.

"The powerful can do what they want and the weak must suffer what they can"- This is also one form of negotiation. By putting a gun to your head. But for us to feel legitimate, both parties must feel that this is an agreement that they would've freely chosen.

In a modern society, politics is the only bridge between theory and practice- You can't say I'm god's regent or a philosopher king.

Kant- "The only authority we have is the free agreement of reasoning beings"

How do get people included in this circle of politics?- Jews and Palestinians, Hindus-Muslims, racism etc.
One way to think of the advancement of justice- The cause of justice is the cause of giving more and more people equal standing by overcoming arbitrary factors.

Richard Rorty- "Justice is simply the expansion of loyalties".

"Just because of who you are there is no reciprocity of rights" - That is the problem of ethnic exclusion. The harder question is why do we do this, why do we feel like denying some people a fundamental political relationship? Earlier we did this on hierarchy, now we do it on difference. This question cannot be solved by theory of justice and one way to do it is to understand your own psychology. The activity of politics is to bridge the gap between unjust reality and just theory by crafting new relationships between us. 

participant: Education entitlement- what if the other knows less, what do we do then?
participant: When you put it this way, you've reduced politicians to managers of principles of justice.
participant: Is fascism a form or politics or is it outside the realm of politics?
participant: Foucault's Discipline and Punish- Problem of justice is the problem of distribution of power.
prof: According to Foucault, all constituencies of human relationship is power through and through. Even this, the fact that we should mutually agree is infact an imposition of a certain demand. "Why should I justify myself for anything?" Also, there is something dangerous and insidious in saying that because you consented to some laws, you are bound by them now. A mad king who said because I have power, in any way, I can take your head off for a crime. As brutal as that is it is atleast clear and out in the open. The problem with us justice folks is that we try to, in sense, rationalise it. Because we agreed to these procedures, now that you have committed a crime, it's not us that are punishing you but yourself. 
Duryodhana- "Justice just is the interest of the stronger in which we get the weak to participate to legitimize the chains we bind them in"- Thrasymachus, Nietzsche, Marx, Foucault all say something like this.
Marx- "The nice thing about feudal power is that nobody pretended otherwise"
Even asserting that we are free and equal is a form of intimation
Response 1: Performative contradiction- Even the skeptics don't believe their skepticism because if I exercised power against them, their personal reaction would be a feeling of injustice, not understanding and acceptance of power relationship experientially.
The idea is to expand this feeling to others as well.
Response 2: Practical- We are individual but we also like the goods of social co-operation. To say that just the fact of social co-operation puts us at the mercy of somebody else, although that's true to some extent, it is difficult to imagine a human condition without a social contract.
Either the skeptics can occupy an ultra-anarchist position or it has to occupy a nihilistic position- There are no questions of legitimacy or justice to be asked.
Response 3: More ambitious- Why is the theory of justice good for me outside of utilitarian and pragmatic answers? On the face of it, it is a huge burden; So why? Plato, in the experiment of Gyges's ring, is the only philosopher who took this question seriously. The essential question is: do we act just for it's own sake or because we're afraid of punishment?
    a. When I say justice is not good for us, what kind of social contract do I have in mind? The good of a just society is that when you are part of it, you gain more pleasure than when you are 'independent'. Would you be protected by security guards all the time? We act as if injustice pays but we don't acknowledge the hidden costs of insecurity, guilt etc.
Reading recommendation: Plato's description of the tyrant. A tyrant is the paradigm of the unjust person. He's the ultimate anti-political creature, someone who's constantly restless. "When do I have enough power such that.. "- the longing is insatiable. When you look at the life of a tyrant, it's a deeply unhappy life.
What is insatiability indicating- that you don't have a conception of your own good.
Would any of you be able to inhabit a completely Darwinian world? Rhetorically it is brilliant but can you imagine and do you want to live in such a world?
Shanti parv, Kant- Being just is good for you. Living with integrity is to live without integral contradiction.
Simone De Beauvoir- The city and the soul are intimately connected. How you are connected to others gives you a sense of your own being?
Stoicism: Whether or not we can make the world just is a different question. What we have is our mind and soul. 
Gandhi: You are the change you want to see in the world. The route through which your transformation changes the world is through exemplarity. At its fundamental articulation, that is what Satyagraha is.

participant: A lot depends on society in which an agent finds himself in. Game theory and incentive structure. What if many are willing to be unjust. Then do I still hold onto my sense of justice?
Sherlock Holmes- "Your grasp of the obvious amazes me"

Bentham: "Any robust theory must begin with equality theory and that we're all self-interested creatures"
Mill: "My worry is that it is not descriptive of people sometimes, but that if everyone believed in this, they would start becoming like that"
Human nature is reflexive in that sense. Often public opinion is a self-fulfilling construct- I act like this because I think this is public opinion and because I act that way, it becomes public opinion.

Gandhi steps out and lifts the pall of fear. It's not that the exemplary hero changes your mind. It's that more people feel empowered because they can now believe that more people are thinking like that.

Levels of difference- You can tolerate someone for having a different view but can you tolerate someone who doesn't believe in the reciprocity principle. When those people come and seek toleration, that difference doesn't have the same moral standing as a political difference. 
What I call the liberal contradiction?
Fully ideological politics is an oxymoron- If you go into politics thinking that the only kind of victory that counts it making the world correspond to your ideology, then chances are you won't take differences seriously. Because you believe you have a monopoly over truth. You have to bring integrity which is very different from ideological purity. Ideological purity is the demand that they must conform to you. Ideology is easier, integrity is much harder. 

"If people disagree with you, let me elect another people"

Free speech and deplatforming people: Their legal rights to speak cannot be abrogated. For instance, you are not free in a classroom. Our fiduciary responsibility is to make everyone comfortable. Free speech is institutionally contextual. There are some things you can't say in a court of law, doesn't mean the court is against free speech. 

Rawls- Basic structure of society. 
State is obviously a sight of justice. Should religious organizations be just, should families be just?
One of the big challenges for a liberal society is that we do grant people freedom of association which means people will choose associations (like a gold club) with an internal structure of authority and exclusivity principles.
Morality or justice appropriate to the state- We should treat each other equally, the state should treat each other equally, authority by consent etc. 
Should all intermediary sights also uphold these rules?
In the name of associational diversity, we have allowed injustices despite knowing that it would play a consequential role in larger society (gender inequality in a house plays out).
We don't want the state to be found on god's word but my religious organization can be run that way. Is the state crossing its limits when it tries to meddle with it? If it tries to impose the same rules as that of state, then is all talk of diversity just lip-service?  
There will be many political parties with each having a different set of rules of membership and thus practising exclusivity of some sort (Eg: if you do not agree with CPI polit bureau diktats, you need to leave). This is not the place to scream democracy.
Is the harm being produced by that intermediate association so large that the state has to step in. And that's tricky because it might not be apparent but so widespread that it has an impact on people as citizens.
Rationalist vs pluralist conception of associational life.
Radhakamal Mukherjee: What keeps a liberal society liberal is that even though no association has liberal power, the sum of it is that the society is liberal because of the fragmentation of power. You are flattening out the wold in a different way.

-Should MPs be allowed to defect?
    a. Because they're part of a democracy, they should be democratic.
    b. If you don't like the party, leave and join a different party. If you violate the rules of a party, you're out.

Michael Walzer- Spheres of justice

Private home owners not letting their houses to people from a certain religion:
    a. My property, my choice
    b. But if it's systemic, institutional discrimination (Eg: no Muslims) though is a problem
        Exclusion where you think the tenant is not going to pay rent is legitimate. 
"People don't give to lawyers because they think lawyers won't vacate and it's hard to defeat them in a court of law"

Bill in Partialiament- Shashi Tharoor- Horizontal discrimination in housing

Q: If my assessment that this person won't pay rent is justified, why not the opinion that says that people from a particular religion are bad tenants? If I can discriminate based on Economic status, why not on religion, gender etc. What is the moral difference?
Libertarians: In things that affect only me, I must be sovereign. 
Boundaries of freedom: Defines harm that is non-questionable

Segregation is interesting because its a lot of individual decisions adding up to social discrimination. 
If black people move into a neighbourhood, the belief is that property prices will dip. Let's assume that most people are not racist but by being rational, they end up discriminating.
Heroes are tipping points because they tap into the suppressed sentiment that I had assumed that no one would do it, so I hadn't done it.
Heroism is an act of faith but there are lots of incidents where people do heroic acts for their own sake but nothing happens. An act of heroism is not enough in itself.
Why is Irom Sharmila not more of a national hero, why are protests against AFSPA not more in the public consciousness?


And with that I finish the course. What an honour it has been to be in the presence of someone as brilliant as Prof. Pratap Bhanu Mehta and to share space with such intelligent, articulate, passionate people. Absolutely loved the course

now reading: Nassim Taleb's Antifragile

Taleb's Fooled by Randomness is one of my favourite books. It gave me frameworks and mental models that I've used extensively, so much so that they've slipped below the radar now. As far as I remember, it was where I discovered Karl Popper and epistemological skepticism (which is a fancy way of saying question and understand where your beliefs and certainties come from and don't be too attached to them). I had many epiphanies while listening to that book, which I did while driving to and from Seal sometime in late 2014. 

Detour: After a long time, the latest eureka moment I had in the presence of a formidable intellect was in one of Prof. Mehta's early Justice classes. I don't remember the exact topic of discussion now but when he was dissecting a social phenomena in mathematical fashion, it struck me that the point of education, the primary purpose of education, is to de-invisibilize the structures shaping our actions, desires and judgements. This is to go beyond first principles, which I believe are more conscious, and find the factors creating them. Infact, in retrospect, I think this realization first came into my consciousness while reading Erich Fromm's Man in the Age of Capitalist Society but I didn't recognise it then. A part of me sees that the triteness of that aphorism but possibly because it wasn't imposed on me and came from experience and struggle, I'm totally enamoured by its power. 

Anyway, I am about to start reading Antifragile, having abandoned Black Swan a few years ago because I found Taleb insufferable and yet because I find him a brilliant, idiosyncratic generalist, I thought I'd give him another shot. This post is as a thought diary of that book reading.


I like the idea of chapter summaries. Yesterday, I heard Samanth Subramaniam talk to Amit Varma about writing (creative) non-fiction in this insightful interview and I had a couple of takeaways:
    1. Essays have primarily two aspects: themes and angles. You may bring a particular lens, economic, sociological, historical etc., to the proceedings, and you look to cover multiple themes- risk, public institutions, urban planning etc.
    2. Good writing has subtext. Themes are stacked in layers and a writer's primary duty is to weave the narrative through them.
Chapter summaries seem to be part of that design framework. And considering how discursive Taleb's writing is, as one reviewer wonderfully put it, fractal-like, it seems a good idea to share it with the reader.

Digression: My writing has always been bottom-up, literally, because I see myself as a transcriber of what floats up, from the depths of my mind, into my consciousness. 
"As if every thought that tumbles through your head was so clever it would be a crime for it not to be shared."- The Social Network
But finally I seem to be able to understand why top-down planning has it's uses. I'm particularly wary of these best-of-both-worlds type answers; The purist in me cringes but how many purists ever get much done? Not only does having the plot clothesline going to free me up from constantly worrying of the next steps of the story, it is going to bring writing into workmanship territory, something I've always admired and respected. 

Monday, July 27, 2020

Justice- class 9

Notes from class

Prof. Mehta appreciates AOC's work. Must tell Sravani.

When we speak of Justice typically, you might say it is forward looking. The idea is to create a new social reality. The other dimension is backward looking- some event happened in the past, the object of justice is to come to terms with that past event.

Is punishment corrective or retributive? 

Reparations- colonialism, slavery, caste, the curious case of South Africa

Truth and Reconciliation commission on Partition, Kashmir etc.

Treaty of Versailles- Keynes thought was fundamentally unjust

The assumption was that reparation was subsumed under current social contract. If our current conditions are made just, where does a question of reparation arise? If the contemporary condition of the historically oppresses is fairly just now, why should we go back into history? Opposition to that concern is that, even if we have made current society more just, there is still an independent issue of wrongs done in the past. 

Question of reparations are not the same as retributive justice. 

Nozick- Just outcomes are whatever come out of free transfers as long as those original positions are just.

If a harm was done in the past, are we, the descendants, responsible for it- How do you attribute causal responsibility? When you think of harm, you should have some baseline account. But how do you actually come to the determination that those people would've been better off if not for your actions (Eg: colonialism).

I don't have to get into a debate if India/ West Africa would've done better if they weren't colonised. It is enough to understand that harm was done- but by who's standard. What is the counterfactual you're thinking while ascertaining that harm?

Warren Hastings trial- Edmund Burks

My thought: A pall is cast on those who are given reservations now for injustice against their predecessors. In that sense, they will keep suffering from social injustice.

Susan Faludi- Backlash

Pankaj Mishra essay on How Germans handled their Nazi ancestry and why doesn't the US or India do it

You could say that I'm not a casteist/ racist/ colonialist, then why should I pay? The issue is not that. It is not about individual responsibility. But because of the patterns that were instituted, you have been and are a beneficiary of something that was acquired "unjustly". You can acknowledge the harm without punishing someone. The act of injustice was perpetuated over centuries. The simple question is: Am I identical to my white ancestors. No but you are part of the structure which created those injustices. You may not have committed the crime but you are a beneficiary.

participant: When the EIC came in, they colluded with Indians for symbiotic gains. 

The problem with people who say let's start with a clean state is that you're not acknowledging the pain and suffering my people had to go through. 

Culturalist argument- "It is true that we are better than other people, that white Americans are doing better than black Americans, is less because of our oppression than inherent flaws in them". This is also a favourite colonialist argument.

"I like my black neighbour but the fact that he moved in means my property price is going down"

There are ofcourse variations but the idea is not to count of every single act in history.

Shashi Tharoor's accusations against British colonialism is similar to caste oppression.

Billy Brant- German chancellor went to Warsaw, got down onto a knee and cry. It is a society coming to terms with its unjust acts. But then again, some actions are easier to account for than others.

participant: Can the Indian state morally ask for reparations from Britain when it hasn't resolved its own internal contradictions.
Prof. Mehta- In principle, the moral quality of the entity asking for the reparation is not important. I may have wronged someone but if I'm also wronged, then I don't need to solve the former to get justice for the latter. It is hypocrisy but it can be done.

Some have argued that caste is way more complex than colonialism. But even colonialism is not simplistic, we're just choosing move convenient options. 

We as colonialists have done wrong but it's not differed from most states always. If the British hadn't done it, maybe the French would've or the Marathas. There is no ideological reason behind this ebb and flow of history.

What is the continuing harm?- We don't know because we can imagine the counterfactuals. But then isn't that the question with any justice? Or any understanding of the past? Also, what about looking at these from a modern lens of what's justice or not? Apparently, this is a classic relatavist's argument: That a wrong was done in the past comes from our standard. And the production of the standard of the time, is a collaborate effect in it's own way. It may look horrible to us but caste seemed to have been accepted then. The perpetrators didn't have epistemic access to our formulation of injustice. They were not moral agents who were capable of seeing the truth as we now see.

participant: Isn't injustice an absolute term or am I always having to compare them to other possible injustices and weigh which is less worse.

Is there ever a closure to this grievance? Today Tharoor says that give me a pound a year as gesture. What if someone comes tomorrow and says that is not enough?

Q: In one of our first classes, we discussed about a modern society considering birth an accident and doing everything, atleast in principle, to bring people to a common, equal ground. Then by constantly bucketing people into different identity groups and saying that there is inherent trauma suffered by some, aren't we negating that axiom? If someone discriminates against me based on my caste or colour now, that's wrong. But if they don't, do they still have to acknowledge and apologise?
A: That's the normative goal. One of the common things about caste, race, gender, colonialism is that you as an individual are part of an ideology that denies your individuality. They are denying you a right to be an individual. The objective of reparation is not to keep you as prisoners of this identity. It's to liberate you from that burden. We are using this as an identifier to understand how freedom has been snatched. 

Judith Butler- Medicolegal issues around gender

Post-Apartheid South Africa- You will make society whole by acknowledging the truth. In order to facilitate truth and reconciliation, you have to move away from retributive justice.
Truth and Reconciliation commission- We want them to acknowledge that there was injustice perpetrated. And we want the acknowledgement of truth to be separated from retribution, compensation or punishment. That will create a better new social contract.

participant (regarding acknowledging the truth and seeking forgiveness): Consider India's incidents like the 1984 riots, or Godhra, or Babri. Someone can say that I'm generally a decent human being and I was brainwashed during that period to be part of a cult or a clique, and now I'm saying I'm sorry. But is that enough?

On TRC- By giving on the demand of reparation, it didn't create the foundation for an ongoing just society. It more or less provided exoneration. For all its problems, it is interesting because it provides an alternative mode of thinking than just crime and punishment. The reason people, and communities, came out on a dialogue because the perpetrators were promised amnesty. They took a bet by saying that that was better for society than punishing a few perpetrators. 

In so many areas of our life, we need to confront injustices of the past to move on. And the question of restoration doesn't go away because now you're trying to make a more equal society.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Justice- Class 8


Why Nationalism (Ch 1,6,7)- Yale Tamir
Ch 1 : The New Nationalism

Nationalism being on the rise everywhere is surprising. Liberals believed that their century (starting from 1945) would see the end of wars, spread of reason, beginning of new enlightenment- Endless economic growth, expanding opportunities, ongoing increase in well-being.

Trump-Brexit-Le Pen could  have gone either way. No, says the author. They are symptoms of a deeper malaise.

My thought: Major shocks have us question the structures we inhabit. They have us ask why the structure shook or collapsed. Until that happens, we don't bother to enquire; We are preoccupied with different concerns. But that is not a bug of the system, its a feature. We built those structures precisely so that we could stop thinking about them. Then why do so many pundits who're dissecting the reasons for failure come after the elites/ leaders for 'missing' the warning signs and not acting in time? Admittedly, they misjudged the signs or were too distracted. However, what about the crises they averted by doing what they were doing? Not only does it mean that they're never congratulated for averting crises we don't see (I wonder how incentive structures work with this? If I see that I'm only noticed when I'm seen resolving a crisis, I'm going to make sure that everything I do will come off as courageous firefighting), they will never technically win because we always compare them to a could've-been-better-world.

Paused on page 5

Notes from class:

Partial attachments and political theory.

Assignment: 300-500 word essay that suggests or critically examines-
i. a conceptual dilemma that you encounter or
ii. propose a particular policy that will address what you think is important

-We took a particularly unusual stance to understand democracy better in our previous class

The role of partial attachments in justice
-One of the challenges of thinking about nationalism is that it is deeply entwined with our experience of modernity and democracy
-Democracy required that you configure yourself as a demos: who are we as people
-Power and sovereignty must be exercises in the name of people
-People are individuals and also a collective compact for each others' well-being

Ernest Gellner- "The political dilemma of modernity is that every ideology claims to be universal, but every postcard it sends is disguised with nationalism"
JS Mill- "If you're not part of a nation-state, you're a nobody"

3 questions:
1. Who gets to be a member of the nation? - Membership question
You can say that this question is not amenable to justice. You're converting the arbitrariness of birth to membership of your community.
2. We are a people because we claim a distinctiveness for themselves (language, religion etc.). Who has set the terms of this identity? - Identity question
Process of forming an identity is in itself a clash between competing identity arbitrary attributes.

Origins of Totalitarianism- "Universal ideology is a great idea but its doesn't protect you when you're being dispossessed".

Nationalism is the only modern ideology that deals with death, not communism or liberalism. In that sense, it is the only competition to religion. Dying for the nation or killing for the nation.
It is psychologically important- an antidote to cultural homelessness
Modern economy works around it

Modern nation-state vs empire
1. public education
2. voluntary army vs mercenaries
3. modern state percolate much more culturally

Not only ethno-national, even liberal nationalism is discriminatory.

Q: Ownership is a by-product of discrimination. Then is that justified?

Liberty: Political Freedom
Equality: Economic Freedom
Fraternity: Social Justice

Note to self: Read JNU Nationalism lectures

Q: The state should privilege the rights over identities.
I'm a good Indian when I uphold its constitution. But not everyone who upholds those values can become an Indian.

My question: What if the person in power changes the definition of what it means to be an Indian?

Edward Gibbon about Roman Empire- "All the philosophers thought that religion was false, all people thought it was true and all politicians thought it was useful"

"History is one thing, justice is another"

"History is a fool's paradise"- Gandhi

If you want to say medieval India about conflict, it is true. You want to say its about co-operation, it's true. This is not about facts. It's about what story you want to say. Those who want to say we've always been multi-cultural, will find relevant facts. Those who argue otherwise, will find relevant facts as well. If tomorrow you discover a document that thousands of temples have been destroyed, should that change the nature of modern India?

If the colonialists say that India didn't exist before, that's true for France or England as well. The nation-state is a particularly political form.

Nation vs Nation-state

1. An Australian minister used to quip that, "while we fully understand that first-generation immigrants cheer for sports teams from their country of origin, their Australian born kids should be screaming for Aussie teams". There is this idea that Chinese identity is almost like a qaum. Because I'm an outsider here, I clearly see that many white folks have a soft corner for Europe. It seems to me not much different to the attachment some Indians have for Hindus in Afghanistan than with other Indian Muslims. So where does the religion of religion end and the religion of nation begin?
2. How are we going to reconcile with the fact that more and more children are being born to parents of mixed heritage and live in sort of a rarefied abstract idea of a nation. Like how some Silicon Valley libertarians ask to be granted sovereignty. Are we seeing the expiry of the nation state as we know it?

Susan Okin- Is multiculturalism bad for women? - The demand for multiculturalism is a demand for partial jurisdiction.

Even if you are not a person who thinks culture and nation are tightly intertwined, the state still has to make choices about, say, what languages to use- for effects of scale and for mobility. Or Mumbai's Marathi culture is eroded by many immigrants. How, in that case, can justice be done?

One of the brilliant things about the idea of India is an extraordinary attempt to subvert the European premise
A national unit has a state attached to it

India as State-Nation- Linz, Stepan, Yadav

If India becomes rich and people don't have to migrate for work, then will we become more like the United States- Strong linguistic and territorial links.

Liberal stance : Let people have free choice and however that affects society is a consequence of that free choice. Any structural imposition is elitist. But is it possible to live in a truly egalitarian society and if not, why is it wrong if a well-intentioned, 'intelligent' person tries to improve a people's lot? Hang on, isn't that white saviour complex?

Relationship between identity and justice. 

The constitution is not a suicide pact.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Justice- Class 7

Should democracy work through elections or sortition? -Tom Malleson
The Politics of Presence (Ch 2) - Anne Phillips

Class notes:
Philanthropy and higher education (Prof. Mehta's research)
Comparison of 50 trusts pre and post independence
    a. Pre-independence was high
    b. They gave to institutions they did not control

Curzon to Jamshedji: 
"If it's genuine philanthropy, it must be given to institutions you do not control" -C
"I agree. We'll give to independent institutes. And only have minimum oversight" -J

Q: Are lotteries a legitimate form of representation?

Representative (First past the post etc.) - They legislate on our behalf
Direct democracy

Representative Democracy should satisfy:
a. Peace- Transfer of power is peaceful
b. Political Agency- The idea that somehow we have some role and participation in creating the form of     legislation. Gives us dignity in an existential sense. By the people.
c. Responsiveness- For the people. We will not re-elect you if you don't respond to us.
d. Impartiality- Technically, legislature must be for the common good. 
e. Equality- One person one vote. 
f. Representation- Democracy creates a mode of representation.
If we're unsatisfied with our democracy, its probably for one or more of the above reasons.

Do elections satisfy: Responsiveness, Impartiality, Equality, Representation?

Aristotle's definition of democracy: "You ruled and you were ruled in turn"

It takes so much money to even fight an election that most people can't afford it. Then does that mean it's still equal?
Women are less than 50%, ethnic minorities are extremely under represented- Then you might ask, who are the elected representing really?

1. Design democracy better: Quotas, Campaign Finance Reform etc.
2. Sortition/ Lottery

"The drawing of lots is more in the nature of democracy. In an aristocracy voting is appropriate" -Rousseau

You could win because you're wealthy, because you have good social connections, you could win because you're smart, or a mesmerising orator: Rousseau says that democracy is a way of amplifying certain characteristics. Paradoxically, you're electing an aristocracy. It's a way of us saying that some people are superior than others. 

My thought: The Modi type- Someone who's better at winning elections than governance. Then aren't we choosing the wrong type.

If competence is what you want, why do you want democracy? Why aren't you going for a more technocratic system?

We think that our form of democracy is canonical. But until the 19th century, it was understood that democracy by voting is against representation. So the idea was that you had to create a lot of differentiated electorates.

Hume- divide society into main constituents and make sure all of them are represented.
Reminds me of Madhav Khosla's account of how our Constituent Assembly was assembled. Wilful representation across different communities.
But then we're still excluding other types (other forms of division) because you can keep fine-tuning will you come down to a unit of one. 

Yale political theorist- Helene Landemore

Responsiveness: Incentive dimension and Epistemic dimension

If you had a democracy which had no migrant workers, then is it a surprise that we forgot about them? 
Could the Rajya Sabha be created via sortition?

Collective competence of assemblies vs the aristocratic view of competence

If you come from the background that our birth itself is based on deeper cosmological reasoning, then convincing people would be easy. But based on our 'modern' notions of the accident of birth, how will people react to this idea of lottery?

Predictability & Continuity are important in terms of national priorities and foreign relations. How do they correspond to sortition?

Constituent Assembly debates:
1. If it was actually an elected body, it would have too many interest groups- BR
2. If you had a majority body drafting the constitution, then who's going to stop it from being fascist.
How about we have an elected body for day-to-day governance and a sortition body for major decisions?
It was important for the Congress party to show that the CA was mirroring the nation - to gain legitimacy.

Are you going to be better if you don't have the corrupting thought of wanting to be re-elected?

James Fishkin- Deliberative Polling

The idea is not to distribute representation by identity. But conversely, if there is too less representation, it probably means that they don't have political power. Absence acts as a proxy that other reasons are disempowering them.

On what dimension to divide- Why only gender? Why not class? Why not caste? Why not education? Selection of any dimension is in itself an arbitrary act. Then are you congealing those identities?

Politics is the contest of ideas. And ideas are best represented by parties. That's why they've become more important than representation. 

"Really bad books make you think a lot more than really good books sometimes"

If say 40% of the uneducated are represented proportionately, would they then have the incentive to educate themselves?

We are not looking at representation exactly. We're looking for ideas/ arguments which would be missed without their presence. 

The adversarial legal system. 

Because of parties, partisanship has trumped ideology. The club character of politics- I need to win at any cost. That has become much more salient in our representative process. 

Territorial representation vs proportional representation

In a democracy we might not even be able to agree on what values we privilege.

The idea is not to solve the metaphysics of identity. It is to ensure that you're listening to as many voices as possible.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Justice- Class 6

Capitalism and Ideology- Thomas Piketty
Ch 8- Ternary Societies and Colonialism: The case of India

First paragraph has a reference to the caste system and its "rigid and extreme type of inequality". This is accepted knowledge now. But I want to deep dive and understand the history of Caste system- both from the historical (sociopolitical) perspective as well as the from more, for the lack of a better word, mythical perspective (Vedas, Smritis etc.). From both the left and the right, if I may. Because I'm curious to see how such a social structure came about and more interestingly, how it survived/es for as long as it did. 

Oh, well, looks like Piketty is going to give a brief tour of exactly that. 

If the British came in and sanctioned, even entrenched, the caste system within the state, then does it mean that prior rulers didn't consider caste in their dealings? 

"The course of Indian inequality was profoundly altered by its encounter with the outside world in the form of a remote foreign power."- Does it mean that 1. the British was the first foreign power which leveraged the caste system for its benefit or 2. British was the only remote foreign power because almost everyone else who came in stayed back and thereby are not foreign powers?

Fernand Bruadel argues that India and China have always had more people live in those areas than Europe because the latter are predominantly meat eaters and it takes more acres to produce animal calories than plant calories.

The same claim of India being a recent (post-1947) political entity. Contrast that with the idea of Bharatvarsha, the stories of Yogis and Sadhus who have walked across the length and breadth of the country for centuries, and what Diana L Eck refers to as India's Sacred Geography (I haven't read the book yet). The fact that Republic of India survives, and occasionally thrives, is proclaimed with admiration and it would be interesting to understand why it does. Did we come together after the British arrived because it is easy to differentiate between the whites and the browns, and coalesce as one. Or are there deeper forces at work. Is it Hinduism and its correspondent mythology, or Sanskrit, Prakrit and closely related languages, or is it cultures and customs (food, dressing, even music) that somehow tie so many of us together? Or infact is this idea of unity my retrospective superimposition on a set of disparate societies? The only parallel I can think of to India is Europe, with its seemingly common ethos, and I need to search if someone's written about this parallel.

Difference between secular and multiconfessional?

Note to self: Read Willaim Dalrymple's Anarchy to get an understanding of how a trading company managed to take over the administration of a huge kingdom(s). If I remember correctly, Niall Ferguson alludes to the immense power EIC held came from the the new inventions of capitalism in that era- limited liability and shareholders without executive power; Other developments being fractional reserve banking and promissory notes.

Piketty briefly states the relationship between Indian Hindus and Muslims from the 12th century, since the inception of the Delhi Sultanate, till the advent of the British. 

"Hinduism is more explicit in linking religion to social organisation." 
"Other religions purport to be egalitarian, atleast in theory."

Origins of the Caste System
Earliest European organisation of society- 10th and 11th century
Trifunctional- religious class, warrior class, labouring class

Vedas talk about Varnas from 2nd millennium BCE
Though the fundamental text was Manusmriti(written between 2 BCE to 2 CE): I think it was in one of the episodes of the Seen and the Unseen podcast that there is a discussion regarding the arbitrariness of putting Manusmriti on a pedestal. The speaker argues that when the British came to India, they were confronted with a bewildering medley of social groups and to make sense of it, the orientalists looked at the texts and were led by some Brahmins to the Manusmriti. Because it seemed to roughly map to what they could see on the land, they assumed that this was the primary guiding ideology and thus used it to arbitrate Indian cases. Most Indians didn't know about Manusmriti and caste was apparently a more fluid entity; There were many examples of kings from lower castes who, with the help of the right priests, could be instated to the level of the twice-borns.  This seems like an interesting argument to me, a hypothesis that could be explored further.

paused at the end of page 311

Notes from the class-

Inequality and Indian democracy

You can pick apart Piketty's chapter in many ways but it is a good summary.

Paradox in all democracies: Prior to the 19th century, one of the critiques of democracy (universal suffrage, electoral politics) has been that it will cause equality. If you give poor people the vote, the most likely thing that'll happen is that they'll appropriate property from the rich. Without stable property relationships, you can neither have freedom nor economic investments. If democracy is bad to property, ergo, approach it carefully. That's why there were no qualms of tying suffrage to property.

France of 18th century- Clergy, Bourgeoisie, Nobility

But in reality, democracy has become compatible not only with property rights but also with immense social and economic inequality.

What explains this fact? Ambedkar- Why doesn't political equality lead to social and economic equality?

Adam Przeworski- Political scientist

Elites realised that democracy not only challenges our power, it also legitimates that power.

Gregory Clark Big Data book on Sweden

Taxation is an instrument of both development and redistribution; historically Tax to GDP ratio has been low. WWII lays the foundation for the New Deal, for somewhat equal social welfare countries.
The levels of political will required for progressive taxation come only after major calamities. 

Escaping from Rome- Walter Scheidel

Land Reform- the second big instrument of some kind of Economic justice.

Atul Kohli- Comparitive Colonialism
British Colonialism relied on intermediate Zamindari class. Japanese Colonialism was suspicious of these classes, so they wiped them out. So Japanese Colonialism lead to better land reforms. And democracies are quite bad at LR too.

"Conservative parties legitimise their power by outflanking the Left"- So they end up doing more for the poor.

Piketty's chapter in a nutshell; three macro-theses:
    a. Historically, almost all societies have been divided into three classes
        i. Clergy
        ii. Nobility
        iii. Labour
    These three classes have been remarkably stable.
    India: Relationship between class and caste. Because Brahmins are not celibate like the European            clergy, they've validated endogamy (core institution of caste). Most of Indian political theory: Function of the king is to protect the order of caste, and thereby property. Contrarian examples: Shudra kings. But even if they are kings, the primary "Propertarian ideology" remains.
    You can destabilise that social order by:
    a. external shock- for India, most external shocks have worked with existing structures
    b. diffusion of human capital (Eg: education)- Ambedkar- "This is the resource that's most protected"
    c. disjunction b/w status and identity (like in Europe where there's tight coupling between social status and economic status)- in India, crudely oversimplifying, social fight between Brahmin and Kshatriya. But because of endogomy, status remains secure (Eg: poor brahmin without economic and political power is still socially powerful) 
Indian society had a deeply durable structure of inequality. Even now, rates of inter-marriage are extraordinarily low. Most class situation can be mapped to caste.
"British colonialism was called Brahmin Company Raj"

Democracies seem to be bad to inequality and India's caste structure. What do we do about justice in India?

Amit Varma's question of liberal constitution imposed on an illiberal people comes to mind.

Ambedkar, principally four mechanisms for social equality:
    a. equalisation in education (worldover public schooling is a great equaliser but not in India)
    b. John Dewey's endosmosis (inter-marriage which usually follows the previous point). Joke that most universities function for assortative mating (refer to Raghuram Rajan's Fault Lines)
    c. land reform
    d. taxation
    e. representation, affirmative action (creates a more diverse elite, changes aspiration because of promise of ability but does it produce far-reaching structural transformation)

Why are we unequal?
My hypothesis: Because people's identities are more tied to their caste and communities. What we generally celebrate about India being a thousands of years old continuing civilisation is what is hampering equality. Because we are too entrenched in our particular caste lifestyles (food, culture, dressing etc.)

Right now people vote for politicians who vote for policies. Why can't people directly vote for policies?
(referred in P Sainath's Everybody loves a good drought)

Poverty as a living experience is different from poverty as data. People who're poor are fighting with each other for the little pie instead of getting together to demand more.

Sanskritization is one of the modalities of social reform. If the lower castes are trying to aspire to a Brahminical lifestyle, then as much as it has its problems, if that assimilation is allowed, then it should break the barriers. But we don't see that happening either.

Why did we think that democracy was the right vehicle to bring about social and economic justice (Tocqueville's bittersweet take on American democracy)?

When the economy is growing so fast, people assume that they have a good chance to get rich next, so they're not willing to ruffle too many feathers in the existing structure. Also, even though real incomes have remained stagnant, the purchasing power has increased because of cheap technology.

Politicians don't have an incentive to work towards long term changes because their vision is only for the next five years.

Political mobilisation is specific to local reality. A dalit from TN won't vote similar to a dalit from UP. And a dalit and a brahmin will probably vote against a yadav. So, in that sense, the on-ground reality is different from the macroview. 

One participant: What if the caste system was meant to be horizontal with spread of specialisation, all equal, and it has somehow been 'corrupted' into this vertical structure? 
Fairly standard upper-caste view.

Prof: Paradox of India is that poor turn out in almost as equal numbers as the rich unlike other developed countries.
Mukulika Banerjee- "Elections are the only religion left to the people of India"
Why do we expect democracy to bring us justice anyway?- It is a framework with three very important characteristics:
    a. framework itself ideologically states equality. "Think of the thrill of democracy." aah! "One of its great existential charms is that even rulers rule at my suffrage". The idea was that this idea itself is a deeply destabilising thought. We believe that authority is a provisional grant.
To underestimate the degree to which that has happened is not right. There is only surface obsequiousness- cynical and instrumental.
    b. accountability incentive- you have to come seek my vote every five years, that's incentive enough to perform atleast to some level. It is a responsive framework.
Amartya Sen argues that democracy avoids famine, not at avoiding chronic problems like malnutrition.
    c. democracy's historical relation with nationalism- We now think that nationalism is a diversion from more pressing issues. But historically democracy and nationalism have a deeper bond because we are equal.
Piketty- Stronger welfare is empirically proved to happen in a more horizontally identifying population.
Prerna Singh's book on Sub-nationalism and welfare states in India: States formed with a strong sub-national identity (linguistic etc.) perform better in markers of welfare. Mutual identity between citizens. So TN and AP better than UP and Bihar.
Caste and identity: Ambedkar- "Caste was a division of labourers, not of labour". Some nationalists during the freedom movement argued about the horizontal, functional, uncorrupt view of caste (Retrieving from the past while divorcing from its odious aspects). But you can't sustain that argument as a historical thesis. Also it runs against individual rights. 
BR: The logic of caste was a form of involution. Almost everybody had someone they could dominate. You could find psychological recuperation for being dominated by dominating someone else.
Logic of fragmentation would make collective action too difficult. 
Politician incentives: India has a high anti-incumbency rate. In a low-wattage economy, no politician can make much change to an individual. Health and Education are peculiar because they involve high resources, a large number of actors and the results can be seen only in the long run. Countries where these work better is either in Communist regimes or for some exogenous reasons, elites commit to it (for instance, national pride).
Eugene Weber- Peasants as Frenchmen. You convert them by focus on education. What is it about Indian nationalism that we still don't get a take-off for common public education while all other nationalist movements focused on this.
Example of AAP- Which won on reforms in Education and Mohalla clinics.
"In North India caste is more cynically used. South India takes it more seriously." 

Monday, July 13, 2020

Notes- Justice Class 5

The readings for class 5 are: Excerpts from The Myth of Ownership (Murphy & Nagel) and from Justice as Fairness (Rawls). 

Previously, we covered Meritocracy and used those learnings to understand Universal Basic Income.

The Myth of Ownership: 

Ch 5- The Tax Base

Income, defined in one way, is Consumption plus Increase in Wealth.
Q: Is Consumption Tax better than Income Tax?

Q:What is the point of a Tax system?
    1. To raise revenue for public provision
    2. Secure economic justice
    3. Provide desirable behavioural incentives

The assumption of people being rational actors is not misplaced but, in my opinion, incomplete because definitions of rationality change both from perspective and scale. As much as I agree that people respond to incentives, they do not always act in ways an institution or a group of people might find rational. It is because I think some individuals, by doing the opposite of what might seem safe, send a different albeit stronger signal. Evolutionary Psychology might give me a framework to better understand that phenomenon. On a related note, the podcaster Amit Varma endorses Public Choice Theory a lot; I need to get some reading done on that.

Tax system should be simpler to reduce the cost of operations as well to give people less options to game the system for their benefit.

Why is it morally irrelevant as to whether a tax scheme imposes equal, or proportional, or any other pattern? If I do not take the libertarian view that all tax is theft, then I think I tax people based on their "ability to pay". As much as I understand that there is a certain arbitrariness to that mechanism, and as always there will be few exceptions, for the most part isn't it fair? I can see how people would game the system and show that they have less they really do (black money) but that's more of an operational issue than an ethical one. Need to read the previous chapter.

Outcomes are more important than intentions- As much as I want to, I can't think of a reason to refute that.

I don't understand Hall & Rabushka's Flat Tax Proposal- If the VAT is not 'flat' but is proportional to an individual's income, how is it different from the regular tiered income tax? Quick detour to Wikipedia doesn't help.

Cash Flow Tax- Individuals pay tax on all their earnings but deduct any amounts saved in the tax year. This seems like a more natural consumption tax.

I'm beginning to think that this reading is a wrong idea for a liveblog pilot. The subject is very tough and the authors' writing is not very easy to follow. So more than a summary of my thoughts at the end of the chapter, this seems like a litany of confusing concepts.

The Kurt example clarifies some of the above concepts. 

The authors argue that a tax system should encourage savings because investment is good for economic growth. From my understanding, that means that most members of a society should earn money but since they do not have the necessary expertise to invest (read delay gratification) and would rather consume (read immediate gratification), a much smaller section of professionals can use the money 'rightly', for increasing the wealth of society as a whole. I can't speak for everyone else but I admit that I am probably worse than an average professional investor (I'm not completely sure of it, though, because I'm convinced by most of Nassim Taleb's arguments in Fooled by Randomness). That doesn't give me solace from the fact that I'm probably just another specialised worker bee. 

I'm pausing this reading at the end of sub-section III for now.

Justice as Fairness (pages 134-140):

Ch 3- The Original Position

"..the balance of reasons itself rests on judgment, though judgment informed and guided by reasoning."- I have always thought about how imposition of a liberal framework is i. arbitrary ii. an imposition. I think this is a wonderfully succinct summary of the liberal ideology. Another explanation that I absolutely adore comes up in a conversation between Kapil Komireddi and Amit Varma when, if I remember correctly, Amit asks his regular question of if our liberal constitution is itself an imposition on a largely illiberal society. While Madhav Khosla, again I hope I'm not misattributing, contests the argument that we are an illiberal society, talking about India's bottom-up liberalism honed by millennia of co-existence, Kapil references Sunil Khilnani's, and as an extension Nehru's, Idea of India by telling us that that's the idea of India which is expansive and accepting enough to accommodate and celebrate all other conceptions of India. This is what is at the heart of what I call the Liberal Disequilibrium- That an illiberal person can ask for the ouster of a liberal from society but a liberal person, by definition, cannot do that. A liberal is not a hyper-rationalist devoid of all opinions and judgements, but someone who's opinions are more learned, deduced than accepted, and at which he is able to look at as objectively as possible. Therefore, liberalism is not a religion but more of a framework akin to scientific thinking.

Rawls' elaborates on how political philosophy is a very social affair and it would be very hard to come up with almost mathematically precise and complete theories.

Ch 4- Institutions of a Just Basic Structure

Property owning democracy vs a capitalist welfare state

I like how Rawls qualifies his statements by clearly stating that they are not conclusive, expansive claims but illustrative thoughts. Not only does this increase my respect in the writer but it also leads me to think, and apply those theories and see if they work, instead of just accepting them as laws.

A liberal democracy tries to create a fair system of cooperation between free and equal citizens, as well as between generations.

5 kinds of regimes with political, economic and social institutions:
    a. laissez-faire capitalism
    b. welfare-state capitalism
    c. state socialism with a command economy
    d. property owning democracy
    e. liberal (democratic) socialism

4 questions regarding any regime:
    a. question of right- whether its institutions are right and just
    b. question of design- whether a regime's institutions can be effectively designed to realise its declared aims and objectives
    c. question of compliance- whether the citizens who's interests and ends are shaped by the regime's basic structure, can be relied on to comply with the 'just' rules. Corruption is a part of this
    d. question of competence- whether the tasks assigned to offices and positions are simply too difficult to those who hold them

This is riveting elucidation, almost a mathematical blueprint of how our societies are organised. I have noticed this aspect of almost mathematical abstraction even in Prof. Mehta's talks; It seems like as much as political theorists understand and consider unpredictable human behaviour, mathematical thinking, like when deducing conclusions from axioms, is the most conducive way to think of and explain politics and society.

I wonder how these concepts have been updated since the ascendance of Behavioural Economics (Eg: Nudge Theory). 

The importance of above questions is roughly in descending order.

Paused at the end of page 136

Notes from the class-

How do we think of property rights? 
Normatively speaking, we agree that everyone should have a share in the economy. 

What is property? What is the right to property? Indian constitution had such a right that was later removed.

Approaches to private property:
    a. Natural rights approach- I own my labour. If I mix my labour with something, by the virtue of my labour enhancing that thing, it becomes mine. Reservations: I might gain right to use, but why right to own; If labour grants a right to property, then what about latecomers (an extension of previous week's discussion)?
    b. Some right to property is an extension of our freedom and self-expression. It is very important to concretising our freedom (Hegel). 
    c. Hayek- Rules of private property allocation produce an efficient economy. (Hayek said something similar when talking about meritocracy. He agrees that the link between work and material reward is tenuous at best but it is necessary).

Relationship between property and sovereignty- If property is a good thing, shouldn't it be distributed widely?

Accepting property is good but :
    a. People's starting places are arbitrary
    b. And won't trade then increase inequality
How do we solve this?

We are embodied beings. We need property to be able to do many things including something as quotidian as to have the right to privacy you need a room you can call your own. Without property, what is taken away from you is the basic right of self-expression.

Q: What if you move from scarce forms of property, like land, to almost infinite forms, like data? 
    Growing the property pie instead of distributing it, even if some inequality will persist. Distribution need not be zero-sum. 
    Challenges to above idea: a. As economies get more complex, with other forms of property than land getting institutionalised, how do questions of ownership get determined? [I don't understand this]
    b. Nagel & Murphy- The patterns of accumulation that you see in any society are actually the constructs of property rules we've decided. They exist because we allow certain allocations to exist. They are not the basis of property rights but consequence of allocation in a certain way. Eg: If you take away my accumulated capital, then you're taking away my property. But it is your property in the first place because there are certain rules that allow you to have it in the first place- Inheritance. 
    We think: We have property, it is being taxed. Then we question why and how of it. N & M reverse that. The property that you have is a product of prior taxation rules. It doesn't exist independent of them. The question, then, is what is the justification of those rules? 

Forest Rights debates in India- Historically, communities had rights to use products of the forests which is different from right to dispose it or something. 
"The only guys who didn't have a free market right in their property were farmers"- Links to a SeenUnseen episode.

Paradox of India- We thought it was okay to restrict property rights in land for agriculture sector (the entire mantle of redistribution fell on them) but why does it not apply to other forms of property or capital?

Q: Why should distribution of property be an act of justice? Why can't it be a means through which enough money is raised to spend on more welfare-ish schemes?

Q: Conflict between different types of justice: Individual rights vs Environmental rights etc. 

You can't ask specific questions to know if something is just. It has to be turned into a more generic, big question. Something that Balagopal said as well. 

Yes, the economic usage of an asset is important. But the converse is also true: Dynamics of inequality that is produced by taxation can be measured by those calibrations. [Er..]

What is the moral basis for saying someone can inherit property?
    One argument for: Property continuity (wanting to leave my grandchildren something) is a form of expression of freedom.
Two problematic aspects:
    a. Somebody in society seems to be getting an undue share of unearned income- Granting moral legitimacy for something unearned
    b. It seems to be most obvious location at which social concerns about inequality and wide distribution of property can be easily located- Because of the nature of its compounding cumulative power
US till 70s had a steep inheritance tax
Is it possible to have a cut-off and then the state takes the rest- I'm thinking what are the second-order consequences of such an act. How will people find ways to subvert the system?
The person who has the money has the moral right to use it as she pleases. But if we're saying that we ought to use to money for social welfare, then there's no point quibbling over moral questions and we should concentrate on the efficiency of tax collection. 

Fundamental Right vs Legal Right

Countervailing considerations: 
    a. Consider a Land-only Economy: The small set of people who're getting land by virtue of their birth are enjoying freedoms that I don't. The same applies to cases where capital is very unequally distributed.  
    Could it be that the giver has the right to give but the received doesn't have the right to take.
    "Inheritance is, arguably, the most stable method of perpetuating inequality"
    Free transfer can only be free when all people have atleast a basic, adequate freedom/ power to be capable of doing a free transfer
    b. From the point of view of Well-being and Freedom: Yes, people can accumulate wealth through free exchange. By allowing high levels of accumulation, especially that is not earned (without consideration of marginal utility), society as a whole is signalling the fact that wealth is the most important social value.  You could utilize something like scientific esteem as an incentive.

Adam Smith- "Wealth is unnecessary to well-being and happiness beyond a certain point".

Q: If we have a problem with inter-generational transfer of wealth that's arbitrary, then are all arbitrary transfers wrong? 

Chicago Economists- I inherit property worth 5 million from my parents. You come and say I can wring out a value of 10 million from this. So the argument goes, auction off inheritance and increase turnover of property. All the time.
Efficiency (of usage) is not always the right way to answer questions of justice. 

How many of you are comfortable inheriting a large amount of money? There seems to be queasiness with the unearned nature of that income. But on the other hand, being born into money is not very different from being born beautiful or athletic etc. and the only reason we're debating this is because we can measure money. Although, large inheritance visibly channels social power and so is worth debating. 

Sunday, July 12, 2020


Sometimes, when I realise that I haven't blogged in months, it feels like those months have slipped past without leaving a trace. Other times, when I read some of my posts, I think, this is crap, you're embarrassing yourself by posting online. Only rarely do I feel good at reading some of the stuff I've written. Anyway, I was reading Venkat's post today and I thought I should liveblog, in the hope that it's going to do four things:

1. Get me back into writing more involved and, hopefully, better prose.
2. Ensure my random jottings are consolidated in a single place.
3. I've been feeling cut-off from the mainstream world since a long time now. I listen to podcasts and follow essays/ blogs on more current topics, but possibly because I don't contribute to the discussion, it seems like I'm not part of a larger community. By posting my thoughts more frequently on the internet, I hope to engage some readers and maybe get into a more active discussion.
4. I'd become a better reader/ listener because I would approach it with the intent of writing about it; And also think about the topic more deeply while reading

The more I thought of it though, I came up with four reasons why it's a bad idea:

1. I'd be more obsessed with posting and so would actively engage with the content. I like that idea less than letting information come and envelop me. The first method seems too pushy.
2. The blog would turn into a less 'serious' space. So instead of letting ideas brew in my mind for weeks or months, I'd be responding to them with immediate effect. I know that the more ideal place for something like this would be Twitter but I don't think I have the energy or, more honestly, the mental capacity anymore to swim through such a forceful data stream.
3. This is in direct contradiction to my romantic idea of a writer, someone who jots in notebooks and lets ideas simmer for years before putting anything out, but there are people I admire, like Venkat Rao and Cory Doctorow, who have turned this sort of writing into a new artform. So I have conflicting feelings about this.
4. I'm sure I'm going to abandon this soon. And I don't want it to be another reminder of my incompetence. 

So, yeah, those two sets of ideas are wrestling inside my head right now but I'm tilting towards doing it primarily because:

1. I want to write more and I think my writing is really sloppy when I'm not writing for the internet. The romantic inside my finds that deplorable but the pragmatist says, meh, it is what it is.
2. This going away into the woods and coming back to the society only when I have all the answers doesn't seem to be working really. While the sceptic inside me genuinely believes that I don't really know what I'm talking about and there's no way anyone would be convinced by any of my thoughts, the egoist persists and says that the only way to get deeply involved in something is by having skin in the game.

So, yes, I guess I'm going to start liveblogging after all. For now. 

I'm currently doing Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta's Ashoka X course called Justice: Selected topics and controversies, and I'm going to start readings for class 5 in a while. And I'm going to post my thoughts through that.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

for the pleasure of living

I've spent the last few months in a deep struggle. What I realised today could be a false dawn but right now I feel I've reached some shore. Some place where I'm not afraid that I'm lost in the open seas. The struggle has not been material, emotional and only, even if, intellectual. It has been, for lack of a better word, spiritual. What to do? How to live? I've obsessed over this question, worryingly so, flailing my arms, trying to swim now in this direction, now in that, afraid of sinking, of being eaten, of staying like this for a long time, surrounded by infinite water but unable to gulp a mouthful. It has been a horrendous time, and despite the regularity of other things, love, friendship, joys, new trials, it has gnawed at me, bit by bit, in the background, like a nightmare that resumes every night. I have even placated myself by telling that this pain, confusion, fear is a good thing because it still means I've not become numb to feeling, that I'm still sensitive enough to worry about 'great' things.

So what exactly has bothered me: It is, like I said, the question of what do I do with my life. I'm thirty now, so many people I idolised had already done something noteworthy by the time they were thirty. So either I'm a late bloomer or I'm going to live out my life not having done something that I value, something I take pride in, find something doing which I can repeatedly find joy while gaining mastery. I can find only two ways to think of it: Either there is something called destiny, that each of us find out what we're supposed to do, not because it's dictated by society or circumstance, but because we find that voice deep in our hearts, or we transcend circumstance and the dictates of our immediate society to do something that makes us respect ourselves, that makes us feel we've made a sizeable dent in the world we were born into. And no matter which worldview I took as my axiom, I couldn't shake off the feeling that I was doing the wrong thing with my life. Neither does the voice inside me tell me nor do I want to be a middling data analyst in a bank. Then why do I do it? Because of circumstance? Not entirely because some of the decisions I took lead me here. It's not even necessity because I don't have a debt to pay-off, or am in some other desperate need of this money. So why? I don't know. And this uncertainty gave me the chills. This is not good uncertainty, like the time your brain is trying to fathom why it appreciates a film but can't get to love it. This is uncertainty that tells you you're doing something wrong but refuses to give you an explanation or an alternative.

Let me say the word out; I searched for a goal. What is my goal? To what destination am I walking? Writer, filmmaker, teacher, public intellectual, for that matter even Indian or Australian? Once I had that goal, it would help me decide the route, what equipment I'd need to pick up, people I'd need to read, watch, meet. Everything hinged on that single answer. But the answer was never forthcoming. When I was younger, the answer was temporary but atleast as long as it was there, it seemed set. The change-of-mind was frequent but correspondingly, the period of indecisiveness or confusion was shorter. The epiphanies were bright and short-lived but they came in a thick stream. This time around, it seemed to have completely dried up. And for a human surviving, rightly or wrongly, on dopamine inducing epiphanies, the starvation was painful. The withdrawal symptoms were acute. 

I really, really tried to find a solution to this. A rational understanding of myself that would help me design my life for efficiency of some sort (I still don't know what parameter to improve). I thought incessantly, scouring knowledge nuggets in that hope that I'd find an answer somewhere. I even tried tricking my mind into believing that I'd given up, watching mindless entertainment, in the hope that it would unblock some sort of a subconscious volcano. I felt guilty all the time, unable to read or watch anything with full involvement, convinced that I was living in some wrong way. Not that I was miserable all the time, I still functioned normally, to a certain extent, and genuinely had fun in conversations and events. But I would soon be overcome by this nagging feeling and the more I worried about it, the more I felt like crap because I have never wanted to be a calculative person trying to find the optimum solution. My archetype of myself has been that of a wanderer, someone who travels not because he is in search of a treasure but because the journey is the treasure. Somewhere along this path, I guess I wanted to wring out as much out of the journey, instead of letting it come to me, because I started believing that I needed to get the value of this treasure. To extend the metaphor further, I started second-guessing every stray path or every plant that piqued my curiosity to ensure that I was getting as much worth, forgetting that I didn't want to seek a treasure in the first place precisely because I wanted to wander to places where my curiosity led me.

I wanted to know my place in the world, maybe a part of me still does. I wanted to be someone, known for something, easy to remember. I wanted to be some type despite some essential part of me wanting to transcend all types. I wanted to be a good son, a good husband, a good human, a great artist despite not knowing what it really meant, despite trying to know what it meant. I looked at myself through the eyes of what I thought the world is like and see someone successful, polished and and sparkling. It seems ridiculous thinking of it like that now but as long as I craved that sort of an impossible validation, I became calculative in everything I did and got irritable when things didn't pan out in ways I thought. I've never been smart but the desperate need to crack the algorithm of life placed an uncarriable burden that made the journey seem not worth it. I read with trepidation, in an attempt to impress and afraid that I'd be identified as a fraud, instead of letting the material absorb me and knowledge give me pleasure.

I've removed the burden atleast for now. As long as this realisation lasts, I will happily read what finds my fancy, watch great film, enjoy music and poetry, and have long, meandering conversations without worrying what I'll find at the end of it. This seems zen, yogic. I don't know if it is, and if it is, if it is coming from a shallow place. It seems to come deep from inside and the only thing I can really do is trust and take the leap. I don't want this meandering, carefree-ness to again turn into a quest and become miserable for not being carefree enough. It's probably more ridiculous than it sounds. I've been obsessing over finding my place in the world without realising that the only fixed place is the tomb. I hope to enjoy the surroundings and keep walking wherever my curiosity leads me.