Sunday, October 5, 2008

Is the State Obsolete?

I had a very interesting discussion yesterday about whether the concept of the state (i.e., country) is now obsolete. The basic premise is that the world is flat, and that national boundaries are irrelevant in the current global economy. The arguments were roughly along the following lines:
  1. Corporations act in ways that benefit people of all countries. The basic unit of society should be the corporation, not the nation. An American country that lays off people in America frees them up to do better, more imaginative, more creative, more cerebral work. The same company, which hires replacements in India, improves the lives of those Indians, who would otherwise have been unable to find work that paid them so well.
  2. The argument was be taken further: brain-drain is not really a drain at all, because national boundaries don't matter. Thus top brains and talent moving from India to the US is not a concern. It is better to use your brains in the US than to underuse them in India. And India benefits from this: foreign remittances to India are higher than to any other country in the world.
  3. There is only one country in the world, the USA, which has an inherent culture of innovation and discovery. (Or perhaps two or three others at most, Germany being a possibility.) This is why no innovation happens in India, and cannot happen in India -- because the people, by nature, lack innovativeness.
  4. India, more than any other place, doesn't deserve nationhood because of the diversity of its people. An Indian feels like a stranger in a different part of his own country. The US feels more like home than India.
I didn't agree with these points. My answer yesterday to the question: "What is the point of nations?" was "Bargaining power". Here's a Q & A:

Q01: What is the point of nations?
Ans: Bargaining power. A nation is nothing more than a collective that bargains in order to increase the standard of living (SoL) for its citizens. It is the same concept as that of a workers' union.

Q02: What is the point of nationalism?
Ans: The reason a citizen should support his nation (and the concept of nationhood) is that it increases his chances of a better SoL. Nationalism increases a nation's ability to bargain, by increasing the nation's unity.

Q03: Then why shouldn't everyone in the world pledge their loyalty to those nations that have the highest chances of improving their citizens' SoL? Specifically, the USA?
Ans: If an individual's goal is to increase his SoL, he should indeed attempt to become a citizen of the country most likely to increase its citizens' SoL. The reason this doesn't happen in practice is countries like the USA realize it is not in their best interest, and have laws in place to prevent easy access to citizenship.

Q04: Which laws?
Ans: To become a citizen, one has to demonstrate both competence (through employability) and American nationalism (through a test and residence). America realizes that notions of the world being flat (in the sense of nonexistent national boundaries) are not in its best interests.

Q05: Why is "no boundaries" not in America's best interest?
Ans: For Americans to remain prosperous, there needs to be a vastly larger population of non-Americans. There needs to be someone to bargain with, someone to exploit.

Q06: Huh?? Why? What do you mean by "exploit"?
Ans: American power has many immediate reasons, but it can be traced back to a form of imperialism. America's prosperity relies on the exploitation of non-Americans, just as the prosperity of every other major power throughout history relied on exploitation of other populations. Unless a vast population of non-Americans exists, it will be impossible to use America's bargaining power to acquire various raw materials from them at prices much lower than the cost it takes to extract them. This is not a bad thing; it is what every major country in the world is trying to do, and is what every trader in a market attempts to do on a daily basis. It's just that America is better at it than other nations.

Q07: Even if nations are not irrelevant, why don't we stop at Indian states? Why shouldn't Rajasthan, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu be separate countries? Why do we need the whole of India to be one country?
Ans: Because larger countries have more bargaining power than smaller ones.

Q08: Then why shouldn't India annex more land and become an even bigger country?
Ans: If we can, we should. China knows this; that's why China seized Tibet. But we need to make sure the negative consequences of such an action don't outweigh the gains.

Q09: Well, the USA can certainly annex more land. Why doesn't it do so?
Ans: The fallout from such an action would have an unjustifiable cost for the USA. It is so stable and has such a high SoL that managing a population of unwilling conquerees would lower the overall American SoL. Increasing the American SoL at this point is much more easily accomplished by projection of soft power.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Van Gogh

Van Gogh's paintings Starry Night and Cafe Terrace at Night stir something deep. My interpretation (which van Gogh probably never intended) is that they are a contrast between the warm, familiar fold of civilization and the wild unkown mystery of the celestial sky. In Starry Night, it is as if the monumental forces lying in the hearts of suns and galaxies have descended onto the hamlet of Saint-Rémy, which is getting ready to tuck in for the night, unaware and unconcerned about the fantastic forces at work in deep space.
The same sentiment is stirred by Cafe Terrace at Night: the warmth of familiar surroundings and human company contrasted to the unknowns in the surrounding dark streets, and even more, the unknowns up in the sky. I can't decide what I want to be: a diner at the cafe or a predator lurking in the dark alleys, looking at the diners and waiting for one of them to leave that safe haven.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Religion as a Computational Simplification

What is religion, why do we need to have faith, why do we need gods?

Life includes a series of decisions. Decisions help us optimize our condition, find a route to another condition that is better, more stable, easier or happier. But the number of minute decisions that need to be made is so large that our built-in computer, the brain, is overwhelmed by the computational requirements.

So it takes shortcuts. It categorizes the decisions, pushing some, such as picking up the next spoonful of food or stepping aside to avoid a pothole, into a subconscious decision making queue. Others are not so subconscious but are still routine jobs, like signing your name on a credit card bill or going to work in the morning. Even with these reductions on its computational requirements, the brain would be left with too many significant mid- and long-term decisions.

Religion is the knowledge applicable to another subcategory of these remaining decisions. In many cases, it quickly allows us to use the past experience of wise people to determine a course of action when faced with certain decisions. Trying to figure every one of these out for oneself would put too much of a computational burden on the brain. Religion gives quick answers, without always requiring us to think hard.

Of course there are still a lot of decisions that can't be addressed by religious knowledge, and which might require individual thinking. But religion helps quite a bit; a lot of right-and-wrong type decisions can be solved quickly by referring to religious knowledge.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Nonconservation of Causality

Vaguely, this is what the title means: Suppose John is a bad influence on Bob, and Bob robs Dave. Should we say that John is responsible or Bob is? I think it is possible to say that both are.

I'm sure legal systems have thought about this sort of thing a lot...

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Dera Sacha Sauda versus The Sikhs

The recent violence in Punjab and Haryana over the Dera Sacha Sauda chief's choice of dress highlights one of the most fundamental problems in India. This is a problem which runs deeper than something like corruption or overpopulation (not to play down the importance of those issues).

The Sikhs (or anyone else) have no right to tell anyone how to dress. Blasphemy, in any form, is not an offense in any civilized society. Everyone should have the freedom to say and do whatever they please -- as long as it is not designed to cause disturbances. Unfortunately, the Sikhs in Punjab have failed to recognize this.

The recent incidents are neither isolated nor unusual. Second year students in colleges think they have the right to rag incoming freshmen. RSS and VHP activists think it is their right to smash the offices of newspapers that publish anything they disagree with. Naga christians think they have the right to chase Hindus out of Nagaland. National governments think it is perfectly fine to imprison and torture anyone who says anything against a minister (an outstanding example: the Emergency of Indira Gandhi). Soldiers think it is normal to torture Kashmiri kids, and kill them if they refuse to cooperate. Muslim organizations think it is their right to serve death sentences on authors who disagree with anything in the Quran. The Naxalites think they can dispense social justice to (maim and kill) anyone they don't like. Marathas think they have the right to prevent non-Marathas from working in Maharashtra. The CPI(M) thought it was within its rights to order its cadres to cut thumbs off villagers who don't vote for the party. Indians everywhere thought they could attack any Sikh in the aftermath of assassination in 1984. The police everywhere think it is their right to thrash and torture everybody in jail cells.

This lack of respect for individual civil liberties is characteristic of India. Individuals and organizations suffer from a God complex: "if it is within my power, I have the right to do it". The Dera Sacha Sauda incidents just serve to illustrate a greater malaise.

Getting back to the Dera Sacha Sauda affair, police have registered an FIR against the head of the Dera Sacha Sauda. This may be proper procedure when complaints are made against him, but it is surprising that the police is doing nothing about the rioting hordes who mortally threatened Dera members.

So, what are civil liberties worth? One of the questions we Indians must ask ourselves is this: "Do we serve our collective national soul better by granting civil liberties to others who disagree with us, or by aggressively enforcing our own opinions?"

Friday, May 4, 2007

The Natures of India and the U.S.A.

In the U.S.A., there is a sense that India is on the brink of something like a world takeover and is about to catapult itself into advanced-nation-dom. Many Indians have also started believing that this will be so, without paying attention to the fundamental systemic differences between the natures of the so-called advanced countries and India. This belief is no doubt spurred by the rapid expansion witnessed since economic liberalization in 1991.

But I think our pre-1991 economic structure accounts for only part of the backwardness. The rest is due to our ancient social structures. A long time ago, Indians invented a social structure that ensured stability and internal safety and removed much of the uncertainty associated with everyday life. This had its merits, but it also led to a society that is non-confrontational, too scared to assume leadership roles and afraid to innovate if it involves taking risks. Oh, it's easy to come up with counterexamples: in a country of 1.1 billion people, there are bound to be some who do all those things. But the average Indian is more likely to be a sheep than the average American, and less likely to be a lion.

Looking at this whole issue through a Dennett-ish Darwinian lens, one can see pseudo-evolutionary forces at work everywhere. Indians are probably among the most inbred people on the planet, and it shows in the number of congenital diseases and the general state of health. Our safety nets, which include nearly guaranteed intra-tribe marriage, seem to have nibbled away at our gene pool over the centuries until we remain a tired and spent population. In social terms we remain "safe", preferring life paths that lead to stability rather than achievement. Removing the bonds of what Gurcharan Das calls the License Raj is only the first step. The important question is, can we shed the bonds of our own degenerative culture?

The answer seems to be in the affirmative, as Western influences and the powerful new media wear down cultural barriers and our own Bollywood films encourage us to rebel against ancient socio-cultural mores. Cross-cultural marriages and heterodox life patterns are increasingly taking hold. But in adopting such novelties, is India headed towards a major shark-jump? Will the India of tomorrow be so different that it is not recognizably Indian? I think the answer is yes.

The U.S.A., in contrast to India, is founded on principles of evolutionary efficiency. America is not just a country, although it is strongly tied to its real estate. America is a meme, a concept: a country defined by the intelligence and ability of its inhabitants at any given point of time. The inhabitants themselves are less important than what they can contribute to this Amerimeme. An immigrant is only as important as the brains or labour that he or she brings into America; amazingly, this also applies to its citizens. The state gives citizens the opportunity to be useful -- but if they're not, they (and likely, their bloodlines) are doomed to oblivion.

India is a little more forgiving. A less-than-important man may, and usually does, father a multitude of offspring, some of whom may end up useful. No doubt this happens in America, too -- but less frequently. America is less forgiving of inefficiency and error than India is.