Thoughts on economics and liberty

Category: Current Affairs

The dramatically over-hyped faith in the Jan Lokpal Bill

A friend asked me for my view on the Anna Hazare fast. I thought I'd copy my response to him on this blog, so my view is more widely known.

First, what is the Lok Pal Bill? 

First, an extract from an email I received on the subject:

Drafted by Justice Santosh Hegde, Prashant Bhushan and Arvind Kejriwal, this Bill has been refined on the basis of feedback received from public on website and after series of public consultations. It has also been vetted by and is supported by Shanti Bhushan, J M Lyngdoh, Kiran Bedi, Anna Hazare etc. It was sent to the PM and all CMs on 1st December. 

  • An institution called LOKPAL at the centre and LOKAYUKTA in each state will be set up
  • Like Supreme Court and Election Commission, they will be completely independent of the governments. No minister or bureaucrat will be able to influence their investigations.
  • Cases against corrupt people will not linger on for years anymore: Investigations in any case will have to be completed in one year. Trial should be completed in next one year so that the corrupt politician, officer or judge is sent to jail within two years.
  • The loss that a corrupt person caused to the government will be recovered at the time of conviction.
  • How will it help a common citizen: If any work of any citizen is not done in prescribed time in any government office, Lokpal will impose financial penalty on guilty officers, which will be given as compensation to the complainant.
  • So, you could approach Lokpal if your ration card or passport or voter card is not being made or if police is not registering your case or any other work is not being done in prescribed time. Lokpal will have to get it done in a month’s time. You could also report any case of corruption to Lokpal like ration being siphoned off, poor quality roads been constructed or panchayat funds being siphoned off. Lokpal will have to complete its investigations in a year, trial will be over in next one year and the guilty will go to jail within two years.
  • But won’t the government appoint corrupt and weak people as Lokpal members? That won’t be possible because its members will be selected by judges, citizens and constitutional authorities and not by politicians, through a completely transparent and participatory process.
  • What if some officer in Lokpal becomes corrupt? The entire functioning of Lokpal/ Lokayukta will be completely transparent. Any complaint against any officer of Lokpal shall be investigated and the officer dismissed within two months.
  • What will happen to existing anti-corruption agencies? CVC, departmental vigilance and anti-corruption branch of CBI will be merged into Lokpal. Lokpal will have complete powers and machinery to independently investigate and prosecute any officer, judge or politician.

Now, what's my view on all this?

I understand that people like Justice Santosh Hegde, Prashant Bhushan and Arvind Kejriwal (and Shanti Bhushan, J M Lyngdoh, Kiran Bedi, Anna Hazare etc.) mean good, and believe that more laws and more "institutions" to catch "thieves" will make a difference. Yes, and no. Yes, the RTI act has helped reduce petty corruption, but it is NOT the solution, and the total amount of corruption has INCREASED.

Similarly, I think LokPal Bill is over-hyped. It will NOT achieve anything substantial and may INCREASE corruption.

The problem in India is not corrupt people, but the system that makes them corrupt. The problems are explained in BFN, and the solution must start with a change in electoral laws.

I am CERTAIN that the LP will drive corruption more under-ground than it is today. LokPal can be an add-on, once corruption starts reducing after a change in electoral laws, but currently, with 100% of the politicians being corrupt, and 90% of the bureaucrats, it will only touch (at most) the tip of the iceberg. And it will merely drive corruption into Swiss accounts.

Anna is a nice man but doesn't understand the causes of India's problems. He is a Gandhian, I understand. That school of thought is incapable of creating wealth in India or removing poverty, or corruption.

And yet, I do believe these are nice people and their efforts must be respected. I applaud Anna for his belief that he is fighting against corruption (that this is not the way to do it, is a different matter). Similarly I applaud Baba Ramdev for his fight against corruption (although he too, doesn't have a clue about resolving this matter).

On corruption, JP of Lok Satta is FAR AHEAD in his understandings of the causes (and solutions), and FTI is definitely at the very top of the 'tree of understanding' on this issue. 

Indeed it is very clear to me that corruption is NOT A PROBLEM but a SYMPTOM OF VARIOUS OTHER PROBLEMS. 

Lok Pal Bill, as a band-aid, can't and will NOT resolve the causes of the problem – which arises from bad policy and shoddy electoral laws.

ADDENDUM

See this blog post and my comment.

TWO MORE BLOG POSTS I'VE PUBLISHED ON THIS ISSUE: here and here

(If you find it challenging to understand complex things and must only think of ONE thing, then read this blog post:
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Open letter to Wikipedia

Based on an incident a few weeks ago, in which Wikipedia widely spread partially correct information across the world re: Rahul Gandhi (that the information was plausible is another matter), I've sent the following email to Wikipedia today, and am also publishing it here for the public record. I'm grateful to an anonymous person who sent me information on how I might pursue this matter.

OPEN LETTER TO JIMMY WALES

Dated 29 March 2011.

Dear Jimmy Wales

I'm writing to you with a suggestion regarding a fundamental improvement to your otherwise wonderful open encyclopedia: Wikipedia.  

This relates to the quality and reliability of your content and to the inadequacy of warnings against the use of the information that you purvey. 

The other day (details here) I happened to be quite seriously misled by an entry on Wikipedia that circulated widely on Facebook. That entry purported to precisely pin-point Rahul Gandhi's illicit and illegal wealth. Now, while I'm personally sure that Rahul Gandhi and his family (and all major political leaders in India) have stolen a very significant amount of money from the people of India (this money is used primarily for elections; see my book, Breaking Free of Nehru for details) I don't know the precise amount. The fact that this information was purveyed on Wikipedia meant I did not conduct the due diligence to check the references personally, and wrote a blog post challenging Rahul Gandhi to prove otherwise.

Why did I rely on Wikipedia? First, I made the assumption that Wikipedia has an effective  editorial system, something I've personally experienced over the years (I've made a few Wiki entries myself, and once in ignorance of Wiki's system accidentally deleted some content and was subject to significant and instantaneous comment from Wiki editors). Further, I have also read in newspapers that it takes only about five minutes for entries to be reviewed by (voluntary) editors in Wikipedia after they are posted. And so I assumed that your volunteers had done their due diligence. But the fact is that Wiki editors had not read the references properly. It now appears that the closest amount cited in the references was about 10 times less than what the Wikipedia entry said. 

I believe that it is not possible for a person to exercise due diligence on each and every entry on Wikipedia. And over the years everyone, including policy makers, academics, and students, have started using Wikipedia as an authentic source of information – just like they would use any other published encyclopedia.

It is for this authenticity presumably that Google gives Wikipedia a Page rank of 9 (at least that indicates its use) compared with a PR of 3 for my blog. Your Alexa rank also very high: 8, compared to mine which is in the 300 thousands! Your site is linked to over 1 million sites, mine is linked to only 40. All this confirms, at the least,  that your site is relied upon by many millions each day to check facts. They believe you.

And so the importance of warning users against the fact that that your encyclopedia does not necessarily represent the truth. The message "caveat emptor" should be therefore spring up from every corner of your website.

Yes, I'm informed that you do have a disclaimer – but it is hidden away somewhere (here, to be precise). In that you are still not forthright that you are potentially carrying a huge number of falsehoods on your website. You merely write: "Content is not the result of an editorial decision by the Wikimedia Foundation or its staff". That's neat, and gets you (presumably) out of direct responsibility for content posted on your website. But what about those who use information posted on your website? How can Wikipedia possibly disseminate false information widely but also escape accountability? This doesn't make sense.

I'm all in favour of freedom but I find the dissemination of false information on Wikipedia to be a fundamental problem. Had Rahul Gandhi actually sued me in this case I would have had no choice but to directly  implicate you. The original purveyor of falsehood is responsible, in my view. The secondary purveyor, if he has done so in good faith, is far less liable.

There is one way out of this gray area: Caveat emptor.

You are potentially selling a LOT of false and fake information. So at the minimum you are personally obliged to warn your customers that they must take full responsibility for the use of the information you purvey. Note that you presumably make a living out of this enterprise, so you can't escape full responsibility even then. Either you set up an editorial system with checks and balances, or you shut down your website.

At the minimum, I suggest you put out a warning in BOLD, RED colour (in a box) on EACH page on Wikipedia stating something like this, that "Wikipedia is not responsible for the content posted on its website, and you the consumer must take direct responsibility for any use you make of the information we purvey". This warning, on each page, would immediately create the right level of doubt necessary in this murky environment where falsehoods pretend to be facts. That way people like me who are increasingly becoming more careless in the diligence they need to exercise to verify Wikipedia information, would no longer take each piece of information they see on your website as gospel and would actually do some more work before acting on it.

I trust you will take the necessary corrective steps to ensure that you no longer purvey of fake and false information to the general public without adequate warning being issued to them. Selling false information (people have to pay to access Wikipedia, through their ISPs) would amount to a violation of your freedom, and I don't think you could escape personal responsibility should the crunch ever come on this matter.

I'd encourage you to discuss this matter on my blog as an equal. We are both concerned about freedom of expression, but there are no unbounded rights to libel anyone. 

Regards

Sanjeev

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India should bomb the hell out of Gaddafi’s armed forces

The following extract from my draft manuscript, The Discovery of Freedom says precisely what the world should do (but probably won't do) in the case of the Libyan civil war today:

EXTRACT

An unjust war violates justice, hence freedom. The American war against Japan and Nazi Germany was entirely just. Indeed, all non-Germans across the world could have been enslaved had the Allies not destroyed Hitler. Indeed, had the Allies entered the battlefield much earlier, they could have nipped Hitler’s life-threatening plans in the bud. Churchill thus warned, in 1930, about the risks from not challenging Hitler: ‘If a dog makes a dash for my trousers, I shoot him down before he can bite.’[1] Squeamishness and risk aversion allowed the Nazi disease grow so large that the consequent cost to the Allies of destroying Hitler became astronomical. For a moment, the world hung in balance between evil and freedom.
 
The claim of national sovereignty weakens and almost disappears when the government of a nation begins a predator, destroying its own citizens. Recall that nations are not innately sovereign – only people are. We live in nation states for our convenience, not because the claims of nationhood exceed us. It is not possible (nor hence sensible) to exhort Adolf Hitler or Saddam Hussein to behave well. They must be captured, tried and beheaded; and not one further innocent life lost because of their crimes. Not doing so effectively makes us an accomplice to their mass-murders.
 
It is true that making a decision to intervene under such circumstances poses many challenges for democratic societies. Intervening too early makes it difficult to produce counterfactual evidence about the killings averted. Therefore, politicians who intervene early are likely to be criticised about their ‘over-reaction’. Such considerations end up leading to delay in the necessary response: such is the nature of democracy. Unfortunately, this leaves mankind more vulnerable than it should be, to the worst aspects of humanity.

[1] Quoted in TheLast Lion: Alone (1939-1940) by William Manchester.

 

COMMENT

I can understand why USA is very concerned about over-reaching after getting bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. USA is in any event not going to be the leading power of the 21st century. 

I can't understand why India, which should now start vigorously claiming world leadership in freedom, can't help out the people of Libya against the monstrous tyrant who is bombing them with planes.

I can understand that India will want to minimise loss of life of Indians, but what stops India from bombing the hell out of this madman's airforce and defence positions from the air?

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Words fail to describe the phenomenal power of nature

The sheer power of plate tectonics boggles the human mind. I know that the Earth is a tiny planet in a tiny star system in a remote arm of the Milky Way among 100 billion other stars, with the Milky Way being just one of 100 billion similar galaxies (please do see Hubble 3D if you haven't yet seen it – nothing more beautiful) – but we humans are used to leading our lives on a different scale altogether, on its surface – which we claim to own! 

We argue about "property" over this Earth, we even claim we own ourselves! (we who can't create a mere bacteria from scratch, claim we own our body!) Such a joke are we as a species sometimes – arguing, fighting, killing over trifles. There would be far less conflict if we didn't take ourselves so seriously, as if WE (!!) owned the Earth! (yes, we do, through the classical liberal state, but that's a different matter altogether)

The truth is that we know not who we are and from whence we come; nor where we are going. Even if we get the material science underlying such questions right we still don't have any substantive answer about ANYTHING of importance. We are forced to make up our own answers, or believe in someone else's answers or imaginings.

The Earth, which has been circling the Sun for billions of years doesn't fail to remind us every now and then, that we are mere twigs on its surface; creatures made of stardust, destined – without fail – to mingle with its dust again. 

This recent "earthquake itself (not the tsunami) released about 336 megatons of force. That's equivalent of 22400 atom bombs dropped to Hiroshima" (source – not sure how reliable this source is, though!). The power unleashed was truly mind-boggling. 

Here's a picture (one of many outstanding photos on CNN) that epitomises the earthquake and tsunami – one can't imagine how a huge yacht can be flung on top of a building. And notice the total devastation around. (See also this time lapse depiction of the earthquake sequence.)

When the Earth "behaves" in this manner – very powerfully and disruptively – we aren't able to put in words the overpoweringly humbling sense of our limitations we feel. In the face of these powerful events – which are perhaps like tiny scratches on the earth's crust – much of what we talk and think about must necessarily take a back seat. 

And yet we have to live within ourselves. We have to recover and fight back, and advance further. It will never be possible to eliminate this huge force of nature, but maybe we will learn to predict some of its power, and generally to live more safely. Our species has prospered for tens of thousands of years in the face of great odds. We should study these events very carefully to learn more about nature.

The lesson the Japanese teach us: GAMAN.

I was moved deeply by reading about this – the law of 'gaman' – that the Japanese follow. They won't even cry in public. They do know how to put their philosophy into practice. Three cheers to the Japanese for setting such high standards for the rest of us to follow. And of course, our prayers are with them today.

The nuclear issue

The nightmare of Japan won't end soon, it would appear. Nuclear energy is normally the safest form of energy in the world. However, Fukushima's reactors are around 40 years old. A normal reactor's life of around 40 years, so these are one of the world's oldest reactors, and clearly included some design features that failed and allowed the current problem to occur. I am sure later reactors (including future reactors) will be significantly safer.

While the reactors were not directly impacted  by the earthquake, their power was shut off, and that has led to this contingency. Apparently, "the type of accident that is occurring in Japan is known as a station blackout. It means loss of off-site AC power—power lines are down—and then a subsequent failure of emergency power on-site—the diesel generators. It is considered to be extremely unlikely" (Scientific American).
 

No nuclear explosion is going to occur

"Based on what we understand, the reactor has been shut down, in the sense that all of the control rods have been inserted—which means there's no longer a nuclear reaction" (Scientific American). The worst case scenario now is a extensive leakage of radioactivity that can potentially harm a few thousand people – in the long run, through cancer (that's what I gather, based on outcomes of a similar incident in Chernobyl – the worst incident so far – although I have read that this particular case won't go that far; fingers crossed).

Despite this incident, I continue to support nuclear technology as the world's safest form of energy production, and believe it will continue to get safer with each passing year, through learnings from the few (very rare) mishaps that have so far occurred.

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