Econ Mom, voter perceptions and a dash of Tennyson

“Hi, Mom! What’s for dinner?” That was Teenager, back from his badminton practice at about 8:00 p.m.

“Well,” I said enthusiastically, “there’s roti, beans, dal and carrot raita in curd!” That was me, happy and secure in my belief that I’m feeding all the right stuff to my family.

“What? Beans? Uuuuuuuuuugggggggggggghhhh. NOONE eats beans, Ma, except us. And we eat it every third day! Beans, potato, beans, brinjal, beans, capsicum, beans…?”

I looked at him speculatively. Teenager has taken this one thing from me, for sure. He can exaggerate. The boy can have a golden career as an economist, I started thinking. “The GDP growth rate of India is 7%, nnnno, its actually 7.3%, nnnnnnnnaaahhh, it’s more like 7.8%!” Yeah, he can really do a fine career out of this wonderful trait. Put him in the RBI, and your CPI will go crashing down to 4% or wherever it is that Urjit wants it to be. Put him in NITI Aayog, and you will get your growth numbers right. Put him in the Commerce Ministry, and India’s trade to world trade ratio will cross the dreaded 3% psychological benchmark in a matter of minutes! Heehee, the boy has potential, I tell you. He simply HAS to become an economist.

“I am NOT going to eat this! Give me something interesting, Mom, I’m hungry! And I’m bored” That broke my reverie and jerked me back to reality. And the reality is that teenagers have absolutely no clue or interest in any career profiles. They have only two massive sensations. One, hunger and two, boredom. Sigh.

“Beans are great for health! And …”

“Mom, why can’t you make Chhole-bhature or pasta for dinner?”

“Because the former is oily and the latter is maida. Only calories. No nutrients. Beta, dinner has to be healthy! And this week, we’ve not really had beans for about…”

“20 hours,” piped in the Hubs, with a sly smile. “This time she has really broken all records and cooked beans within the usual 24 hour deadline!”

“Oh, shut up, both of you! And boys, you can’t declare a strike at 8:00 p.m. Food is ready, I am beat and I am not going to cook anything else. It’s too late for that.”

“This is so not fair!” Teenager, indignant with rage and upset at the gastronomical disappointment. “If it’s not possible to change the menu at the last minute, then ask me earlier, Mom. Next time, ask me when you go shopping for veggies. ONLY the vegetables I approve should be bought next week. Else you’ll keep on dishing out what you feel is right…”

That’s interesting! Thought Econ Mom, surfacing suddenly in Mrs. Phadke’s kitchen. Hmmm, isn’t that exactly what the State Election Commissioner had been saying, just a couple of days ago, in our meeting at Mumbai?

“We need to take a look beyond our usual role.” The Commissioner, as always, had come well prepared with his ideas on what needs to be done. “The role of the State Election Commission of Maharashtra (SECM) is to conduct local body elections in a free, fair and transparent manner. And we do that, to the best of our capacities and abilities. But the real question is, even if the election is conducted fairly, are people really getting a fair choice to choose from?”

For the uninitiated reader, let me just put in a little bit of gyan. When the candidates file their nomination forms for an election, that is when the voters come to know what is the mix of people from which they select a people’s representative for themselves. With great foresight and I must say, with a lot of gumption, the state of Maharashtra offers a “NOTA” i.e. “None Of The Above” option for its voters, so that the voters do not have to always choose the least of all evils. They are getting a choice to say that they want none of the candidates at all. And this, is supposed to be an absolute triumph for democracy.

However, deeper thought tells you that while NOTA is great for freedom of expression, the fact that hordes of people have this expression is itself worrisome. Thus, what is happening is that candidates filing nomination do not match the expectations of the electorate. The authorities know this, but they can’t do much about it. So, they decide to give the NOTA option to the electorate so that their voice can be heard loud and clear on the day of the election. “We do NOT like these candidates.” The problem is, that it is kinda late to do anything about this, just pretty much like it was too late for me to cook a different recipe for Teenager at 8 p.m.

“The true solution is to give them a voice before the elections.” That was what the Commissioner was saying in the meeting. Is it really necessary to do that? Even while this thought hit my mind, I got the answer. “Our job is to do everything in our scope to strengthen democracy. If the electorate is not happy with the candidature, we can’t just sit around offering NOTA. NOTA might bring the issue to light, but it certainly does not resolve it.” NOTA is the dressing on the wound. The team was brainstorming on why there is the wound in the first place.

And out of that emerged one solution. Accordingly, we’re currently doing a snap poll on voter perceptions, or what the voters want. What kind of a candidate do they really want? Do they want people who are clean, or is the priority on efficiency? How many voters feel that candidates ought to be well-educated in order to be a good representative? What proportion of voters feel that women make better representatives than men? How many people are of the opinion that good candidates stay away due to criminalization of politics?

Data analysis will soon reveal voters’ preferences. This is to be done prior to the filing of nomination forms, so that the political party heads too will get a pulse of what the common man wants. This will hopefully feed into a more scientifically designed ticket distribution process, with at least a few deserving candidates getting the tickets. Rather like buying only those veggies that Teenager approves of. This will truly give voice to the electorate and make the process more participative, which is exactly where we want to go, right?

Right, but, will this work? Even if the data analysis brings out these trends, are political parties going to toe the line? Are they going to go by statistics, or by the simple chemistry of dynasty and money? We all know the answer, don’t we? Then am I doing something futile? Why should we create this data-base on voter perceptions when we know that the true users of this data, the political parties, can, but won’t use it?

I sat in my chair, post dinner, brooding over the futility issue, when Teenager started a discussion with Daddy dearest on poetry. They were both arguing about what a line in some poem meant. I was far away from the discussion, disturbed and restless. Suddenly, Teenager propped his English text in front of my eyes. “Mom? Have you ever read these lines?” he asked.

And Econ Mom found her answer. In a dog-eared literature text-book. The answer to why a scientifically designed statistical survey has to bring out voter issues, political parties be damned. “Tis better to have loved and lost”, said Alfred Lord Tennyson, “than never to have loved at all.” Bravo.

 

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Kahani Contract Ki: Holmstrom’s Sholay connection!

Dear Reader,

Hi! Here’s a tweak piece arguing that the Contract Theory of the Nobel Laureate Bengt Holmstrom is but a spin-off of Sholay 🙂

This piece appeared under my column Tweakonomics in the Hindu Business Line today. You can read it at http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/columns/tweakonomics-on-nobel-prize-for-economics/article9211922.ece; else read it here directly. Cheers!

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The modern world rests on the foundations built by contracts. Contracts, when completed, when partially honoured, when inefficiently designed, lead to different scenarios that can be used to describe situations in the world of economics and sociology. It is for “launching contract theory as a fertile field of basic research” that the Nobel Prize in Economics for 2016 has been awarded to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström.

Year 1975. As fate would have it, Holmström, then a professor at Kellog’s Graduate School of Management, was bored. Life had become but a bowl of cereal. Paul Samuelson had already received his Nobel for unifying static and dynamic analysis. There was Kuznets who had had the last word in growth, and Kenneth Arrow who took the system from growth to welfare. In the process, if there were any fluctuations at all, Myrdal and Hayek had already explained them. Milton Friedman had had the last word on most of stabilisation theory and Ohlin broke the trade barriers. Aaaarrrrgh! Was there anything at all left to be analysed?

Frustrated, Holmström went home and idly flipped channels on TV. Lady Luck was watching. Had Holmström decided to watch the many antics of Lucille Ball, she would not have helped him. The world would then be a different place.

A certain Cambridge economist would go on to become FM and then, against all odds, the PM of a developing country. Quite a strange contract it would be. The intense political economy situation would lead him to pen the theory of political contracts and later to a powerfully silent Nobel acceptance speech. After all, a lot rested on whether he would flip over to the next channel or not. Holmström hesitated, paused, and flipped.

An Indian movie was being aired. There were people dancing to a song. And then suddenly came dacoits. The villagers ran helter-skelter and two good-looking young men shot at the dacoits, who were forced to return to their lair to face the wrath of the Sardar. “Kitne aadmi thhey?” asked the Sardar spitefully. How interesting! This guy, who is the principal dacoit, does not really know what his agents face in the field. The main fella has an objective function of dominating the local area with the help of Kalia et al., whose main objective is to bully and snatch food from villagers. How non-optimal! A breach of contract is imminent. Hmmm. How will the principal control his little gang of agents? “Jo darr gaya, samjho marr gaya.” Ouch!

But see how the coin flips (ahem, quite literally too, in the film). There’s this cop, who too is a principal working with the agents. He is not only armless, but also pretty much blind to field issues. But he is smart. He has the objective function spelt out: “Mujhe Gabbar chahiye. Zinda.” He keeps the money part of the contract simple. Half the amount to be paid at the beginning, half once the job is completed. This thakur tests his agents’ capabilities, gives them information over a spiffing cabaret performance to complete the contract, and in the end also uses the verbal promise made by one friend to emotionally fortify the terms of the contract.

“Brilliant!” thought Holmström feverishly. Every situation is basically an outcome of a contract, wisely or unwisely written. Let me put this down into an academic paper. As the thakur would have said, “Loha garam hain. Maar do hathauda.” The rest is history.

Surgical, Purgical and Mergical Strikes in the Indian Budget

The surgical strikes carried out by the Indian Army have taken the imagination of the country by storm and rightly so.

In the meanwhile, “Surgical strike” has become the absolutely new buzzword in town. Such is the lure of the word that Chetan Bhagat has immediately decided on his new book: Surgical Strike-Point-(at)-Someone. The fellow is simply incurable.

Newshour has declared 8 weeks of Surgical Strike analysis and apparently been calling up Pakistani politicians furiously to book their dates for the period. This single-handedly has caused dizzying levels of relief for Indian politicians, who for the first time in many days, feel completely free to make idiotic statements and mini-scams without fear of being grilled by the One and Only. The PR team of the UPA scion’s Kisan Yatra is said to have collapsed amidst mingled tears of joy and relief. The Kisans though, are on the run.

B-Schools, tired with meaningless terms such as “leveraging marketing strengths to enhance ground zero” are simply overwhelmed by the discovery of such a powerful new word. Harvard Business School has now officially included a new strategy in the corporate mantras: The Strike with a capital S. Bewildered students are now being asked to “leverage marketing Strike potential to enhance ground zero”. Financial Management Journals, which hitherto described “Strike Price” as the price at which a security can be purchased due to an option, now also include the definition of the “Surgical Strike Price”. This is the price at which security can be enhanced when no options are left with us anymore.

Amidst such corporate celebrations, however, the FM has been sulking. Had he known the term before, he could have leveraged it to enhance ground zero, errr, to highlight main points of the fiscal policy. How? Well, getting the GST passed was no less than a surgical strike, was it? To trump the Opposition in LS elections so as to get the majority in the Lower House, and then to diplomatically isolate them by highlighting their attempts to stall the Bill, was just the start. And then, those incessant sessions with the State Committees to understand the sticky issues and accommodate the sensible demands. Hadn’t he too, spent sleepless nights, before the passage of the Bill?

Take the case of removing the Plan – Non Plan design of the Budget.  For the first time, the Budget will be presented, way before its usual February date, without the usual priorities as suggested by a Five Year Plan. The Budget accounts will only be classified into the Revenue and the Capital Accounts, with zero mention of the legendary Plan and Non-Plan Expenditure classification. To remove the influence of the Five Year Plan from the Budget as well as do away with a separate Railway Budget has been no mean feat; a “purgical” strike, anyone?

Hmmm. And that masterstroke of creating the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), while at the same time allowing the Governor the autonomy of a casting vote. He had simply changed the dynamics of the game; now there would also be growth combatants together with inflation warriors within the RBI. He had successfully merged growth objectives with inflation management, and how! “Oh, I should have called it my “mergical” strike” he thought wistfully.

Of course, the decision of the MPC, in its very first policy review, to slash rates has not gone down well with all economists. Dr. Rajan, the erstwhile Governor shuddered delicately in Chicago, when quizzed about his reaction to the rate cut. “It’s more of a “splurgical” strike,” he said. “A classic case of too many cooks spoiling the Booth.”