Econ Mom is back!

Hi there, readers! I know I’ve been absolutely absconding on the blog front and have written simply nothing for the past 3 months. But well, I’ve been writing serious stuff for a change. And have come out with something like 10 reports on different aspects of local body elections for the State Election Commission of Maharashtra. And those too, completely formally written, not even a whiff of a joke. Its so not me, and its taken a chunk of my mind to be that serious!

Well, actually, I would have completely given up on Econ Mom, had it not been for Anagha, who’s not only my best friend, but also my blog follower and severest critic. It so happened that we met suddenly, without planning it, both of us after having dropped respective charges to respective classes and enjoying that “I am free for 50 minutes now!” mommy moment. I guess we could both recognize the slightly wild and loony look in each others’ eyes which only mothers are known to identify, and after laughing madly for a minute, got gossiping about this thing and the other.

And after a while, it came to why I’ve stopped writing. “Don’t you stop writing, Econ Mom,” said Anagha wickedly. “People may start thinking that Teenager doesn’t bother you anymore and that Hubby gives you five-star treatment at home.”

WHAT! That is a serious charge. Teenager grows more obnoxious by the day and Hubby, hmmm. The lesser said about him, the better. Nah, this won’t do! So I got down to writing the blog, pronto.

Three months of continuous election research has converted poor ole’ Econ Mom into a Political Mommy though. But I’m not complaining. It’s been exciting, using econometric methods on political databases, and it gives one a rare look into why the economics of decentralization and development just cannot work in this country. The representatives of the people are so ill-equipped to do any which developmental project at even the basic levels; hell, most of them do not even know what their own job is!

Last week. Around 5:30 p.m. The Phadke household was whirring quietly. Teenager was reading a book (I think he’s reading the Wimpy series for the 131st time or something), Hubby was browsing through newspapers, happily humming an old Geeta Dutt number. He was going wrong on the lyrics, but I was too busy to be reacting. Hmm, but it gives me ammunition for a fight later. Heehee.

I was peering quietly into my laptop, which was simply spewing up data on those candidates who had filed their nomination forms and affidavits for contesting the Pune Municipal Corporation elections. Hmm, 36% have a criminal charge against them. Of these, 30% have serious criminal charges- rape, murder, assault. 45% are Crorepatis or have patis which are Crorepatis. Interesting, of these Crorepatis, 45% have studied upto the 8th standard. My stats package gave out a negative correlation between education levels and assets, and I got worked up.

“Nonsense!” I exclaimed loudly.

 Hubby sauntered over, didn’t quite understand the SPSS screen and asked me, with evident interest, “What happened?”

“Oh, I’m so irritated, I can’t tell you. Look at these buggers who’ve got aspirations of becoming people’s representatives. “4th standard pass”, this particular entry says. And this other one is even better. It says the woman is not only B.A., but also XII pass, and also X pass and also 4th Standard. GAWD! If this woman does not understand that when asked for the education level, she has to only tick the MAX education level she cleared, tell me, what does she think she is going to do for my city? AAAAAAAAAAARRRRRGH, I am BUGGED!”

“You’re over reacting, honey. It’s ok, give that poor woman a break!”

“You know what? I would have, had there been one of this type. But there are something like 217 such completely idiotic applications and they feel they can represent ME!”

“Mom? Don’t yell. I’m getting disturbed. A child can’t even read peacefully in his own home these days!” That was Teenager, making stupid remarks, but quite obviously enjoying the “Mommy is mad at someone else” moment.  

“And you know what, young man..” I turned to Teenager, sharpening my claws for an attack, when the doorbell rang.

“I’ll get it!” said Teenager hastily, getting out of intellectual harm’s way.

Two women, wearing saris. Stoles around their neck, bearing the symbol of the political party they represent, were standing at the door. Teenager was quite taken aback at the visitors and hollered for me.

“Namaskar!” said one of the women. “I’m going to be contesting the election from this Ward and I thought I’ll come and see you all…”

“Oh! That’s so nice of you! Please do come in. You must be tired with your campaigning!” I was a bit intrigued that a candidate had come home.

She was a bit reluctant but did come in and accepted a cup of chai. “So Madam, why should we vote for you?” I asked her chirpily, even as a sharp intake of breath from Hubby told me that I was being rude.

“Ummm…” she faltered. I think she too was a bit taken aback at being asked this so openly. “Because…because, yes, because I’m going to really work for this ward!” she concluded triumphantly, with the other accompanying lady making strong, encouraging noises to egg her on.

“And, what work have you done in the past, Madam?” I asked, keeping my voice non-threatening and as even as possible.

“She has done great work!” That was the companion. “Last year, she held a vaccination camp for polio vaccination! You really should vote for her!”

“Madam, it is Amitabh Bacchhan who gets the mothers into the camp with the Do Boond Jindagi Ke campaign. You have to tell me what it is that YOU have done about it!”

The lady was scared by now. “Yes! I remember! I…I..I held a Haldi Kunku in the Sankranti festival!”

The Companion nodded vigorously. “Yes! Haldi- Kunku! And she distributed gifts and spread cheer and good will! You really should vote for her!”

By now I was upset. As in, really getting into top form.

“Madam,” I began in my most steely voice (somewhere in the background I could see Hubby making frantic movements to get me to stop), “people in this ward really want some development. You have to tell me your plans for solving the traffic issue, for segregation of wet and dry garbage. I need better streetlights and safety. I can NEVER park my car anywhere in this God forsaken ward; you have to create parking spaces (My voice had climbed up 10 decibels and I was unstoppable). You can’t be serious, Madam. Your pitch for my vote is extremely weak; unless you tell me your solutions for my problems, how do you expect me to vote for you?”

The women were looking extremely frightened by now.

Hubby pitched in helpfully. “Oh, don’t worry, Madam!” he said in a booming voice. “She says that to every candidate! She will definitely vote for you!” (Teenager was busy suppressing a giggle). I glared at Hubs.

“No, I won’t. Tell me your plans, Madam!”

Madam was looking positively scared.

“Well, actually I don’t really have any such plans..But I still want you to vote for me!”

I think even she realized how terrible that sounded. And then, the poor poor woman ventured in a low voice, “Ma’m, I really don’t know what plans to talk about. Could you advise me, what should I say to the voters?”

I must admit, this threw me off balance. I wanted to laugh out aloud. Oh, the irony of it! The candidate was asking me what she should tell other voters! But I recovered, quickly, I must say. And I informed her snootily, but quite kindly, “Madam, you need to tell people your vision for this ward. For example, there are no parking spaces. Parking cannot be planned horizontally in a growing city. Build a 14-storey parking tower in Kothrud!”

“Why 14-storey, Madam?” The Companion asked me idiotically.

“Aaaaaaaaargh, any number of storeys will do! Rather these storeys that stories!” I caught Hubby’s eye, seeking appreciation for my well-placed pun. I instead got a “Please stop talking” look.

“Tell people how you plan to have compost pits in gardens or something like that..”

“Wow, Madam!” said the candidate, suddenly full of confidence. “Bas, this is it! I am going to put in a 14-storey parking tower in Kothrud…and have compost pits!” She had the damn thing by-heart.

 “Well, now, people want an educated candidate in the ward, and someone with Community Building experience, Madam..I am a researcher with the State Election Commission and see these reports?” I waved some of my reports to them…”In these reports, we’ve created strategies for…”

Hubby and Teenager were rolling their eyes at each other.

But the women were done with me. “We really really need to leave!” They said hurriedly.

“You have to vote for me! I’m going to put up a 14-storey parking tower!” The lady told me sheepishly on her way out. The Companion nodded vigorously. “Yes, yes…lots of parking. Vote for her!”

And that was that. As I closed the door, Hubby shook his head at me. “Have you lost it, woman? Why the hell did you wave your reports at them? Gawd, you positively terrified them, Manasi..please control yourself.”

Teenager was on the phone, talking to Best Teenager Friend. “Embarassing. She keeps on and on about her election work. It’s ok petrifying people outside home. At least I can pretend I don’t know her. But at home! Can’t even claim I don’t know her!”

Just then, the doorbell rang…

“We come from the best political party in town! We’ve got you your voter slips!”

“Oh, won’t you come in?”I said icily…And Econ Mommy continues…

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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.

 

Econ Mom as the confused driver!

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaarghhh! It’s been such a nutty week and poor Econ Mom is a complete, total, confused mess.

It all started a couple of weeks ago, when my car started making strange noises on applying the brakes. Now, a good ole Honda doesn’t ever create any which noise, forget strange noises, and I was spooked. I tried applying the brakes fiercely, gently, with a smile and with a professional pan-face. Nope.

The car wouldn’t be persuaded and was taken off for an overhaul. In the meanwhile, the Hubs sweetly offered me his car. I’d have liked it with the Hub-chauffeur, but no such luck. I got only the machine minus the man. And the main problem is that it is German.

We, of the Honda tribe, detest German engineering. Gott im Himmel! Hubby’s Polo doesn’t start till you apply some serious muscle tension to the key; and the reverse gear is the first gear plus tension. I tell you, I was unused to such tension in my regular driving life and it was freaking me out.

But, you don’t know the worst yet. The Polo indicator controls and the wiper controls are on the wrong side. The Germans may be marvellous at engineering, but the idiots don’t know their left from the right. OMG. This is magnificiently spooky. I was feeling like a right wing economist being forced into writing a poem “In Praise of Marx and Controls.”

The first day on the Polo and some weirdo who came from the opposite side of our super narrow street flashed his headlights at me. Now this, is a pure-ghee Indian driving phenomenon. The person flashing lights first apparently has the moral right of way, other things be damned. “Oh yeah, I’ll show you who goes first,” I thought viciously and flashed the light indicator viciously to be met by a most efficient German water jet on my windscreen, causing me to jump madly in my seat. “Hell,” I thought, automatically moving my left hand towards the wipers, in the process switching on some indicator lights. “Oh, this is really quite merry”, I thought with gritted teeth as cyclists and bikers behind me started to swear, not quite sure where I might eventually turn. By now, in addition to switching on all possible headlights and indicators, I had also started the wiper on the backscreen. My car does not have the feature and I was terrified. Germans, you back stabbers!

I had a real bad first week with the Polo. Even the radio wouldn’t play soothing songs and after listening to that idiotic woman pleading “DJ waale babu mera gaana bajaa do”, followed by Yo-Yo Honey Singh informing me conversationally in the middle of the downpour that “Din Hain apparently Sunny Sunny Sunny Sunny Sunny Sunny”, I was completely disheartened. I had had it.

Hubby was absolutely enjoying the whole process and had started taking unusual amount of interest in my daily “Aaj ki Polo khabar” ravings and rantings. After listening to my conspiracy theory on how the same radio stations were playing different songs for the Polo drivers, he couldn’t control his glee at all. “You could try writing “Who moved my indicator controls? We’ll get Subbarao to write the foreword for your book,” he suggested wickedly. “Oh, shut up. I’ll write Econ Mom and the Cursed Car instead,” I muttered darkly.

Sigh! As if I did not have enough on my plate, J K Rowling, of all the people, had decided to come out with a badly written book.  Lil One and I had quite a merry little boxing bout the day it arrived home, which I won mostly by virtue of tickling him (“That’s cheating, Mom!”) and then packing him ceremoniously off to school. But I was so badly, badly disappointed. The max humor content the book has to offer is when Albus Potter tells Scorpio, “Yeah, you can’t be Voldemort’s son. You’ve got a nose!”

Oh, really. C’mon, is this Rowling? To read a Potter without the witticism and the detailed plots and well-developed character nuances was such a culture shock. It was exactly like putting a Honda driver into a German car.

And then, the GST Constitutional Amendment Bill was passed. Such a rude shock for us economists! I mean, how could they? The monsoon session had started properly enough, with Rahul Baba dozing off and the rest shouting madly. Now, technically, this fervour had to be followed up with paper balls, flinging of chairs, and well, maybe pepper spray for high drama. Chidambaram had to shout that the NDA does not know its economics, and Subramaniam Swamy had to follow it up by saying that nobody in the world knows economics. An apoplectic-with-moral-rage Arnab, falling markets and a witty Tweakonomics piece by Yours Sincerely would wrap it up nicely.

So there I was, waiting for the Amendment not to go through, when it went through! Unanimously! And that is BIG news. It’ll mean a lot of changes in the short run, but the longer run gains should make up for the trouble. A single-window for indirect taxation, lesser administration, more transparency, lesser subjectivity in assessments, lesser time in transit and hopefully, a fair sharing-between-states system. It is what every economist had dreamt of.

And yet, there I was, confused. How can the UPA behave so professionally? Now whom will we blame for the low-pace in reforms? When you have all politicians rooting for taking reforms ahead, rather than play their own silly partisan games, it creates a rude shock in the minds of innocent citizens like me. Exactly like putting a Honda driver into a German car.

Epilogue

After driving the Polo for about 10 days, I got my car back. Oh, the feeling! I could have run to it and honked in slow motion! God must have sensed the romance and sent a small drizzle my way.

I immediately sat in my car and then, to my horror, started reflexively moving my right hand to start the wipers. To my consternation, the indicator lights started ticking, while the wipers wouldn’t budge. The radio informed my frayed nerves that “Hafte mein chaar Shaniwar hone chahiye”. OMG. Now I’m a German driver in a Japanese car. Help!

 

 

Econ Mom, Brexit and the Wimbledon finals

OMG. It’s that time of the year again, when Team Phadke moves into Antagonism Extremis.  As the loyal blog reader must know by now, we, the Phadkes, have never quite taken to the Amicable Extremis family model of the Smriti Irani prototype TV shows. We hate each others’ guts, and we’re superbly candid and proud about it. Even Lil One does not quite like his parents. Even when he was in third grade and all the ickle ones wrote reams and reams of stuff on “What I like about my mom”, Lil One had sat in school with a puzzled expression on his face, really not sure what he quite liked about Mommy dearest. He had finally ventured to write “My mother is funny. She makes faces while telling stories. She looks weird. I think I like her.” I hadn’t quite known whether to fret or be proud of the boy.

Well, so, to come back to the point, we don’t normally see eye to eye on most things, me n Hubby. But our usual arguments (which are fairly Ouch!) seem almost….sweet in comparison, when June arrives. Why? Because, June is TENNIS! The French Open followed by Winbledon, back to back. It’s enough to send our household into a complete, no-holds barred war scenario.

About a decade ago, when the Roger Federer – Rafael Nadal rivalry was at its peak, the June season at our place used to spark some of the worst marital issues ever. Even worse than who’ll do the dishes at night. Even worse than who didn’t fill the icecube tray after last use (That, single handedly is the cause of 73% of the famed Phadke arguments. BTW, it’s always Hubby. Though he’ll never agree to it. I am now thinking of putting in a mini camera in my ice-cube tray just to prove him wrong. Hehehe.) Even worse than who’ll clean the toilets. And that’s saying something. Sigh!

What with me supporting Nadal and Hubby dearest supporting Federer, emotions used to run sky high. French Open and the clay courts would normally bring out the best form in Nadal and the best scowl in Hubby. Oh God, after Nadal won the French Open final against Federer in 2007, Hubby had sulked and sulked and didn’t speak to me till Federer beat him back in the Wimbledon season. That I didn’t speak to him for an entire 2 month period post-Wimbledon is just a logical extension of the argument. Hubby is quite fond of that particular memory and gets this glassy eyed expression whenever he thinks of those two blissful months with me not shrieking at him.

This year’s been no different. “Nadal not playing French Open due to injury!” Hubby piped up suddenly, over morning tea whilst reading the news. “Tch. Tch. Tch. The poor man’s getting old. He should retire.” That came in a gleeful, teasing tone.  He spent most of the day passing idiotic comments on me and singing, “Mujhe buddhaa mil gayaa” and generally making me mad. Heehee. The next day Federer crashed out due to injury. I now joined in the singing fairly enthusiastically. By day end, we were getting on each other’s nerves and had a mother of a fight that evening. Even with both of them NOT playing, we again stopped talking to each other. AAAAAARRRRGH!!!!

Wimbledon was to start on the 27th June; in the meanwhile the Brexit referendum was held on the 23rd. The leave lobby won by a very slight margin; it was 52% voting for leave as compared to 48% voting to remain. I wasn’t amused. “I really don’t understand what they are going to gain by exiting.”I was talking to one of my colleagues on phone. “45% of UK exports are vis-a-vis Europe. How can one expect to create that kind of an export share with some other country? They are worried about the Syrians coming in and taking their jobs. But frankly, if Brexit happens, there won’t be too many jobs around in the first place for anyone to come in and grab. Brexit is so not a good idea!”

I have been reading up by the ton on Brexit analysis that is coming through and the more I look at the issue, I get a feeling that this is going to be one major setback for the EU in general, and UK in particular. Colossally bigger in scale and management than Greece was. The Grexit was about a fiscally indisciplined, small problem-child wanting to exit the family. UK has a fairly big presence in the EU and will create multiple issues upon exit. There’ll be something of a case that EU will want to make out of it and will make it painful for UK to exit, just so that others do not entertain similar fanciful ideas. The pain will obviously come in through squeezed out market access, high tariff and non-tariff barriers against UK, lower accessibility to capital flows etc. UK, which will be at the receiving end of the cold shoulder, does not have an immediate ally such as the US to help them tide over the crisis. Hmmm, Brexit is going to be fairly painful for UK.

“Mom! Are you coming here?” yelled Lil One from the living room. “The semi-final is just starting! Raonic vs. Federer!” OMG. Of course. I hurried into the living room. The tension was palpable. Hubby and Lil One turned blue, green and a delicate shade of yellow as Raonic unleashed those aces on Roger Federer. It was sad. Federer lost the semis and the final would now be between Raonic and Murray.

“I hope Murray beats him 6-0. 6-0, 6-0.” That was Hubby, brooding with a dark gaze on the dinner table. This is interesting. Hubby has never quite supported Murray, whereas I am well, not too fond of him, but I like his game.

“Gosh! Does that mean we ALL support the same player in the finals?” Lil One was quite impressed by the uniqueness of this situation. The poor boy has never quite seen his parents support the same player during tennis season. I wonder if he’ll be able to handle this spirit of bonhomie during Wimbledon finals.

“Yes, Lil One,” said Hubby winking at Lil One wickedly. “I so totally agree with Mom. Brexit is such a bad idea!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Econ Mom, a Goa vacation and the Tiebout model

Disclaimer 1: Econ Mom is an economist and hence has basic inherent rights to drool on and on about issues that may not be fun/ relevant/ interesting/ exciting/ amazing according to you.

Disclaimer 2: Unless you read all the serious boring stuff on public finance in the beginning of the blog, you anyways won’t understand what Econ Mom is thinking at the end of it.

Disclaimer 3: Yeah, sure! There’s wickedness coming your way, but you are going to have to plough through the basics for that. Lazy readers are advised not to read on.

Disclaimer 4: Econ Mom reserves rights to appear when she feels like in the blog. In the present one, she chooses to appear only in the end. What the hell, it’s MY blog! So here goes..

I have been reading up on fiscal federalism these days. It’s a part of my research interest.

Centre-State fiscal relations mainly span the collection of taxes and sharing of the same. While control over taxes is defined constitutionally under the “Union list” and the “State list”, the sharing of the same has been mostly formula-driven, again constitutionally. The Constitution has provisions for creation of the “Finance Commission”, which can then really decide how the Centre shares its taxes with states.

And then, there is also the Planning Commission, which willy-nilly, has played a part in Centre-State relationships. Well, even the Planning Commission has used some kind of a formula (the Gadgil-Mukherjee formula or some version of it) for tax sharing with states; however, not all tax shares are governed by formulae. Increasingly, in a reforms driven India, there is evidence that states received tax shares based not only on their economic fundamentals as encompassed in the “formulae”, but based on their political goodwill. Thus, states going to elections have received more tax shares, states that are politically more “aligned” with the Centre seem to have received higher tax shares.

Thus, a lot of modern empirical literature is into proving the existence of a political economy factor in determining Centre-State relationships. In my readings on the subject, I kind of went into the subject in a reverse timeline. I stumbled on a really interesting paper by Stuti Khemani (World Bank 2003) in which she spoke about how “political alignment” with the Centre has been a central idea in a 2001 paper on Swedish municipal councils. So I got reading that, which put me on an Avinash Dixit paper written in the 1980s on a game theoretic approach between two levels of Government. And well, since by now I already was neck deep into the subject, I decided to go backwards the whole way to the Big Bang, which happened in 1954.

The Big Bang of Public Finance, so to say, was created by Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. They just have different names in our field, and are called Paul Samuelson, Richard Musgrave and Charles Tiebout. And then there are plenty of other deities such as W. E. Oates and James Buchanan, who lent their mental Vajras and other weapons to sharpen the arguments.

The entire discussion started with Paul (Brahma) Samuelson defining public goods; his argument was that since the consumption of public goods (such as a street light) is necessarily, well, public, no one will be willing to pay for the same and hence, the market by itself will underprovide for the provision of public goods. In other words, capitalism may be wonderful. But free markets do not provide optimally for public goods.

Vishnu aka Richard Musgrave took the discussion further and classified public goods to be “non-excludable” as well as “non-rival”.

Hmmm. Nice. But it is Maheshji’s job to provide the necessary churning to the world created by Brahma and Vishnu, right? So here goes.

Enters Charles Tiebout, with a radically different viewpoint from the one provided by Musgrave. Says, are public goods always “non-rival”? Nnnnaah! Not really! Especially, if we are looking at “local” public goods such as a public park. Sure, you can’t exclude anyone. So it definitely is non-excludable. But it’s not always “non-rival”. If there is too much crowding into the park, then there exists rivalry in consumption of the good.

So, this is what Tiebout says. He firstly puts forth an idea that we need to look at public good provision from the perspective of a “local Government”. He likens local Governments (like Municipalities) to suppliers of different baskets of public goods at different prices (taxes). If a household does not like either the basket of goods that is being provided or the price at which it is being provided, then it can “vote with its feet” i.e. it may well choose to migrate away from that locality to another wherein the supply of public goods and its price matches its utility. This solves the problem of preference revelation effectively, as people’s preferences and their utilities get revealed through their decision to migrate. It is exit, rather than voice, that helps to reveal consumer preference.

Local Governments can closely observe the utility profiles of the public and hence, would be able to tax the people more accurately. They also are able to gauge the optimal quantity of public goods that need to be provided in an area. Thus, provision of public goods ought to be done by local Governments, who can then also tax the public for the provision.

Thus, according to Tiebout, there does exist a solution to the problem posed by Paul Samuelson. Provision of public goods need not be always sub-optimal; you just need local governments to take care of the thingy! Let local governments compete and voila! Optimal public goods is what the public will get.

What an interesting theory! He is suggesting that there is effectively, a political solution to this rather economic failure of the market mechanism. Politics to solve economic problems! What a wonderful thought! Though extremely impracticable, as Econ Mommy realized on her vacation to Goa. Yup, Goa it was, this year.

Goa. Blue skies, endless lines of coconut palms, backwaters, mangroves and the sea! Simply marvellous! We felt our spirits turn distinctly salty (just joking, guys!) as we drove down to the sea from Pune. The drive down the quaint little villages was just the balm I needed for my tired body and soul.

“We three are just like the three friends from Dil Chahta Hain,” suddenly announced Lil One with a grin at us. “We’re driving to Goa and we are really cool! At least….I am!” he said uncertainly, looking at the not-so-cool parents. Sigh!

“So who is Aamir Khan?” I asked no one in particular and grinned to see all three hands raised in the car.

Lil One felt he was the truly wicked one and hence qualified to be Aamir Khan. I was Saif Ali Khan, since I was always getting teased by the other two and Dad, he said loyally, was the thinker. Akshay Khanna. Hmmm…

Hubby, on the other, said that it was far too much fun pulling Lil One’s leg and hence Lil One was Saif and he himself, the leg puller, was Aamir. “Mommy’s Akshay Khanna,” he said with a grin, “because she is the sentimental types. Cries on seeing that foul movie. Whatisit called..”

“Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gam,” supplied Lil One helpfully and suddenly extremely high energy. “And Hum Saath Saath Hain..And Dad, do you know, she was crying watching Kuch Kuch Hota Hain yesterday!”

“Oh, shut up,” I said. It’s their favourite topic these days. Tell me, is it so bad to cry on seeing a movie? Yeah, I mean, even I agree that those movies are complete nonsense, but God alone knows why, Karan Johar makes me want to wail real real loudly, the bugger. I have given this a lot of thought as to how this happens to me and this is my analysis. I think my defences are already lowered by the complete lack of any brain usage for around 50 minutes and then, when I see all these idiotic melodramatic situations, it causes me to cry.

Sorry! I come back to Goa. “Who runs a humor column? I do! That means I qualify to be Aamir Khan!” I said bossily causing Lil One and Hubby to make rude faces at me. “And in any case, only I can sing Tanhai…it’s way beyond your skillsets, got it, boys?” The boys looked sulky about it. Hubby looked positively alarmed at him being chosen to be Saif Ali Khan because he can do the “flap flap” dance, and Lil One happily hummed “Kaisi hain hain, ruta kii jisme”.

We stopped in a picturesque village lane for a small picnic. And sauntered out of the car after our meal, just looking at the pretty little houses with slanting rooftops. Every house has a small yard in the front, mostly hosting coconut palms, with the familiar pepper creepers running up them. How pretty! Hubby said with a real longing in his voice, “Manasi, I wish we could settle here. I could stay here forever!” He had said the same in Kerala. “Goa or Cochin?” I asked with a grin. “Well, both!”

It is such a tempting thought. If you think of what a life you can have in Goa versus the one you have in Pune, Goa takes the cake and eats it too, royally. Look at the basic infrastructure. The roads are so beautiful. I mean, if you can have those smooth kind of roads when you are simply swamped with monsoons, I wonder why Pune has to have road-shadow, even when we lie in the rain-shadow zone. That brings me to the second point.

Rains. Water. OMG. To see all that water and greenery in Goa, just across the border from Maharashtra, was such a slap in the face. I have recently been on the roads in drought prone zones in Maharashtra and we all know about the monsoon issues that Marathwada and Vidarbha are facing. And in Goa, there is simply no water problem at all.

Plus, its cheap. Oh no, not the hotel stay. But petrol at Rs. 59. Aaaargh! And the basic fruits and vegetables. Its so cheap! There were hawkers on both sides of the roads into Goa, hawking mangoes, coconuts, jackfruits, karmals, karvandas, bimlis, bananas. It was really too much for my poor vegetarian soul to see all these fruits being hawked so cheap. I took it personally and gorged so much on the fruits in Goa in the last one week that I think I have single-handedly caused the fruit prices to go up. That last wrinkle on Dr. Rajan’s already lined forehead (no, not that big one, that one was created by Subramaniam Swamy), yeah, that little one there, that’s the one I created with the inflation index going up one tiny little notch, all thanks to my gluttony.

There aren’t too many things I agree with Hubby on, but this one was really really tempting. Wah, to settle down here! But what about our careers. And Lil One’s schooling. And our friends. And family.

Households are not really that mobile, after all. Even if Municipal Corporations are service providers offering baskets of services, households don’t really move around freely. Their personal choices come first and hence, even with the most tardy of service offerings, people stick around with the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC).

Thus, even with decentralization and creation of municipal corporations and gram panchayats competing with each other, we may not really find optimum provision of public goods taking place. And what that means is that people will keep flocking to the Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities, causing their municipal corporations to really crash under that huge migratory burden. Consequently, public goods provision will be bad.

But the so long as the losses on the public life are more than made up by gains on the personal front, people will be okay grumbling about it and life will go on, in a most un-Tieboutish manner. The Tiebout model goes wrong, because it makes the most impractical of assumptions, such as assuming perfectly mobile households.

Oh, why is it that the most interesting ideas are the ones that are mostly impractical?

Epilogue:

I came out from the waters and walked to Hubby, who was lounging in the sand, enjoying himself. He was singing. How romantic! I thought. May be he’s singing, “Sagar jaisi aakhon waali…”

Hmmm. He looked into my (sagar jaisi) eyes and sang, “Ye kahaan aa gaye hum, yoo hi saath saath chalte!”

Aaaargh! Why is it that the most interesting ideas are the ones that are mostly impractical?

Econ Mom, Hubby and some woman empowerment

“Which dress should I wear for the party tonight?” I gazed anxiously at Hubby as he thought about this critical issue for about 3 seconds before replying, “White.” “Are you sure?” I asked, and he replied smoothly, “Of course! It really suits you. The other red one is too loud, I think.”

“Thank you!” I squealed with relief, immediately deciding to wear the red one. I really like red and now I definitely know it’s the perfect choice. “Don’t know what I’d do without you, sweetheart,” I told him for good measure. “You’re the best!”

Hubby rolled his eyes at me later that evening, “Ummm…did you even hear what I had to say about the white dress?”

“Of course,” I answered, surprised. “It’s just that …whenever I decide on something, you always give me a completely counter opinion. Like I totally had decided to wear the red dress.  I was dying to hear your opinion that the white one is better. These days I take an opinion from you just to confirm I am on the right track.”

“Women!” said Hubby under his breath and Lil One giggled.

And then with a sly look at me, continued, “How nice it would be to have a wife who agreed with me! Who doted on me, and listened to every word I said.”  I gave him a look of pure, unadulterated contempt as he moved into his favourite thought zone, dreaming about scores of women simply falling over themselves to do his bidding.

Hmmm. Women conforming to what the husband says. Econ Mom has been meeting a lot of the types these days and believe me, it’s a grim reality to see that happen.

At the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, we’ve been constructing case studies on women in rural politics and I’ve been meeting with women representatives in Zilla Parishads, Panchayat Samitis and Gram Panchayats for the past 3 months now. It is important for the uninitiated reader to note that the 73rd Constitutional Amendment was passed in 1992 and it is this amendment that gave constitutional status to the Panchayat Raj Institutions. The amendment also provides for “no less than a third” representation to women, implying thereby that at least 33% of any Panchayat Raj body has to have women representatives.

The Maharashtra Zilla Parishads and Panchayat Samitis Act was accordingly amended in 1994. It is extremely interesting to note that this Act provides for not 33%, but 50% reservation for women in the Panchayat Raj systems! Interesting, because the Maharashtra Vidhan Sabha has not yet managed to pass even 33% reservation for women at state level. But at the Panchayat level, where we are culturally unsure of finding empowered women to run affairs of the state, we’ve mandated 50% reservation for women. Can you believe it?

Well, so certain constituencies get reserved for women, leading to women contesting elections only against other women, leading to “ghettoization” of women in politics, says Madhu Purnima Kishwar. And she is right there. Let us face the reality. Rural politics is completely dominated by males. And when the seat gets reserved for women, they get their wives to contest the same. So, the wives contest, one of them wins and comes to power. Now, when you meet such a woman who is in power not because it was an aspirational thing for her, but just because her husband asked her to contest elections, the interview you take can go horrendously wrong. A couple of the interviews I took were in the seriously, badly, extremely wrong category. As Shifu would have said, “There is now a level zero.”

You go to Marathwada in 42 degrees temperature. It has taken you 8 hours from Aurangabad to get to this really remote taluka panchayat. And you are really looking forward to seeing how women representatives work in these far flung areas.

But,O.M.G.

For starters, the husband insists on being present for the interview. You are meeting the lady in her “chamber” i.e. Samiti office and you kind of wonder why he is there in the first place. You politely say that I want to talk to the lady, so he goes out for about 12 seconds, during which she gives you a strained smile, clasping and unclasping her hands, and making you generally feel like those vamp Sasu-Maas in Hindi TV serials with the big bindis and earrings and curled lips, who make all those poor bahus cower in fear in front of them. And just as you are feeling tempted to peep into a mirror to check that a bindi hasn’t suddenly popped on three quarters of your forehead, the man is back! Just to check if you need tea! And then he casually seats himself plumb spang next to the lady’s chair and starts answering all your questions with aplomb.

Me:“Ummm, so how did you get into politics?”

She:“My husband felt that…”

Him: “The seat was reserved for women. And she is educated upto the 12th standard! Compare that to Nana Shinde’s wife, who is 4th pass. If she could win elections last time, why can my wife not do it?”

(Excuse me, WHAT are you talking about? Is education correlated with winning elections? If so, that’s a career high waiting for me there.)

Me: “Yes, right, right…so how do you come to know about the different development schemes?”

She: “My husband…”, she says, trailing off, and he picks it up.

Him (in his element): “Development schemes? Oh, we come to know of them in the newspapers. Sometimes, these BDOs tell us. Sometimes our other Sarpanch friends.”

Me (quite desperate by now): “And what are the main training areas that will help you do this job better?”

Woman member (panicking): “My husband says..”

Him (condescendingly): “Oh, they really need training in understanding budgets. Don’t know what a work order is. Don’t know how to spend on different schemes. Training is a must.”

Me (by now totally strained with the effort of trying to catch her eye and make her talk): “Will you want to continue in politics after this term is over? Do you have aspirations for a political career?”

Woman member: “Uh, my husband feels..”

Her husband:  “Whom did you say you are doing this work for? Oh, the State Election Commission? Of course! She will contest the next election as well!” He says all this genially, as she gags on her tea.

Me (in a false encouraging tone): “Tell me about your role model”

She: “My husband!”

He: “Well, you know…”

Me: AAAAARGH!

And that’s that. After meeting around 12 of the  Super Pativrata Naris, I was kind of ready to yell in frustration. I’d had it and I was ready to put a strongly worded comment on women empowerment in rural politics in Maharashtra, or rather the COMPLETE, TOTAL, EXTREME lack of the damn thing, when I went to Paithan, and ran into Pushpatai Kedare.

And that shut me up. For a long time. Here’s a really remarkable story of what the 73rd amendment is all about.

Pushpa tai comes from an extremely humble background. She has studied upto the 8th standard, after which she was married off to this poor farmer. They had 4 kids and no money. She was forced to take up a job in a nearby bottling plant, where she cleaned toilets, swept the premises, ran errands and did whatever it took to earn money. There was one overwhelming idea in her mind, that had she been educated, they would have been better off.

So, after coming home after a gruelling day, she made sure the kids had been to school, sent them for extra lessons, pushed them into studying more at home. The neighbours saw her determination and saw an undaunted leader in her. During the next Gram Panchayat elections, some of them told her, “Why don’t you contest? We’ll make sure you win. What you are doing for your family, you can do for the village.”

Pushpatai paused in her story to look at me in my eye. “I had nothing to lose. If I won, I would at least get respect. I would be recognized in the village. The school master would look after my kids well.” So, the lady contested the election and won it! And in the next 5 years, she made sure that the higher authorities got hell if they did not sanction development schemes to the village. She got the water pipes mended, distributed agricultural implements to the needy, got houses constructed under the Indira Awas Yojana.

Come next elections and she was approached by the MNS, who gave her a ticket and the financial muscle for propaganda. She won this time too, by an overwhelming margin.

5 years down, again on an MNS ticket, she contested for Panchayat Samiti, again, she claims without spending a single rupee from her purse. Of the 11 members at the Paithan Panchayat Samiti, 8 seats were won by Shiv Sena and 3 by MNS. One person from MNS deflected to Shiv Sena. So when the Samiti decided to elect a Chairman, there was no chance of her getting the coveted Chairmanship. But, fortune favors the brave, she said. In 2012, the seat got reserved for an OBC woman candidate. Only she met the criteria, and here she was, in the Chairman’s position, continuously warding off opposition to any of her decisions from 9 SS members.

She is a tough nut. Unafraid, undaunted, used to playing it rough against rough opposition. “My role model? APJ Abdul Kalam,” she says at once. “He too was from a poor background, but he followed his passion for science.”

“Where will you go from here, Pushpatai? Do you wish to contest the ZP elections next?”

“Madam, I would love to contest ZP. But I can’t. I simply don’t have the money to do that. But I’ll tell you this. I am extremely bold and talented. As talented as a Pankaja Munde, or a Sonia Gandhi. But I know I can’t get there…”

“And what do you feel about the Sarpanch-pati phenomenon? Males dominating their wives and not letting them be?”

“Madam, its a question of personal equations. Now this gentleman who just left from here is a homeopathy doctor. His wife is the Sarpanch of his village. I have never even seen her. You’d expect that at least a doctor would let his wife develop and take her own decisions. But no. This Sarpanch-pati phenomenon really gets on my nerves. Sometimes I feel my husband is much better. He is only 12th pass and never interferes here. In fact, I made him contest the Panchayat elections last year and thanks to my goodwill, he won there!” It wasn’t said with pride or with a misplaced sense of power. It was just put so matter of factly. No glorification, only facts.

Kudos, Pushpatai, I thought appreciatively. We need more of you around.

 I was broken from my reverie as music blared from the TV suddenly.

“Aaja re aaja chanda ke har khwahish poori hogi!” Heavily made up Pati-vratas by the thousands, all apparently starving, and yet incredibly smiling and singing in super high pitches, suddenly burst onto the screen to break their karva-chauth fast.

“Your type of women,” I laughed as Hubby looked taken aback.

“Nonsense,” he said briskly. “The first sign of a thinking, live person is a view point. I mean, nothing wrong in a Karva chauth thing if you really go by the sense in it, but these buggers have converted it into a national past-time for proving love. Now look at you,” he said, warming to his favourite topic. “You are completely weird. Totally strange. I never have quite understood where you get your crazy ideas from. It drives me up the wall all the time. But much better than having to live with an echo system, who is just following my thoughts. I quite like Economists,” he ended up glinting at me, more wickedly than romantically, I thought.

Kudos, Economist-pati, I thought appreciatively. We need more of you around.

Econ Mom and some Potter Magic!

There’s double trouble at home.

Lil One’s going to be writing his final exams this week and the next. That’s big trouble. Oh, no, no. Not for him. He is having his usual good time. It’s big trouble for me, you see. And as if this isn’t enough, there’s this addition to the trouble…

Lil One is reading Harry Potter. Aaaarrrrgh! For the third time. The first two were not “proper readings, Mom. I wasn’t mature enough to understand it properly then!” is what he told me, to my great amusement. Further, he’s apparently decided to set a world record by reading all the Potter books inside two weeks, ummm, the same two which coincide with his exams. Help!

Quite a scene we have at home, these days. I sit patiently reading about the many wonders of the rectilinear propogation of light and tissue culture, whilst Lil One giggles at Peeves pelting chalk at Harry, calling him names such as “Potty”. While I despair the splitting of the Maratha empire between Shahu and Rajaram, Lil One is deep inside the Pensieve looking up the Prophecy connecting Harry to Voldemort. I wage the war against complex geometric problems while Lil One goes looking for Hallows. God! I never thought there’ll be a time when I start….disliking Harry Potter so much!

Yesterday, when I asked Lil One to get some water half way through our dinner, he held his spoon in the direction of the bottle and yelled “Accio Bottle!” When I threateningly made big eyes at him, he accused me of using the Imperius curse on wee kids to get my bidding done. Whenever he sees me approaching him with a textbook in hand, he yells “Dementor Attack!” and shoots the Expecto Patronum at me, with Hubby looking on with frank approval and complete admiration in his eyes. And when I asked him, for the fifth time, to sit down with me to plan how he is going to complete reading 8 Geography chapters in 2 days, he actually muttered “Langlock!”

Following are some of the sweet nothings he has shot at me over the past few days. GRRRRR!

  • I am the most boring mom in the world.
  • Correction. I now have the distinction of being the most boring person in the world.
  • That Ron lost half his eyebrow in his apparition test is infinitely more interesting than the fact that the Marathas lost more than half of their kingdom at Panipat.
  • The Marathas should have taken Katappa to Panipat with them.
  • Geography is studied by girls. Boys do only Maths. In that, only Algebra. In that, only linear equations.
  • Linear equations are the new cool. Everything else is “Muggle”.
  • Lucky me! I am going to be cast in the movie made by Lil One on Harry Potter. So far, I have completely qualified to be Bellatrix, Kreacher and Nagini. If I learn to be dreamy mad and not my usual aggressive mad, I can even audition for the role of…hold your breath…Prof. Trelawny!
  • Tenses are designed to make kids tense. “I have had it!” is present perfect and is presently perfectly designed for Mommy dearest.
  • I belong to the past tense just because I happen to know that Munshi Premchand wrote “Godaan”
  • Auto spell-check wands are required to solve the Hindi and Marathi papers
  • Any woman who enjoys Hindi poetry cannot be in her right mind. She deserves to be immediately visiting the St. Mungo’s Centre, where they apparently treat witches and economists.
  • Engineers are wizard. Economists are obviously Muggle.

“Nope!” said Econ Mom suddenly. “That last one is not okay.” How can economists be..Muggle?

Isn’t it us, who alone know the deepest secrets of magic of the societal reform. We, who are almost Goblin-like in that we imbibe all of that which strengthens us. We’ve taken principles of Maths to create models out of the most non-modelable phenomena ranging from shopping behaviour and drug trafficking to corporate incentive structures. We’ve woven principles of sociology to create HDI. We use political contraints to understand how economic equilibria may turn out to be sub-optimal in a social welfare sense. And we’re the only ones who’ve been able to make robust, significant, least error use of that crystal ball of statistics, called as forecasting. It is us, who create those models and sell them at crazy prices to a world zapped with knowing the future; and yet, we have the simplicity and enough humour to call our art, a bunch of econome-tricks.

The Elder wand of good policy intervention can certainly weave magic into comatose markets; but sometimes you do need that invisibility cloak, or well, at least invisible hands to drive animal spirits. That economic reform has been the resurrection stone for economies ranging from Brazil to China and Zimbabwe to Germany is a principle undisputed across the globe.

Make no mistake however, by going overboard in the hallowed presence of this amazing science. For every hallow that the subject has produced, there are those horcruxes; scams, currency crises, bankruptcies born out of the misuse of economics that split societies time and again, towards nothingness..

And on a lighter note, hell, we even have a Ministry of Magic! Yeah, its known as the Ministry of Finance to the more innocent. And it often has the cheek to try things out “for the greater good”; it is blinded, in Dumbledore’s words, by the love of the office it holds. But worry not, because it is precisely in order to check this, that we economists have created yet another institution, the Hog-Reserve Bank of India, headed by none other than Albus Rajan.

So all in all, Lil One, nope, your last argument is not acceptable. One day, when you are older, you may realize the power of this wonderful subject. And maybe you’ll come to love and respect it the way I do. And maybe, we’ll be able to bond on this, the way we do on Potter, and Tintin, and late night coffee, and crazy jokes and music. Till then Lil One, let us step into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.