Monday, 25 November 2019

Is Labour the answer to Capitalism's decline?

On Milton Friedman and the Chicago boys

Milton Friedman's pencil 

On Milton Friedman's pencil story

Soviet Union



Soviet Union

Do you take hours to make a simple decision? You may have Fobo

Fear of missing out has a more anxious sibling and could stop you going to social events – or buying your Christmas turkey. Here’s what is behind fear of better options explains Coco Khan in The Guardian

‘To have Fobo you must have options. So the richer you are, the more powerful you are, the more options you have’ … Patrick McGinnis.
 ‘To have Fobo you must have options. So the richer you are, the more powerful you are, the more options you have’ … Patrick McGinnis. Composite: Getty

Recently, Mike Hall, 48, a management consultant based in Winchester, decided to get ahead with Christmas preparations. “Do I buy the free range bronze turkey for 10-12, or 12-14, even though there are only seven of us for Christmas Day?” he wondered, attempting to tot up all the different variables. “What about leftovers? Should I buy two turkey crowns instead? And which ones?” Such granular decision-making went on and on, until eventually he gave up in exhaustion. He has not yet bought a turkey.

Indecision when the decision is simple, or the options all acceptable, is the defining characteristic of “fear of better options” – or Fobo – a social phenomenon coined by Patrick McGinnis, a US venture capitalist and the man known for coining the term Fomo, or fear of missing out. Fobo can occur everywhere from minor decisions – what to watch on TV, what to eat for dinner – to more significant ones such as whether to take a new job. Whatever the case, a Fobo-afflicted person may find themselves overwhelmed by the possibilities of what might be (some call this “analysis paralysis”) even when no outcome is guaranteed, and when some of those options aren’t even on the table.

A common example may be figuring out what to do on Friday night. Sure, the invitation to hang out with work colleagues is convenient and guaranteed to be enjoyable, but there is another party across town where something even more fun might be happening. Then there’s someone on Tinder who floated Friday night as a possible date, while your flatmates are heading to a restaurant opening.

Someone with Fobo is likely to hold back on commitment, or commit then cancel.

“I bail at the last minute, all the time” says Aoife O’Donaghue, 24, a recent graduate based in Edinburgh. Such dithering can be exhausting for friends and family who depend on someone for a firm commitment, and bring stress to the person themselves.

FacebookTwitterPinterest A Fobo-afflicted person may find themselves overwhelmed by the possibilities of what might be (posed by model). Photograph: Carl Smith/Getty Images/fStop

For O’Donaghue, it’s always the smallest decisions she has the hardest time making. She describes a time at university where she was trying to figure out where to study - the library or a cafe. “I was thinking, ‘Will I work better in one place? Would I like a cup of tea? Will there be enough seats?’” O’Donaghue describes working herself up over this for 15 minutes until she had a stress-induced stomach ache. “I ended up going to the library, and then to the cafe. So it didn’t even really matter” she laughs ruefully.

So what’s going on? McGinnis, who has been researching Fomo and Fobo over several years for his forthcoming book, and for his podcast Fomo Sapiens, argues that Fobo is not necessarily a new human behaviour. “These feelings are biologically part of who we are. I call it the biology of wanting the best. Our ancestors a million years ago were programmed to wait for the best because it meant they were more likely to succeed.”

But the mass introduction of sophisticated technology and the internet has accelerated Fomo and Fobo into a common social behaviour. After all, we are now able to easily compare ourselves with each other (thus producing feelings of Fomo) and overwhelm ourselves with choice (producing Fobo).

“Go on Amazon to buy a pair of white shoelaces and you have in excess of 200 choices, whereas 50 years ago you would go to Woolworths and choose between three,” says McGinnis. “So that’s the context. The other factor – which is more emotional – is that Fobo is driven by narcissism, because when you have Fobo, you’re putting your own interests well before anybody else’s, which leaves all the people around you on hold.”

“Harvard is a place unlike others in terms of the amount of opportunities you have – classes, social events, interviews – at your disposal,” he says. “I came from a simple background – a small town in New England – and when I arrived I found it extremely overwhelming. I wanted to do everything – which is Fomo – but at the same time, I wasn’t willing to say no to anything and just choose one thing, which was Fobo. I would wait until the last minute to see if a better option came along. And I realised that that was a pervasive behaviour at Harvard because of it being a choice-rich environment.”

This is the main difference between Fomo and Fobo. Anyone with a smartphone looking over the often manipulated and unrealistic lives of others on social media might feel Fomo. But Fobo, according to McGinnis, is an issue for the privileged.

“Fobo is an affliction of affluence,” says McGinnis. “To have Fobo you must have options. So the richer you are, the more powerful you are, the more options you have. That’s when you start to feel it.”

McGinnis doesn’t believe that Fobo is restricted to the individual either – large corporations can be affected by it (“a multinational with access to big data can always find a reason to justify not doing something”), and so can countries.

“I have come to believe that the Brexit situation is Fobo. Fobo is the inability to choose between one of many acceptable outcomes. You may not like Brexit but there are plenty of acceptable ways it could be structured, without going to no deal. But any time Mrs May brought a proposal to the Commons, she couldn’t get a vote because all of the MPs were waiting for a slightly better option.”

On the individual level, though, O’Donaghue is not entirely convinced. “I’m a privileged person, compared with other people. But I don’t think the things I’m choosing between are very luxurious. I’m talking about choosing dinner, or what’s on the telly. Maybe my problem is one of overthinking.”

Decision-making is a complex mental procedure involving several of the brain’s executive functions, that is, the key cognitive processes your brain uses to control your behaviour – from planning to managing impulses. People with conditions such as ADHD and autism, where executive functions can be impaired, may find themselves struggling to choose between options.

But is Fobo just an easy-to-swallow euphemism for something more serious or taboo, such as an anxiety disorder?

Nicky Lidbetter, chief executive of the charity Anxiety UK, doesn’t think so. “It is possible for anxiety to be experienced around many different issues, of which a fear of choosing the wrong option in regards to big life decisions may be one,” she says. “Fear of a better option, however, is more likely to be linked to or a trigger for a pre-existing anxiety condition as opposed to being sufficient to warrant being categorised as an anxiety disorder in its own right.”

So for those without pre-existing conditions, what exactly is everyone afraid of? What is the “fear” in Fobo?

McGinnis says it is a “fear of letting go”. “In order to choose something you must let go of another thing and it’s the fear of having to mourn the road untaken. So we would rather not decide at all and keep all of our options open.”  

There is some psychological foundation to this. Some psychologists have found that when it comes to decision-making, people can be split into two groups: “maximisers” or “satisficers”. Maximisers are people who make a choice based on maximum benefit later on, while satisficers (a portmanteau of “satisfied” and “sufficed” first coined by the Nobel laureate Herbert Simon in 1956) will make choices based on a modest criteria.

Maximisers, for example, may pay more for a bigger car than they actually need in case they want a bigger one in future, whereas a satisficer is likely to pick the car that is good for now. Maximisers set themselves high standards and are disappointed when they fail to reach them, lingering on what was lost rather than what they have. Both have been the subject of many studies, but one from 2011 conducted by a team led by Joyce Erlingher from Florida State University and published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences aimed to explore whether “maximisers show less commitment to their choices than satisficers in a way that leaves them less satisfied”. That is, are maximisers more likely to be unhappy with their choice, once they finally land on it? Their conclusion: a resounding yes. “Maximisers miss out on the psychological benefits of commitment,” the authors say. “Current research is trying to understand whether they can change. High-level maximisers certainly cause themselves a lot of grief.”

Perhaps then, those with Fobo are simply maximisers facilitated by contemporary technology, or perhaps contemporary technology is turning more of us into maximisers. Or maybe people just don’t really want to do half the things they say they do. 

Whatever the case, for McGinnis, correctly identifying this phenomena and giving it a name is crucial in changing these behaviours, which he sees as being “destructive”.

“It’s my view that Fomo isn’t all bad because Fomo can be that little whisper in your ear that we should try something different. If you see your friend starting a business on the side, or you see your friends going on a vacation to Malta and you feel Fomo, that’s a cue to try something else and open up your perspective. So a little Fomo is fine. But Fobo is not good.”

O’Donaghue however, is not so concerned about tackling her Fobo. “I think its an inherent part of my personality,” she says. “People get used to you being like that if you’re good friends.”

Neither is Hall. “It’s part of who I am, I have always been this way” he says. “Last year, it took four attempts and three hours for me to buy a turkey, looking across M&S, Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury’s. In fact, it got so late, they couldn’t even deliver it by the time I chose one.” But he is confident he will get this year’s turkey soon. He has already decided which one.

Tories and Boris Johnson

Nicola Jennings 25.11.19
Nicola Jennings in The Guardian

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Labour's spending plans aren't especially unusual – just look at Sweden

The US favours small government and low taxes, but many developed countries thrive on the opposite writes Larry Elliot in The Guardian 

The gap between the richest and poorest in Sweden is far smaller than in the US. Photograph: Kevincho_Photography/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Labour’s plans for Britain involve a big increase in the size of the state. Government spending as a share of national output would rise to 45%. And apart from brief spikes in the mid-1970s and during the more recent financial crash, it has not reached those levels since the second world war.

To which the mature response should be: so what? A glance around the world shows that there are rich developed countries where the state is relatively small and there are rich developed countries where the state is large. In democracies, voters get the right to choose between the competing models.

Take Sweden and the US as examples of the contrasting approaches. The Scandinavian country, population just over 10 million, has a state that spends 50% of gross domestic product. The United States, population 329 million, operates with a much smaller state that accounts for 38% of national output. 

The received wisdom, particularly among free-market economists, is that a small state means economic dynamism while a big state means the opposite: a sclerosis caused by governments burdening their populations with levels of taxation that stifle enterprise.

So how do the US and Sweden stack up against each other?

In terms of growth rates, there’s not been a lot to choose between the two in recent years, with both averaging around 2.5% a year in the half-decade up to 2018. If anything, Sweden’s growth rate was a tad higher.

The US has a slight edge when it comes to living standards. The average American had an income of $59,928 (£46,700) in 2017 while Sweden’s per capita income was $51,405. But the Swedes, as tends to be the way in Europe, are prepared to sacrifice income for leisure time. They work 1,621 hours a year on average compared to 1,781 hours for the average American.

What’s more, the focus on GDP per capita is a bit misleading since it says nothing about the way in which national income is divided up. In some countries, there is a wide gulf in incomes between those at the top and those at the bottom; in others there is a more even split. The US falls into the former category, Sweden into the latter.
One way of assessing income inequality is through the Gini coefficient. If income was distributed evenly in a country it would have a Gini coefficient of zero If, on the other hand, one person had all the income its coefficent would be 1. Obviously, every country is bunched around the middle of this range, but Sweden is closer to the bottom than the US. It has a Gini coefficient of 0.27 while the US’s is 0.41.

Big-state Sweden has a higher unemployment rate than the US – 6.3% against 3.9% – in 2018, but its employment rate is also higher. According to figures from the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development dating back to 2016, 69.4% of Americans aged 15 to 64 are in work, compared to 76.2% of Swedes.

The two countries have very similar inflation rates of around 2%, but there is no evidence that high levels of public spending have impaired Sweden’s export performance. A current account surplus of 1.7% of GDP in 2018 was in contrast to the US’s 2.4% of GDP deficit.

The big economic numbers – income per head, unemployment, inflation and the current account – do not provide a complete picture of how successful a country is. Sweden has a much lower murder rate than the US – 1.1 per 100,000 inhabitants against 5.3 – and has a much lower incarceration rate – 59 per 100,000 people as opposed to 655 per 100,000 in the US. Swedes live more than four years longer than Americans on average.

When it comes to Nobel prize winners, the countries have similar records once their differing populations are taken into account – 383 for the US and 32 for Sweden. Here, though, the US has the edge. Only three of Sweden’s laureates have come since the turn of the millennium while 130 Americans have been awarded during the same period.

The comparison between these two quite different countries helps to illuminate the debate in the UK. Apparently, the size of the state has no bearing on whether a country is successful or not. At a guess, not many Swedes would want to see their country transformed into small-state America.

This is the right time to have just such a debate about the size of the state because there are factors in Britain that are systemically putting upward pressure on spending. Demographic changes mean all parties need to address the rising costs of an ageing population; the bills for the state pension, the NHS and social care are all going to increase. The climate emergency will require hefty state investment to make the transition to a zero-carbon economy.

But a word of warning. Sweden has evolved its model gradually whereas Labour’s plans involve abrupt change. The price for a big state is high levels of taxation – and it is a price the Swedes are prepared to pay. Overall, government revenues are 49.5% of GDP and taxes on the average Swedish citizen are substantially higher than they are in the UK. The Conservative party is going into the election promising both lower taxes and higher spending. The Labour party says a big state can be paid for by rich individuals and the corporate sector with everybody else tucking into a free lunch.

There are politicians who want Britain to be more like the US and some who favour the Swedish approach. Both are possible. What’s not possible is to have Swedish levels of public spending with American levels of tax.

It's time to retire metrics like GDP. They don't measure everything that matters

The way we assess economic performance and social progress is fundamentally wrong, and the climate crisis has brought these concerns to the fore writes Joseph Stiglitz in The Guardian 

‘And it should be clear that, in spite of the increases in GDP, in spite of the 2008 crisis being well behind us, everything is not fine.’ Photograph: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

The world is facing three existential crises: a climate crisis, an inequality crisis and a crisis in democracy. Will we be able to prosper within our planetary boundaries? Can a modern economy deliver shared prosperity? And can democracies thrive if our economies fail to deliver shared prosperity? These are critical questions, yet the accepted ways by which we measure economic performance give absolutely no hint that we might be facing a problem. Each of these crises has reinforced the fact that we need better tools to assess economic performance and social progress.

The standard measure of economic performance is gross domestic product (GDP), which is the sum of the value of goods and services produced within a country over a given period. GDP was humming along nicely, rising year after year, until the 2008 global financial crisis hit. The global financial crisis was the ultimate illustration of the deficiencies in commonly used metrics. None of those metrics gave policymakers or markets adequate warning that something was amiss. Though a few astute economists had sounded the alarm, the standard measures seemed to suggest everything was fine. 

Since then, according to the GDP metric, the US has been growing slightly more slowly than in earlier years, but it’s nothing to worry about. Politicians, looking at these metrics, suggest slight reforms to the economic system and, they promise, all will be well.

In Europe, the impact of 2008 was more severe, especially in countries most affected by the euro crisis. But even there, apart from high unemployment numbers, standard metrics do not fully reflect the adverse impacts of the austerity measures, either the magnitude of people’s suffering or the impacts on long-term standards of living.
Nor do our standard GDP measures provide us with the guidance we need to address the inequality crisis. So what if GDP goes up, if most citizens are worse off? In the first three years of the so-called recovery from the financial crisis, about 91% of the gains went to the top 1%. No wonder that many people doubted the claims of politicians who were then saying the economy was well on the way to a robust recovery.

For a long time I have been concerned with this problem – the gap between what our metrics show and what they need to show. During the Clinton administration, when I served as a member and then chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, I grew increasingly worried about how our main economic measures failed to take into account environmental degradation and resource depletion. If our economy seems to be growing but that growth is not sustainable because we are destroying the environment and using up scarce natural resources, our statistics should warn us. But because GDP didn’t include resource depletion and environmental degradation, we typically get an excessively rosy picture.
These concerns have now been brought to the fore with the climate crisis. It has been three decades since the threat of climate change was first widely recognized, and matters have grown worse faster than initially expected. There have been more extreme events, greater melting of glaciers and greater natural habitat destruction.

It is clear that something is fundamentally wrong with the way we assess economic performance and social progress. Even worse, our metrics frequently give the misleading impression that there is a trade-off between the two; that, for instance, changes that enhance people’s economic security, whether through improved pensions or a better welfare state, come at the expense of national economic performance.

Getting the measure right – or at least a lot better – is crucially important, especially in our metrics- and performance-oriented society. If we measure the wrong thing, we will do the wrong thing. If our measures tell us everything is fine when it really isn’t, we will be complacent.

And it should be clear that, in spite of the increases in GDP, in spite of the 2008 crisis being well behind us, everything is not fine. We see this in the political discontent rippling through so many advanced countries; we see it in the widespread support of demagogues, whose successes depend on exploiting economic discontent; and we see it in the environment around us, where fires rage and floods and droughts occur at ever-increasing intervals.

Fortunately, a variety of advances in methodology and technology have provided us with better measurement tools, and the international community has begun to embrace them. What we have accomplished so far has convinced me and many other economists of two things: first, that it is possible to construct much better measures of an economy’s health. Governments can and should go well beyond GDP. Second, that there is far more work to be done.

As Angel Gurría, secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, has written: “It is only by having better metrics that truly reflect people’s lives and aspirations that we will be able to design and implement ‘better policies for better lives’.”

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Can Economics Be A Force For Good?

I’ll take Labour dithering over Conservative cruelty any day

We face a choice between a party in it for themselves and one seeking to solve our massive problems. It’s no contest writes George Monbiot in The Guardian

‘The first test of politics is this: are they in it for themselves, or for us?’ Rebecca Long-Bailey and Jeremy Corbyn with other members of Labour’s shadow cabinet. Photograph: Danny Lawson/EPA

Try to imagine Jeremy Corbyn in Tony Blair’s post-political role: flying around the world, enriching himself by striking deals with tyrants and oil companies. Try to picture John McDonnell setting up, like Blair’s righthand man, Peter Mandelson, a consultancy that gives reputational advice to controversial corporations. Try to picture Rebecca Long-Bailey being caught in a sting, like three of Blair’s former ministers, who offered undercover journalists political influence in exchange for cash.

I find these scenarios impossible to imagine. Whatever you might think of Labour’s frontbenchers, you could surely no more picture them behaving this way than you could picture Boris Johnson abandoning his career to become a hospital cleaner.

The first test of politics is this: are they in it for themselves, or for us? I don’t mean to suggest that Blair and his frontbenchers were entirely selfish, but self-interest and the national interest became too easily entangled. Among the Conservatives there is no confusion: self-interest is the political doctrine. Unlike either group, Corbyn’s team passes.

This carries a cost. The game you are supposed to play in British politics is feathering your nest by feathering the nests of others. Those who refuse are denounced in the billionaire press as unfit for government.

I’ve never been a member of any political party, and have no party loyalties. I know the Labour party is imperfect. But what I see is a group of people genuinely seeking to solve our massive problems – environmental, political, economic, medical and social – rather than appeasing press barons and queueing at the notorious revolving door between politics and money-making.

My experience, as an author of the Land for the Many report that Labour commissioned, has been of a party boldly seeking new ideas for improving national life, and being prepared to weather a storm of lies for having the temerity to mention them. We are likely to see a lot more of this when it publishes its manifesto on Thursday.

Of course the first test is not the only test. Another is the ability to lead, and here Labour often fails. First, some context. Several hundred Labour members, out of 485,000, have been accused of antisemitism. That is several hundred too many: every instance is an outrage. However, as a fraction of 1%, it’s a far cry from public perceptions of the issue. According to a new book about the media’s treatment of the Labour party, Bad News for Labour, the average estimate by people surveyed is that 34% of Labour members have succumbed to this evil.

Part of the problem is that Corbyn has failed to get a grip on his party and respond with the decisive speed this deadly bigotry demands. Instead, senior figures sometimes appear to have done the opposite, obstructing the swift and uncompromising resolution of complaints. This is completely unacceptable. But it does not amount to a party riddled with antisemitism.

Corbyn’s dithering on this issue reflects a general diffidence about asserting power. It could be seen as the flipside of his lack of self-interest. Blair might be egocentric, but one result was that he immediately stamped out any tendency he believed would threaten his chances of election.

By contrast, Corbyn wasted precious months failing to articulate a clear position on Brexit. He repeatedly missed the open goals the government offered. He allowed infighting to dominate when the party’s energies should have been concentrated on the Tories. No one could definitively solve the conflicts within the Labour party, but a firmer leader could have prevented them from spiralling into open warfare.

FacebookTwitterPinterest ‘The Conservatives are entirely focused on wealth and power, and the protection of those who wield them.’ Boris Johnson at the CBI conference in London. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Yes, drift in politics is a sin. But compare it with the alternative. Last week, I wrote about the government’s proposal to criminalise the lives of Romany Gypsies and Travellers, among the most persecuted minorities in European history. It was so determined to beat them up in public that it broke its own rules: “Consultation exercises should not generally be launched during local or national election periods.” This is what institutional racism looks like.

Of course, it does not cancel or excuse Labour’s failure decisively to crush antisemitism. Yet, by contrast to the justified outrage about Labour’s weakness on this issue, my article, a week after the consultation was published, was the first in the national press to criticise the government’s extraordinary assault on threatened minorities. There has been almost no take-up since.

A survey by YouGov for Hope Not Hate discovered that 54% of Conservative party members believe Islam is “generally a threat to the British way of life”. Islamophobia is a genuine majority sentiment within the party, whose leader has repeatedly made racist and Islamophobic statements. This week, I searched Google for mentions of Labour antisemitism by the BBC, and found 7,810 returns. But a search for BBC mentions of Conservative Islamophobia delivered only 1,420 results.

Labour has an urgent desire for a better world. But it is coupled with such a weak instinct for power or even self-preservation that you can’t help wondering how much of its programme it can deliver. The Conservatives are entirely focused on wealth and power, and the protection of those who wield them. On one side, there is a ferment of new ideas. On the other, the old agenda of stripping away public protections and promoting private business at the expense of public interests.

We have a choice of self-denying dither or determined cruelty. Neither set of traits will deliver an ideal government. But I know which one I favour.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

From ‘severe’ to ‘very poor’

Jawed Naqvi in The Dawn

The Delhi Met Bureau may have actually made a deeply philosophical observation with its imagery applicable to several facets of life these days. Spurred by an unexpected breeze, the quality of air in Delhi ‘improved’ from ‘severe’ to ‘very poor’. Some improvement, you would say, but do tarry a little

This intriguing metaphor of improvement between severe and very poor certainly applies to extant political choices in a large number of locations.

Take Pakistan, where the PPP is compelled to swear by Z.A. Bhutto as a great liberal even though he heaped misery on a minority community in a moment of communally inspired political opportunism. And Nawaz Sharif is the preferred symbol of the nation’s hopes for a democratic recovery having conjured images of a Taliban-style amirul momineen replacing the country’s elected prime minister.

As for Imran Khan, he continues to flirt with some kind of liberation theology given his abiding faith in the Muslim clergy. As for the generals, they trump everyone by merging the options into a seemingly irreversible order of things.

Transpose the irony of self-limiting choices on American politics. Is it not true that Obama was to Libya what Bush was to Iraq and Clinton was to Yugoslavia? To the American voters, however, these former icons define all that they can choose from. The slightest difference in demeanour and style becomes the critical inflection. Elizabeth Warren, or whoever gets to lead the Democratic challenge against Donald Trump next year, thus needs to fight not just Trump but the ghost of his predecessors to progress from choosing between severe and very poor.

In this regard, the choices for Indians have been even more notably stifling. It seems as though the ‘Good’ has been removed as an option from a Clint Eastwood movie, leaving only the ‘Bad’ and the ‘Ugly’ to battle it out. Among other regressions, Nehru’s Congress is talking to the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra where they could come together along with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) of former chief minister Sharad Pawar.

Following recent state elections, which the BJP-Shiv Sena had fought together, the BJP’s numbers in the new assembly dwindled. In Haryana too, in Delhi’s neighbourhood, Modi’s party lost seats, but it co-opted the services of a discredited legislator to cobble a wafer-thin majority. The BJP had earlier sought the man’s arrest for alleged rape but it is now beholden to him for critical support. The Congress has no role in the ugliness of the moment and needs to just watch the BJP choke on its own muck.

It is significant that in Maharashtra and Haryana Modi’s appeal didn’t work. And this happened despite the Congress grappling with its own severe crisis as it limps on under an interim president in Sonia Gandhi. It has the numbers with the NCP to wean Shiv Sena away from the BJP by offering it greater share in the power structure. But should it morally do so?

The Shiv Sena has run on fascist principles with a pernicious anti-Muslim and anti-Dalit ideology. The outfit shored up by militant middle-caste Marathas was actually set up by the Congress, as a cat’s-paw against the influence of Brahmin-led communist unions that greatly troubled Mumbai’s business captains. The strike-breaking Sena conjured different enemies in stages and is currently positioned as anti-Muslim and anti-Dalit. Its volunteers confessed to taking part in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.

What’s significant about this Congress-NCP-Shiv Sena project, though it is still on the anvil, is that it follows the supreme court’s judgement on the Ayodhya dispute, which rather controversially assigned the piece of land where the Hindu mob razed the 16th-century mosque against the supreme court’s orders to the very mob with a mandate to build a temple to Lord Ram there.

Many Hindus worship Ram as the god-prince of Ayodhya, but only the BJP and its linked groups seem to know the precise spot where he came into the world. There was a time when the Congress government under Manmohan Singh told the apex court tartly that though Ram was worshipped across the country — and Muslim poets including Iqbal had written paeans to him — there was no scientific evidence he actually existed. Be that as it may, the Congress is now fully on board with the temple project, which is not surprising at all.

Ever since the communists parted ways with the Congress party in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule, the Congress has veered closer to the Hindu right. This was a leading factor in Mrs Gandhi’s hurried calculations that led her to misjudge the mood in Punjab where she weighed in against the alienated Sikh community with military might.

The consequence was disastrous for India even though in the short run Rajiv Gandhi did win an unprecedented landslide, seen as a sympathy vote over his mother’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards. Thousands of Sikhs were slaughtered in Delhi by mobs that were encouraged by the Congress party’s backroom cosiness with the Hindu right.

As for Maharashtra, there is nothing new or even surprising about the Congress and the NCP coming close to the Shiv Sena even if they pretend to be wary of its pronounced fascist tag. One needs only to flick off the dust from the Justice Shri Krishna Commission report on the 1992-93 anti-Muslim violence in Mumbai in the wake of the Ayodhya outrage. The commission cited direct evidence to illustrate complicity between the Shiv Sena, sections of the police and the Congress government of the day who were together named by the report, the reason why they jointly buried it. Not unlike the Delhi Met, William Shakespeare’s witches may have been pointing to a similarly deep universal reality as they sang in unison: “Fair is foul and foul is fair. Hover through the fog and filthy air.”

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Ayodhya judgment is a setback to evidence law

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Certainly in matters of freedom of religion, the court should not have any say, but deciding title suit on the basis of faith is a thorny proposition.

The Supreme Court has tried to please everyone in its much awaited judgment on the property dispute in Ayodhya writes Faizan Mustafa and Aymen Mohammed in The Indian Express

The Supreme Court has tried to please everyone in its much awaited judgment on the property dispute in Ayodhya. The worshippers of Lord Ram have been given land for the construction of a temple at the very site where the Babri Masjid stood between 1528 and December 6, 1992.

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The Nirmohi Akhara has welcomed the judgment as it will be given some representation in the trust that would construct the temple. The Sunni Waqf Board too must have the satisfaction that the highest court has accepted their central argument that the Babri Masjid was a Sunni, and not Shia, waqf property, and the same was not constructed after demolishing the Ram temple. Thus, the court has rejected the Hindu right’s narrative on the Babri mosque. This false narrative not only was responsible for galvanising the ordinary Hindus, but also gave some sort of legitimacy to divisive electoral politics. Similarly, Muslim grievances about the trespass in 1949 and the tragic demolition of the mosque in 1992 have been accepted by the court. In fact, the court has accepted that there was an injury caused to them — i.e. violation of their legal right. Accordingly, the court, invoking its extraordinary jurisdiction of doing complete justice, has given them almost double the land in Ayodhya.
The Ayodhya dispute did not begin in 1528 with Babur, the founder of Mughal empire, but in 1886 with litigation in the British courts over a chabutra (courtyard) that was constructed outside the Babri Masjid by one Mahant Raghubar Das in the late 1850s. When the British prevented the construction of a canopy over the chabutra, Das unsuccessfully litigated his cause in three judicial forums. Each time, the courts emphasised status quo — that is, the Muslims would pray inside the Babri Masjid while the Hindus had limited rights to pray at the chabutra. Surprisingly, the apex court has rejected title of Muslims for want of proof of title document. This may have repercussions for several temples and mosques. The court rejected the revenue record and gazetteers as sufficient proof. Even the British grant papers were said to be sufficient only for proving the upkeep of the mosque.
In law, the phrase “status quo” means the situation at the time of the judgment must not be changed. The Babri litigation is a story of changing “status quo”. On the night of December 22-23, 1949, trespassers placed Lord Ram’s idol under the central dome of the Babri Masjid. In a few days after the incident, a new status quo would be sanctified by the local courts: Muslims were not allowed to pray inside the mosque, the idol would not be removed, and that Hindus would have a “limited” right to pray and pujaris would ensure daily bhog. By one act of criminal trespass, a mosque was converted into a temple.
On February 1, 1986, District Judge K M Pandey would order the unlocking of gates that acted as a “barrier” between the idols inside the masjid and the devotees who had come for the darshan. This decision had the blessing of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who in order to mollify the self-anointed regressive Muslim leadership would subsequently introduce the bill to reverse the Shah Bano judgment on February 25, 1986.
The demolition of the mosque on December 6, 1992 was also the destruction of the rule of law. The SC has rightly criticised it and accepted that it was in violation of the “status quo” order passed by it. Within a few hours of the mosque’s demolition, a makeshift temple had come up at the structure’s location. Within a month of the demolition, the Allahabad High Court allowed for darshan at the makeshift temple. In 1994, the Supreme Court, while dealing with the Acquisition of Certain Areas of Ayodhya Act, ordered the protection of the latest “status quo”: No mosque but a makeshift temple and legally protected darshan at the site.
In 2010, the Lucknow bench of Allahabad High Court ruled that the title suit must be decided as a question of joint-ownership of property. Muslims, the deity Ram Lalla and Nirmohi Akhara were to get one-third share of the disputed property. The Supreme Court has overruled this judgment and rightly held that it was not a partition suit.

The judgment will be remembered for the victory of faith over the rule of law as the Supreme Court considered religious beliefs even in deciding a property dispute, and despite conceding that faith cannot confer title, it still went ahead to give property to worshippers on the basis of faith. The court should not have any say in matters of freedom of religion, but deciding title suit on the basis of faith is a thorny proposition. In brief, it is the red letter day for the constitutional right to religion but a setback to property law and a setback to evidence law with differential burden of proof being demanded from different parties.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

I was an astrologer – here's how it really works, and why I had to stop

Customers marvelled at my psychic abilities but was that really what was going on when I told their fortune? asks Felicity Carter in The Guardian 

‘It turned out what most people want is the chance to unload for an hour.’ Photograph: Fiorella Macor/Getty Images

The man was agitated, with red-rimmed eyes and clammy skin.

“Help me,” he said. “I’m under a curse.”

At first it was just flickering lights, he said. And then a figure, at the edge of his vision. Now something grabbed his fingers or stroked his arm. There was more – and it was happening more frequently.

“I saw a Catholic priest,” said the man. “But he couldn’t help. Can you?”

Yes, yes I could. I knew exactly what he needed to do.

I was a fortune teller. Every Sunday, I climbed the stairs of an old terrace house in Sydney’s historic Rocks district, to sit in the attic and divine the future. I would read Tarot cards or interpret horoscopes.

As a teenager, I’d devoured a book called Positive Magic. An instruction manual for witches, its central idea was that if you wanted something, and you had good intentions, you just told the universe and magic would happen. Although nothing I wanted (fame, money, hot boyfriend) actually arrived, one thing led to another and I taught myself to read Tarot cards. At the time I was a science student, and just considered it a fun game at parties.

That changed after I took my cards to my part-time job and read them for a colleague during the break. She picked the card for pregnancy, which we laughed about, because she wanted her tubes tied.

A week later she said, “Guess what the doctor told me this morning?”

She was pregnant, and I was officially psychic.

Deciding to develop my gift, I enrolled in a psychic class, where I learned to say the first thing that popped into my head. “Your first thoughts are the most psychic ones, before your rational mind interferes,” said the teacher.

I also learned that all things are connected, and everything is a symbol of something else. Suddenly, I saw signs and omens everywhere.

FacebookTwitterPinterest ‘The range of problems faced by people who can afford $50 for fortune telling turned out to be limited: troubles with romance, troubles at work, trouble mustering the courage for a much-needed change.’ Photograph: Busà Photography/Getty Images

To test my new skills, I volunteered to be a clairvoyant at the spiritualist church. Congregants would place a flower on the table, and the clairvoyants would choose one and “read” it at the microphone. Nervous, the first thing I grabbed was a packet of silver foil. The rose inside had been packed so tightly, its petals were crushed. I didn’t get a single vibe from it, so I just described the symbolism.

“You are feeling battered and bruised,” I said.

Afterwards, a woman approached and said she was a victim of domestic violence, and what should she do?

I was only 19 and had no idea, but my psychic reputation soared. The attention was intoxicating.

Then the universe told me I wasn’t cut out for science, by sending me my second-year results. I dropped out to pursue theatre and also signed up for a one-year course at the Sydney Astrology Centre, a cavernous commercial building in a seedy part of town.

The course began with the meanings of the zodiac, from Aries to Aquarius. Then the luminaries; the sun (what you will become), the moon (what you brought into this life) and planets. After that, how to calculate planetary positions and cast horoscopes.

Although astrologers use Nasa data for their calculations, horoscopes aren’t a true map of the heavens. The Babylonians who invented astrology believed the sun rotated round the Earth; modern astrologers still use Earth-centred charts, as if Copernicus had never existed. That’s only the start of the scientific problems.

The astrological meanings themselves derive from a principle called sympathetic magic, where things that look alike are linked together. Mars looks red, so it rules red things like blood. How do you get blood? You cut, so Mars rules surgery and war.

You forecast by combining meanings with planetary movements. Say Saturn, planet of restrictions, is about to transit the First House of self – your life will contract! You’re going to get more responsibilities than usual. Or maybe you’ll be denied the chance to take on more responsibilities. Or maybe a cold, critical person will come into your life. But anyway, it’s a good time to go on a diet.

Astrology is one big word association game.

I loved it, though I was losing interest in other mystical practices. Partly I didn’t have time, because I was now immersed in theatre while working as a temp typist at St Vincent’s, a Catholic hospital. But as I bounced from one department to another, my views changed. I’d understood organised religion to be something between an embarrassment and an evil. Yet as Aids did its dreadful work – this was the 1990s – I watched nuns offer compassionate care to the dying. Christian volunteers checked on derelict men with vomit down their clothes. I became uncomfortably aware that New Agers do not build hospitals or feed alcoholics – they buy self-actualisation at the cash register.

Finally, I was accepted into a music degree and my days filled with classes, my nights with rehearsals. This caused a cash crisis, because I could only do office work during academic holidays. When I saw the ad for a fortune teller, I pounced.

My credentials impressed the man on the counter (“My name is Ron,” he said. “My spirit guide is Blue Star. He’s on the intergalactic committee”) and I was hired.

We charged A$50 an hour, a significant sum at the time, and I wanted to offer value. No fishing for clues from me – I printed a horoscope or laid the cards and started interpreting immediately, intending to dazzle the customer with my insights.

Half the time, though, I couldn’t get a word in. It turned out what most people want is the chance to unload for an hour.

The range of problems faced by people who can afford $50 for fortune telling turned out to be limited: troubles with romance, troubles at work, trouble mustering the courage for a much-needed change. I heard these stories so often I could often guess what the problem was the moment someone walked in. Heartbroken young men, for example, talk about it to psychics, because it’s less risky than telling their friends. Sometimes I’d mischievously say, “Let her go. She’s not worth it,” as soon as one arrived. Once I heard, “Oh my God, oh my GOD!” as an amazed guy fell backwards down the stairs.

I also learned that intelligence and education do not protect against superstition. Many customers were stockbrokers, advertising executives or politicians, dealing with issues whose outcomes couldn’t be controlled. It’s uncertainty that drives people into woo, not stupidity, so I’m not surprised millennials are into astrology. They grew up with Harry Potter and graduated into a precarious economy, making them the ideal customers.

FacebookTwitterPinterest ‘Intelligence and education do not protect against superstition.’ Photograph: Alamy

What broke the spell for me was, oddly, people swearing by my gift. Some repeat customers claimed I’d made very specific predictions, of a kind I never made. It dawned on me that my readings were a co-creation – I would weave a story and, later, the customer’s memory would add new elements. I got to test this theory after a friend raved about a reading she’d had, full of astonishingly accurate predictions. She had a tape of the session, so I asked her to play it.

The clairvoyant had said none of the things my friend claimed. Not a single one. My friend’s imagination had done all the work.

Yet sometimes I could be uncannily accurate – wasn’t that proof I was psychic? One Sunday, I went straight from work to a party, before I’d had time to shuck off my psychic persona. A student there mentioned she wasn’t sure what to specialize in – photography, graphic design or maybe industrial design?

“Do photography,” I said.

She looked at me, wide-eyed. “How did you know?” she said, explaining photography was her real love, but her parents didn’t approve.

I couldn’t say, “because my third eye is open”, so I reflected for a moment. Then it hit me. “You sounded happier when you said ‘photography’,” I said. My psychic teacher was right – the signals we pick up before conscious awareness kicks in can be accurate and valuable.

Well, maybe I wasn’t psychic, but it didn’t matter. It was just entertainment, after all, until the cursed man came in. The one who’d seen the Catholic priest.

“Get to a doctor,” I told him. “Now.”

That very week, I’d typed letters for a neurologist who specialized in brain diseases. Some of those letters had documented strikingly similar symptoms to this man.

“Are you saying I’m crazy?” he said, his hands balled.

“No,” I reassured him. “But Catholic priests know what they’re doing. If he couldn’t help, this isn’t a curse.”

That made the man angrier.

“You’re a fraud!” he shouted, and stormed downstairs to demand his money back.

The encounter shook me, badly. Shortly afterwards, I packed my astrology books and Tarot cards away for good.

I can still make the odd forecast, though. Here’s one: the venture capital pouring into astrology apps will create a fortune telling system that works, because humans are predictable. As people follow the advice, the apps’ predictive powers will increase, creating an ever-tighter electronic leash. But they’ll be hugely popular – because if you sprinkle magic on top, you can sell people anything.