Getting Ready for India

Wen and I were originally going to visit Nepal and then India but due to poor weather in Nepal (and poorer planning on our part), we’re only going to India for a now massive five weeks.

I love India, having been there twice in 2006. While the second trip was purely a vacation, the first one was a visit to a technology conference and highlighted their seemingly inexorable rise to a leading power in the 21st century.

In preparation for this trip, I’ve been doing a bit of reading on the country. If you want to get a sense of just what India’s rise could mean and a sense of the staggering challenges they’re going to face to realize their full potential, I highly recommend In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India by Edward Luce. They book is about four years old now and it’s remarkable how prescient many of his predictions/comments have been.

As a tease, here are a couple of gems from the book.

On the organization of India’s economy:

Less than 10 percent of India’s dauntingly large labor force is employed in the formal economy [i.e., not farming], which Indians call the “organized sector.” That means that fewer than 40 million people, out of a total of 470 million workers, have job security in any meaningful sense. It means that only 35 million Indians pay any kind of income tax.

Of the roughly 35 million Indians with formal sector jobs … 21 million are direct employees of the government. These are the civil servants, the teachers, the postal workers, the tea makers and sweepers, the oil sector workers, the soldiers, the coal miners, and the ticket collectors of the Indian government’s lumbering network of offices, railways stations, factories, and schools.

Fewer than 1 million – that is, less than a quarter of 1 percent of India’s total pool of labor – are employed in information technology, software, back-office processing and call centers.

I found this fascinating. Despite all the wealth created by India’s massive software companies it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of employment. Moreover, there are only 7 million people employed in manufacturing in India vs. more than 100 million in China. It will be interesting to see if India can turn themselves into a private sector job machine.

Another theme in the book is how the political process is breaking down as people elect people from their caste to ensure more public sector jobs for their caste members (as you literally cannot fire a public sector worker even if they do no work). This is compounded by reputed criminals seeking election as a way of making themselves legally untouchable. The net result is widespread corruption in both the political and bureaucratic sector.

Here’s a snippet of one revealing interview with a politician:

A few months after election I visited Reddy in his office at the state secretariat in Hyderabad. I asked him what he was doing to provide irrigation to the poor farmers. A large man with an equally large mustache, Reddy was every inch the local satrap. The rooms and corridors outside his office resembled a bustling railway station with dozens of local supplicants awaiting the chance to ask a favor of their chief minister. “Every detail is being taken care of,” he replied to my question. And what are the details? I asked. “Everything is possible,” he said. What was possible? “Every little detail.” Can you provide me with some? “In time, we will fix everything,” he said. And so on. At one stage during this singularly uninformative interview, Reddy started scrambling around for a bit of paper. His secretary handed him something. “Yes,” he said, reading it. “Sir Arthur Cotton built lots of irrigation for the farmers in this area. He was British. You are British.” But what are you doing? “We are doing everything possible to ensure irrigation gets to the farmers.”

The book is full of examples like this – and, in fairness, also inspiring interviews with some remarkable officials who are building a great future for Indians (check out the section on New Delhi’s now-former mayor).

Two other interesting areas that the book explores: gender discrimination and the spending habits of New India.

Here are some stats on gender discrimination:

In large tracts of northern and western India, the so-called “gender gap” between boys and girls has sharply increased. The average ratio of births of girls to boys for India was 945 to 1,000 in 1991. By 2001 it had fallen to 927. … Gujarat has fewer than 900 girls to 1,000 boys. Punjab has below 800.

Put another way, over time, 3-4% of the Indian population may never be able to marry because there simply won’t be enough girls to marry. Given India’s size this will mean millions of sex-starved men. Moreover, the traditional solutions to this problem never really worked and are already fading. China’s got this problem too; India’s going to have to learn from it.

The spending habits are interesting as India is its own juggernaut and is going to have to decide what values it wants to promote. Will it adopt Western consumerism or create something uniquely Indian?

Alok [a successful entrepreneur] said his employees, most of whom are dressed such that they would blend in with their counterparts in San Francisco, never talk about money in cash terms. The measure their pay in EMIs, or equal monthly installments. These are monthly deductions from your bank account that continue for years, enabling you to pay off the car, motorbike, microwave, freezer, air-conditioning units, and flats you have not earned. You can even take an EMI holiday. … “Saving is the last thing on these guys’ [his employess] minds,” Alok said.

We’ve seen how this movie ends.

I can’t wait to go back to India. I recommend that everyone go there as it’s fascinating – and read In Spite of the Gods before you go to have a better sense of what is happening behind the scenes.


I recently finished reading Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort. It’s a “big ideas” book and something of a road map to help you understand why the world (or at least America) is what it is today. The book begins with an insight: the 1976 Presidential election was highly competitive and only 26.8% of Americans lived in a ‘landslide county’ – where the margin of victory was at least 20%. However, in 2004, that number had reached 48.3% (and steadily increased each election from ’92-’04, despite all of them being competitive).

So why did this happen?  Well, a big part is geography.  Economic specialization has led geographic segregation.  This should scare you as there is substantial evidence that people who are in groups will polarize (see Stanley Schacter, Muzafer Sherif, James Stoner, etc.).  There are two reasons why this happens: first, when people spend all their time with a group, they only hear the same ideas and it becomes self-reinforcing.  The other is that when you’re in a group, adopting a position a little to the extreme of the group can be a way to ingratiate yourself.  A similar slippery slope; this is okay for your Little League, but it’s the stuff wars are fought over when it’s politicians doing so.

In politics, this lack of dialogue is reinforced by how politicians live in Washington.  In 1990, Rick Santorum made an issue of the incumbent Congressman’s house – he’d bought a house in DC to keep his family together – and promised that, if elected, he would spend less time in Washington.  Now Senators and Congressmen frequently live with other party members and spend so little time in Washington that they don’t socialize (and thereby talk) with their peers in opposite parties.

However, it’s not as simple as that. As the same time as this economic specialization has occurred, there has been a corresponding decrease in the role of traditional American institutions: Elks, marriage, the Presbyterian Church, the daily newspaper, arguably the federal government and the Democratic party (think the New Deal).

In fact, 1965 turns out to be the Annus Horribilus for trust in America.  The year started with the creation of Medicare and Medicaid plus many of Johnson’s Great Society programs (the War on Poverty) and the Justice Department ordering desegregation.  It saw Bloody Sunday in Selma.  The year ended with the escalation of the Vietnam War, the first stirrings of anti-war protests and then the Watts riots.  One hell of a year and a massive shock to the system resulting in a massive drop in people’s faith in old institutions.

This shock in 1965 is partially explained by Inglehart’s theory of social change.  In the early 1970’s, he proposed that when people grow up in abundance, their social values changed.  The 1950’s and ’60’s represented the first time that the mass of Americans grew up middle class-and it had a profound effect on their values.  Inglehart predicted that society would transition from being “elite-directed” to being “elite-challenging” and that we would live in a “post-materialist” society where people would lose interesting in traditional religion, become more interested in personal spirituality and people would be more interested in personal freedom, abortion rights, gay right and the environment.  He also predicted that folks would vote less but sign more petitions.  It’s largely played out that way.

And this is where my beef with The Big Sort begins.  After this aggressive hypothesis, the rest of the book falls into a set of stylized facts explaining how we got to today and how it’s represented in society, rather than a discussion of how to live in today’s reality.  We learn that geography, more than class or gender, is a better indicator of how you will vote.  Labour leaders were pro-Iraq was in Republican counties but against it in Democratic counties.  Same for women.  We hear that in 2004, 73% of Americans lived in counties where the same political party had been elected since 1992 (not much dialogue there).  And there’s a long description of the rise of the Evangelical Right (the origin of Public vs. Private Protestantism, the preacher McGavan [Bridges of God] recognizing that Christianity spreads as a mass movement and this leads to the Saddleback Churches of the world) plus a quaint description of how Applebee’s uses community to fill tables (each Applebee’s has a ‘community wall’ celebrating the history and people of the area; they then eat in groups).

There’s a lot of commentary on how dangerous a situation this is and a thorough description of how it’s emerged, but there’s no guide to the future.  There’s not even a whiff of how we might manage our way out of this.  A great book, but I’m hoping there’ll be a sequel about what we might do next.

And now for some interesting factoids:

  • Democrats may be a little more flexible than Republicans.  Between 1995 and 2000, 79% of people who left Republican counties moved to counties that would vote Republican in 2004.  However, people who left Democratic counties moved to both Republican and Democratic-voting counties (but not to Republican landslide counties).
  • In Ohio in the 1960’s, Michigan’s working class voted solidly Democrat. However, in Ohio they voted Republican (which was arguably against their interests). The explanation is that in Michigan all the workers lived near one another and acted as a block whereas in Ohio they were interspersed with the middle class, who frequently voted Republican. There was no cohesive Ohio working class and no cohesive Democrat machine to get out the vote. This is a prelude to today, where Bishop would argue that economic specialization has led to geographic segregation, which is reflected by more similar people living together (hence the landslide votes).
  • The Founding Fathers envisioned the House and Senate as a place for a constant clashing of opinions.  In the early years of the Republic, there was talk about whether legislators should be “instructed” by their constituents or if they should represent the local opinions of their constituency but be focused more on what was best for the nation.  The national perspective was the winner, but Bishop would argue that the “instructors” are taking back the legislative branch.
  • Contact hypothesis: when groups have contact with others, they can learn how to integrate and find middle ground.  However, in order to work, the groups must see themselves as equals, the meetings must take place as a pursuit of a shared goal and the meetings must not be artificial.

Ten Random Thoughts on Wyoming

About a week ago, Wen and I got back from our honeymoon in Wyoming (this blog has been dark for two weeks as the combination of honeymoon + moving to new apartment upon return + crazy work has made it tough to blog).  It’s a beautiful – and culturally very different – part of America.  Here are a couple of notes for you:

one We were told by some locals that people in “Wyoming” are family-oriented.  I’m not sure what this is a euphemism for (likely “socially conservative).  After all, I live in the Northeast and people don’t regularly abuse their kids or similar things out here.

Ironically, on our last night in town we sat next to a table of cowboys.  Turns out that they’d made the wives and kids eat at another table in the restaurant.  And one of the cowboys offered the waiter a chance to sleep with his wife in return for 50% off the bill.  Judging by the heavy eyeliner and sagging halter top on her, I’m not sure he was joking.

two Wyoming is the least populous state in the Union, checking in at a little over 500K people.  This means that they also have the most unique license plates in the Union.  Take a look at the generic plate below.  The number on the left represents the county you’re from; the right is a number assigned to you.  We didn’t see one that went above 5 digits!

three Montana may officially be “Big Sky Country”, but Wyoming is a close second:

Sunset on Jackson Lake

Storm at base of Grand Teton

Sky seen from Grand Teton

four Continuing on our license-plate theme, when I was a kid, when our parents took us on American road trips, they’d trick us into being quiet by asking us to try and spot the license of every state.  The place to do this is Grand Teton/Yellowstone.  I’m convinced that I saw every state there; the Lupine Meadows parking lot looked like a governor’s convention, there were so many different states represented.

five the only challenging part of Wyoming is that you quickly learn that people’s ability to drive is inversely proportional to the size of their vehicle-and people in Wyoming like their vehicles big.  Now everyone knows that people with SUVs are vehicularly challenged (witness the gravel road that some people took at 20 km/h: people, you’ve got a 4×4!) but Yellowstone was ridiculous.  People there had land-based aircraft carriers: 30 foot long behemoths with cars in tow – and they took at least as long as an aircraft carrier to turn (I think I saw little tug boats helping them on tight corners).

Note that Yellowstone consists of two lane roads, so travellers: ye have been warned…

six One interesting fact we learned is that Wyoming is Utah’s playground.  Everywhere we went, even remote corners like 10 miles into the Targhee forest, we kept coming across trucks from Utah.  Apparently the state sport there is heading up to Wyoming on long weekends and set up trailers in the middle of the forest and drink beer.

seven English in Wyoming is a living language.  “Buffalo” is slowly transmuting into “Bison”.  More worrisome is the pronunciation of “creek” as “crick”.  I had a great time asking my cowboy horse riding guide the name of yonder crick.

eight Cowboys in Wyoming are a hearty and dynamic lot; they have had no challenge adapting to the 21st century.  We met some who constantly used the air conditioning in their cars and carried plastic water bottles on the trail to stay hydrated.  Nothing too fancy there.

Then they started telling us that they want to get satellite tv in their camp because they’re bored of one another (What!  No songs around campfires every night?) and that they use Google AdWords to buy keywords to advertise their services.  Technology: 1, old way of life: 0.  Now we just need to work on the Amish.

nine Wyoming has the craziest weather of any place I’ve been.  We were told that there is snowfall on record for every day of the year except August 16th.  When we hiked, we came across more snowdrifts than you can imagine; snowball fights on the 4th of July in the mountain are routine.

It thunderstormed every day we were there; the lightning seen across the valley was amazing.  One thunderstorm was followed up with some particularly aggressive hail – nickel-sized balls bouncing off the ground.

ten Jackson is home to the National Museum of Wildlife Art.  It’s a fabulous little museum with a great selection of wildlife paintings; they feature a lot of American art of life on the plains plus a quick historical tour of how wildlife painting has evolved.

One thing that became eminently clear is that when men paint pictures of bears, they turn into imbeciles.  How else can you explain William Dunton calling the following “Monarch of all he surveys”:

Or Charles M Russell calling this “To the victor belong the spoils”:

The museum also reminded me of what a small world it is.  The museum has a prized (and fantastic) collection of art by Carl Rungius.  In 1910, he was invited by Jimmy Simpson up to Banff to hunt; he subsequently painted many of the hunts.  Later in his life, Simpson would build Num Ti Jah lodge – where I had been married less than a week before.

Sign, Signs, Everywhere There’s…

One of the pleasures of living in America is how someone, somewhere,  is trying to make your life easier. The locals here balance a notion of rugged individual freedom with a mass market consumerism that is focused on making the average life as easy as possible.

Frequently, ‘making your life as easy as possible’ equates with ‘not having to think.’ One of the ways this manifests itself is in signs. Stupid signs that tell you to do the most mindless things. In fact, sometimes the signs are so truly stupid that it requires thinking about them to ignore their message (thus reasserting our individualism?).

To me, the ultimate example of this are the Icon Parking signs. The image below is taken from the parking lot in my office in the old Port Authority building:

Icon Parking Signs

As you enter the well-lit, one lane, whitewashed tunnel to descend into the bowels of the parking lot, you are greeted with no fewer than 11 signs. 10 of them consists of the alternating slogans “pull ahead” and “drive slow”. Recall that you are in a narrow tunnel. By definition it affords no action other than driving ahead. Does one need to be told to drive slow? Presumably the driver has rounded a corner before and therefore can gauge the appropriate speed for turning?

I have no idea (and I’ve never parked there as I don’t drive to work; perhaps it is a truly treacherous corner and cows people in to attempting to reverse), but I can’t help thinking that’s there’s a larger message in the signs…