The Blame Games

October 25, 2009 § 4 Comments


Games Indians Play (Raghunathan V.)

Corruption Index in India, 2005 (Courtesy Center for Media Studies & Wikimedia Commons)

Professor Raghunathan’s book is a cry from the heart – a cry of impatience, exasperation and frustration. Why, he asks, is India such a mess? Wherever he looks, he sees corruption, squalor, indifference, callousness, selfishness, greed, laziness, nepotism – and every other form of behavior that results in sub-optimal outcomes for Indian society.

This sub-optimality of outcomes is indisputable; the causal behavior undeniable; his bitterness infectious. But Raghunathan’s objective is more ambitious than mere description of the situation and of his problems with it. He attempts to explain why we are what we are, and in order to do this, he invokes game theory to model the various choices we are faced with, and the consequences of such choices.

Does Raghunathan succeed in his objective? The Prisoner’s Dilemma is certainly a valid model to use to depict Indian reality, though by no means the only possible one. And while it does explain how we behave, it does not – critically, in my opinion – explain why Indians make more short-sighted public choices than people from other countries, especially when (as he repeatedly stresses) we are not deficient in basic intelligence.

Here’s one possible explanation, however. It is neither new nor original – it involves the words used by Alexis de Tocqueville to describe the situation in early 19th century Europe, with its centralized governments and vast gaps between the governors and the governed, and no direct involvement of the middle-class in how their towns were being administered:

There are European nations where the inhabitant sees himself as a kind of settler, indifferent to the fate of the place he inhabits. Major changes happen there without his cooperation, he is even unaware of what precisely has happened; he is suspicious, he hears about events by chance. Worse still, the condition of his village, the policing of the roads, … scarcely bother him; he thinks that everything is outside his concern and belongs to a powerful stranger called the government. He enjoys what he has as a tenant, without any feeling of ownership or thought of possible improvement. This detachment from his own fate becomes so extreme that, if his own safety or that of his children is threatened, instead of trying to ward off the danger, he folds his arms and waits for the entire nation to come to his rescue.

Tocqueville could very well be describing the India of today, the very India that Raghunathan agonizes about. His diagnosis for complete political apathy is a lack of involvement or engagement of the population in local government; the only remedy, a heightened awareness of political rights and obligations under the constitution, and far more local government. He extols decentralized government not merely for its administrative efficiencies but for its political effect on the population.

Tocqueville notes, further, that the effect extends to popular opinion of the law. In such countries, he says, the criminal is seen as “a luckless fellow”, unfortunate to get caught by “the authorities”, and the population watches with some satisfaction when he gets away, and with some sympathy when he gets punished. In countries where the people have a higher sense of ownership in the act of legislation, they would have less sympathy for the act of breaking the law.

Raghunathan, on his part, does not convincingly suggest a workable solution for jerking Indian society out of its torpor and on the road to progress. Common sense suggests that society will not change until a significant proportion of the population is converted – a critical mass that is more likely to influence the rest than to be influenced. Unfortunately, not too many non-academics will be convinced or moved by Raghunathan’s intellectual demonstrations. Perhaps this is why he is forced to resort to something of a desperate measure – an attempt to establish the credibility of game theory by identifying its lessons with the teachings of the Hindu religious text, the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita and Game Theory have another thing in common – like all abstract models, their messages can be interpreted to recommend contradictory courses of action with equal ease. For instance, he describes the decisions of the Indian and Pakistani governments to invest in nuclear arsenals as sub-optimal “Defect-Defect” strategies. However, as I am sure Raghunathan knows, nuclear deterrence as a strategy was itself an early and celebrated product of Game Theory.

How, then, can society be made to change? A piece from an anthology of essays on public choice that I once read offers an interesting perspective on this:

Oddly it may be in each individual’s interest to support an extant order that is generally defective. For example most Germans during the 3rd Reich may have had a perverse interest in collaborating on the stability of the Nazi regime even when they thought it might bring them disaster in the longer run. Most Soviet citizens may have had a similar interest in supporting the stability of the Soviet regime even in its harshest days. And those who are in a subjugated class, such as the American slaves before the Civil War may have an interest in supporting the order that subjugates them (Ullmann –Margalit 1977). Hence it may be that although the class of all citizens or that of all those who are subjugated would benefit from a change in regime, no individual would benefit enough to take the costly action necessary to change it. In general, the logic of collective action can be devastating for any hope that we can collectively provide ourselves with collective benefits. An odd analogy of that logic applies just as forcefully to the burden of switching from a defective to a more beneficial coordination. But if a Gorbachev comes along to take the lead in moving us from a defective to an alternative coordination we may find it remarkably easy to switch for some matters

As a people, we always look for role models to adore, idols to worship, and leaders to follow.  So this may be the only way effective change can take place: let us therefore await our Gorbachev with impatience and hope (here, I use the name Gorbachev strictly in the sense mentioned in the quote above, without  entering into debate on Gorbachev’s place in Russian history as traitor or social savior).

Professor Raghunathan taught in IIM Ahmedabad when I was a student there. His writing style mirrors his teaching style – unpretentious, conversational and humorous. His overriding instinct is to interpret facts, simplify theory, put forward frameworks, and demonstrate how theory fits the facts. All of this makes the book an easy read – and while it doesn’t have all the answers, it certainly raises several thought-provoking questions.

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§ 4 Responses to The Blame Games

  • PowerDrome says:

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  • ravi says:

    It is a bit unclear to me why it is held that Indians make poorer choices. Do they? Does Prof. Raghunathan offer examples? I am genuinely curious.

    In the USA, Thomas Frank wrote a celebrated book a few years ago called “What the Matter with Kansas?”. Why do common folks in Kansas, he pondered, vote against their own economic interest? In fact, a whole genre of books exist that predate or follow up with this line of questioning. Except its not clear that is indeed the case. Data from before the Obama phenomenon seems to indicate that even in Kansas, working people tend to vote more for Democrats while wealthier segments vote Republican, aligning them with the ostensible policies that would benefit their lives.

    It seems to me that game theory offers appropriate tools for the modelling of the relationships and outcomes given initial conditions and so on. We can learn what equilibria might arise in any sort of arrangement, and we might find that many or most of these equilibria are sub-optimal by some criteria.

    The chief problem for Indians and USers might be, as you sort of note, is that each of them, as players, has to maximise his or her payoff in the equilibrium in which they find themselves. Nevertheless…

    Howard Zinn recounts a story of a conversation between Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein on the state of the world, and their general agreement that history called for a rather gloomy outlook. Zinn notes that these men where respectively the greatest thinkers of their time on the functioning of the human mind and that of the physical world, respectively, and yet, it was history, Zinn’s own specialisation, that they called upon to reach their pessmistic conclusion. Zinn points out that history, however, paints a very different picture. Why is it that human affairs, in general, have shown a tendency towards progress in history?

    Zinn’s response is opposite to yours 😉 — and made explicit in the title of his book: A “People’s” History. Rather than being dragged forward by leaders (Gorbachev) people struggle continuously to improve their own lot and the conditions of society around them. If that be true, are Indians any slower at this process than other societies? (does the passivity or stoicism of Hinduism play a part?) IMHO, the premise requires more examination. Notwithstanding the greatly evident squalor … and inefficiencies.

    My 2 cents.

  • psriblog says:

    Ravi

    Thought-provoking, thanks. Yes I have heard of Frank’s book and People’s History is of course a personal favorite. The message of Raghunathan’s book can’t really be compared with Zinn’s – you’d be mixing categories. Zinn’s grand theme is the naked abuse of economic, political, military and social power against a weaker class. The people that Raghunathan talks about as making poor choices are well-off yuppies jumping queues, bribing bureaucrats, littering streets, avoiding tax, and so on – classic prisoner’s dilemma problems where personal defection leads to free-loading and personal gain, but also to sub-optimality at a social level. We do not ‘self-regulate’ very well, even to keep the immediate surroundings of our own houses clean, whereas other nations seem to do a better job of it. Of course, living as I do in New York, smelling the stale urine that drips off the peeling walls of subway stations, and reading about the credit crunch, I am not certain self-regulation has worked too well in American society either. The difference is possibly a matter of degree. But Europe and the Far East are actually different.
    I usually shy away (as am sure you do, as a right-thinking liberal)from explanations that go “Indians are all because Hinduism ” I prefer to think in complex system- theoretical, stochastic terms – social outcomes (in any group of people) can’t be deterministically calculated, but certain outcomes are more probable than others, for a given set of input characteristics. To move from one (less desired) equilibrium to a better one is the problem. Sometimes the sytem bootstraps its way out of the morass in an ’emergent’ manner (ie, people muddle through). Sometimes the system needs a little kick-start in order to get over the hump.
    Regarding the ‘Gorbachev’ solution – it is ironic that we are using for this purpose the name of the least totalitarian Soviet leader ever – I am no great fan of slavish follow-the-leader games (we do a lot of that anyway!)I certainly dont want a Chairman Mao whipping us into shape. I meant someone who could be the keeper of the society’s conscience, not the leader of a political party. Gandhi, anyone?

  • […] Wright’s thesis matches my own mental construct of the world. Broadly. Earlier in these pages (here , here and here ) I have talked about my belief that human history can be validly modeled on […]

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