Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Milton Fountain

A few weeks before our wedding, Dhanno-ki-Amma had gifted me a book that I was surprised I had not come across before. The book changed my life in many ways -- it gave me a completely different perspective on what one should believe in.  After I had read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead for the first time, one could say, that it became one of the many first steps that I took, in the direction of becoming a Libertarian. The second, came much later, when I realized that I didn't really know what type of a Libertarian I really was. As they say, there is a unique type of Libertarianism for every unique Libertarian there is.

One such unique libertarian was Milton Friedman. Today is the day when he would have turned hundred. And what a century it has been.

There is perhaps no one in the field of economics that has influenced modern thought like Friedman did. He was called one of the most influential figures of the modern world in the second half of the last century. He was an adviser to many presidents and prime ministers, most notably -- the two that influenced modern conservatism like none other -- Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. And other than the rather ignored fact that he won the Nobel memorial prize in economics, which everyone assumes automatically, he came up with the modern theory of monetarism, which in my Desi-speak means the following -- Any government, should stay the hell out of the people's business of doing anything productive, and if it would really like to have a control valve of sorts over the people it governs, it should be in possession of a slightly leaky faucet, to slowly create money. And then, it should stay the hell out. Of the people's business. Of being productive.

When you read about the man, Friedman does not come across as a crazy rifle wielding, government hating, horse riding, cabbage farming, moo-milking crazy nut-job, that most of us Libertarians are made out to be. He seems very practical about philosophies, to the extent that he was willing to "fine tune" his beliefs if the process gave him clarity. Of course, like many other Libertarians out there, he believed in legalizing drugs and sex, minimizing government and the military, and allowing the free market to flourish. But, unlike many others,  he believed that the federal reserve, given that it existed, should play a limited role. And that, earned him many converts, including the people who run the current monetary system.

It is hard to judge a fountainhead. More so, if the impact of his work takes centuries to reveal, while you live your life barely a decade away from his passing. So, things like these, are best left to historians who look back at things without the confusion that too much information tends to create.

Many years ago, I had asked Kailash the milkman, (who appears in one of my short stories, Bagpiper Karma) why he adulterated milk with water. He had been in a good mood that day, and so, he had told me his secret.

Apparently, as the calf gets older, it gets off the udder. And since the milk is mainly for the calf, the cow produces less, while the number of customers the milkman has, stays the same. So, he sends his cows to the field, hoping that at least one, would hit a bulls-eye. And, to keep his customers happy while the next cow comes home, he puts a little bit of water in the milk. But, he always makes sure that he does not add too much water too quickly, since it is easy to get caught that way.

What Kailash did, was not that bad really, since the alternative is complete chaos. In small town India, where milk comes next after water, people like him keep the peace.

Many years later, as I learned the few things that I know about economics, I learned that the central banks around the world do pretty much the same thing that Kailash did. The number of resources in the world, is finite, while the population keeps increasing, and everyone likes to carry around nice looking wallets. As wads of cash have to be produced at short notice, governments print money. And every time the press turns, inflation is created. After all, if there was no money, there would be complete chaos. So, a little dilution, may not be such a bad thing after all. The trick is to do it in small steps. And that is what Friedman had recommended.

Does that mean that I am going to call Milton Friedman the "Kailash" of the world economy? Perhaps not, since it makes my life really difficult if I have to explain free drugs and sex with a bovine analogy. So, I will let the cows explain all that to you. When they come home.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

अलविदा आनंद !

ज़िन्दगी  और  मौत ऊपर  वाले  के  हाथ  हैं  जहाँपना , उसे  नातो  आप  बदल  सकते  हैं न  मैं |  हम  सब  तो  रंग  मंच  की  कठपुतलियाँ   हैं  जिनकी  डोर  ऊपर  वाले  की  ऊँगली  पे  बंधी  हैं | कब  कौन  कैसे  उठेगा  यह  कोई  नहीं  बता  सकता  है |

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Empty cars and wise drivers

Some time ago, I met a gentleman, who is reasonably high up in one of our defense organizations. Being the gentleman he is, he asked me to join him for lunch. He had one of those nice cars, that I have always found very impressive -- with a military license plate, a red beacon on top, and a chauffeur in front.

As the chauffeur drove us through the various gates in the controlled facility, they swung wide open for us, at the mere sight of the car, and there were salutes galore. Now that, was more impressive, let's say, about two times over,  than the car itself.

Later in the day, the gentleman had to send me somewhere quickly, and so, I traveled alone in the back seat of his car, and as usual, there were salutes galore, at every gate that we drove by. As I always like to strike up conversations with drivers and chauffeurs, I asked  the man behind the wheel if he ever got salutes when he drove by with an unoccupied back seat.

"To be frank sir, I sometimes do. But those salutes are mainly at night, when people can't quite make out if someone is in the back."

"So, is it fair to say that the car itself is getting salutes, for being an important looking car?" I asked him with a chuckle.

"That is not very uncommon in life sir," said my driver. "After all, many times, we salute politicians we don't like. But, we do that because we are paying respect to the chair, not the person occupying it. That is what many wise men have told me."

"So, technically, would you perhaps feel a little better saluting an empty chair, that is usually occupied by a politician?" I asked him.

"That will never happen sir, since none of of our politicians ever let a chair be empty. Even for a moment," pat came the reply.

Such wisdom.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The water cycle

Often, when I am absolutely bored, and I have nothing better to do, I flip through television channels. One after the other. A few days ago, I was doing just that, with just enough time spent in each channel for me to decide if I wanted to take my finger off the remote control.

And then, I came to one of the spiritual channels, which has a guru available every hour, dishing out every kind of philosophy that you can think of. On this one, I simply had to stop flipping. The guru had a piercing stare, and it seemed that he was looking straight at me through the screen. And then, in a deep voice that TV preachers learn to use once the cash starts flowing in, he told me, "..and so, what goes in, must come out..." That was all that I could catch before I caught a glimpse of an upside down sadhu on the next channel, trying to teach me that there are certain yogic positions one must not attempt -- after finishing a nice glass of scotch. 

I flipped through a few more channels that night. And then, I went straight to bed.

If you watch television commercials in India, you will see that currently, there are water wars going on. No, not the kind that are predicted to happen in a decade or so. These wars are between two movie stars from the seventies -- Hema Malini and Shabana Azmi -- who have strangely managed to look pretty through the decades that seem to have taken their toll on the rest of us. And these ladies, through their ads, are now trying to sell water filtration systems.The ads are nice, and I always head to our kitchen after seeing one, to pour myself a fresh glass of the life-giving stuff from our own water filter. I think we have one of the two that these ladies are trying to sell, not that it matters.

It seems rather strange that I tend to ignore this amazing liquid while I talk about Scotch and Lassi incessantly, with everyone I seem to talk to. So, a few days ago, when I had to go without a glass of water for a few hours, on a particularly hot afternoon, I realized how lucky I am, to have access to clean drinking water. Millions in India, are not so lucky, and every summer, in rural areas, things get really bad.

That night, I saw a documentary on the river Ganga, a river that flows very close to my heart. Sadly, it is one of the most polluted rivers in the world today. This majestic river starts in the Himalayas as a stream, straight out of a glacier, and ends up making an arm of what is probably the largest delta in the world. In the one and a half thousand miles of journey in between that this river makes, people wash their clothes and dump their sewage, toss the remains of their dead and wash their newborn in it, and sometimes, people take the water home in little plastic bottles to purify their homes, all around India. It hurts whenever I realize that we never think of  cleaning up the river itself.  Perhaps, to us Indians -- what is holy, does not need to be purified.

I was looking at a particularly gory part of the documentary, about an aspect of Kashi, that we all seem to ignore. Kashi is perhaps the only city in India which promises salvation to the dead, if they are cremated there.  Those that live, have to live with the burden of uncremated human remains in the water that they drink to live. I was beginning to get depressed, but then, I found something that cheered me up. Apparently, biologists are breeding a variety of flesh-eating turtles and releasing them into the Ganga, to clean it up using a sustainable method.

And then, the host of the show made a million-dollar comment,  "Don't you find it strange that the government is using turtles to help it do its work?!" I found that quite amusing in the Indian context, since we probably have the slowest bureaucracy the world.

But that got me thinking about what happens to all the water that does not flow out to the sea through the largest delta in the world. The water, that you and me seem to drink from our classy filtration systems, sold to us by evergreen movie stars from the seventies.

If you have ever been to a government office in India, and a few hours before that, you drank a lot of water bottled by a private company, you wouldn't want to take your privates to a government lavatory. To complete the water cycle that is.

Recently, I heard one of the not-so-rare bean counting stories that we keep hearing. Like Bill Clinton's $500 haircut, Dubya Bush's $600 Pizza, and yada, yada --  taxpayer's money being squandered by a repressive government that taxes us all to death. This one was about India's planning commission. The same organization, that plans our sewerage systems and river clean-up budgets, blew 35 lakh rupees (about $ 63,000) on renovating two toilets in a government building that it owns. Of course, like me, you are probably one of those angry taxpayers who just turned Libertarian. But then, I really had mixed feelings about the entire incident, as I had once attempted to take a leak in a government building in Delhi, in a restroom, that was obviously not renovated by the planning commission. Let me just say that the attempt was unsuccessful. 

So, what did I do to complete my own water cycle, when the repressive government refused to help me out? Let us not get into the details, but let us just say that it is amazing what one can do while breathing clean air, and surrounded by tall green trees in the open, paid for by the taxpayer.

If you ever have to face your own moment of crisis with the water cycle, you should try it. And, if you  feel too guilty and need some spiritual guidance in such situations, you can always remember what the spiritual guru with the piercing stare on TV told me.

I think he was right.