Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My decade in America

Sometime back an uncle of mine, living in India, casually remarked "we in India have seen lot of changes unlike USA". For some time I did not think much of it. Amidst all the recent blogging on e-books, year end lists by all and sundry a thought struck me. So much has indeed changed in America. In fact many changes that have ricocheted around the world have originated in America or driven by America.

I landed in America on June 24th 1998 in JFK. Given my anxieties my mind did not even register that I was being driven across the Verrazano Narrows bridge, an architectural marvel. The dot com boom was in full swing. I landed in an America that was at the apogee of world domination. I shall not bore the reader recapping well known events over the past decade or a litany of the ebb and flow of personal fortunes.

The first time I bought a PC in my life was after marriage in 1999. It had 5 GB hard disk, 256 MB RAM. Today my iMac has 1 Terabyte hard disk, 8 GB RAM. My Ipod has 160GB. Not long ago if a database at a corporation was 1 TB it was called a big database.

I bought cassette tapes, VHS recordings. Then it was MP3 rage thanks to Napster. I bought my first DVD player in 2000. At that time Blockbuster, a leading video rental chain store, had just two racks of DVD's. Today VHS tapes are gone, even the DVD is just hanging in for Blu-Ray to become common place. 'Blockbuster' as a company is fighting for its survival from mail-order service like Netflix. Netflix on the other hand is trying to stay ahead of the curve with streaming videos.

Does anybody now remember AOL "You have got mail", the sound of dial-up connections etc? In the dot com there were many ad driven services that were free. One popular free dial-up connection was "Net-Zero". Needless to say they are no longer running. Today I've fiber optic cable run up to my home and I speeds of MB's.

Owning a camera was a luxury in India. I bought my first camera, an Olympus with telephoto zoom, for $200 (I think) from a website that gave ridiculous discounts (also no longer running). I bought that for my marriage trip. Today there are no film cameras being produced. My first digital camera, bought in 2002, had 1.2 mega pixel. My current Canon digital SLR has 14 Mega pixel (a sony model has 25 MP). Even the memory card has undergone change just within 3 years. Where there was a plethora of types now the industry is converging on SD cards.

My first camcorder, also bought for the marriage, was analog with a nice Samsonite bag (all for $450) from 'Circuit City', a premier Electronic chain store (closed in 2008). Camcorders used to be a rage for every foreign return those days. There too the tape is gone. Now its mostly internal hard disk and flash drives.

TV was a luxury when I grew up and mostly a strict 'no-no' until we crossed 10th grade lest we get distracted. Distracted, what a grandiose notion given that those days DD ran insipid programs that would make a student run back to his books. Does anyone remember "Vayalum Vaazhvum" and the scramble for Friday evening "Oliyum Oliyum"? I bought my first TV, an RCA 27 inch model (CRT based technology) from K-Mart (now no longer). Boy I've lugged that bulk until 2004. In 2004 I bought my 55 inch Sony LCD projection TV. Now CRT based TV's are no longer manufactured.

When I first started driving in my second hand 1993 model (bought in 1999) Toyota Tercel DX (no longer produced) I was bewildered learning to look up maps. Even back then websites had sprouted to give directions but what if you had to take a detour? Today GPS's are de-rigeur. The iconic Rand McNally atlases are relics of a bygone era.

For more than a year even after getting a job I did not have a cell phone until 2000. Today cell phones are not just for talking and are mostly used for tasks other than talking. Need I even talk about the revolution in the cell phone industry.

In 1998 to call India from our land line was so damn expensive. Sometimes at the rate of $0.75 it was sheer day light robbery. Flush with excitement when my engagement was arranged I burned the phone line costing $500 for that month (a cousin spent $1000 thanks to speed dialing feature). Now I've a flat fee of $25 for a month to call India any number of times. Now add "Skype" to the mix and you have a global phenomenon. Recently Cisco has introduced tele-meetings at consumer levels so families can stay connected. Only a tech hater will give the trope "oh we dont relate anymore like we used, technology has killed relationship". On the contrary technology has made it so easy and cheap to be in touch.

Ah then there is Ipod and the Steve Jobs revolution that has remade an industry. When he unveiled the latest Itunes software Jobs said that Apple with drop the CD image in the Itunes logo, the logo now has just a musical note. Jobs reasoned that a CD is anachronistic. In 10 years the cassette tape and the CD are gone. Sony has stopped manufacturing its iconic walkman. Thanks to the Ipod and what marketing gurus call the "halo effect" today an iMac graces my desk. What used to be "Apple Computers" is now just "Apple Inc". Jobs contended that Apple is no longer just a computer company. Apple recently surpassed Microsoft in market capitalization.

Steve Jobs with his Ipod, Ipad and Iphone has practically shaken up our lives. When "Circuit City" folded up many thought "Best Buy" the only other major electronic retailer will fleece customers. Not to be. The web savvy consumer armed with an Iphone or an Android phone has protection. The customer scans the barcode of an item he wants to buy and the app tells him the price from various internet stores.

Its snowing outside tonight, we expect 3 inches. Driving will not be a problem with my 4-wheel drive car. Brakes? Hah my ABS will handle that. I got to add that curtain air bags, dual side air bags all have me covered. Many of that is now becoming standard issue.

Oh I forgot Google. Between Steve Jobs and Google the American consumer is forever changed. Also increasingly its becoming difficult to categorize the companies. Google no longer is just a "search engine" company. The Android phone changed that.

E-books are now redefining the publishing industry. Last year Amazon.com sold more e-books than hardcovers. Ipad is revolutionizing how books are designed for reading, especially children.

Blogging, Facebook ( I just watched "The Social Network"), twitter etc have completely changed how we socialize.

I can add sundry items and details of personal changes but I shall stop here for now. Often times when I read historians rushing to write the epitaph on America as an innovation super power I just ponder on Google, Apple and now Facebook. As I was watching "The Social Network" one thought struck. Here is a twenty something student who has an idea, turns it to a company and is the youngest billionaire. Only in America. Note that well-heeled very wealthy rival students dragged him to court accusing him of stealing their idea. In most other countries the penniless student would have lost.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Does capitalism need a human face?

Every so often in India I hear this "economic reforms need a human face" or "reforms should be for aam-aadmi". A few days back Narayana Murthy too added to the chorus asking for a human face to capitalism. This, from a man who said that a night in jail in a communist country pushed him to capitalism. Whether its India or even US, the citadel of free market, capitalism has to be apologetic for its success. Even those who grudgingly acknowledge the success of free markets preface their approvals with a perfunctory "with all its faults". Free market is good 'despite' its faults.But when it comes to 'communism' or its bastardized version 'socialism' the label 'progressive' is used instinctively as prefix. 

"Progressive". Today left winger's cry hoarse about Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries that US is leaving in much better position, arguably, than they were 10 years ago. Where were these bleeding heart liberals when Stalin gobbled Eastern Europe? When Soviet Russia marched into Afghanistan and killed millions Indira Gandhi, she of the Non-Aligned Movement,  refused Thatcher to condemn it. Well her father dithered endlessly and stood by watching Soviet armies crush Hungary. Churchill famously decried the "Iron Curtain". A philosophy that sent to Gulags its own citizenry by the millions, murdered and maimed nation after nation, laid desolate half a continent, could not feed its own people, had to build walls to keep its citizenry, jammed radio waves, controlled thought, engendered a fear psychosis that is unparalleled even today, is what is called 'progressive'. When I hear liberals talk smugly about MNC's as pirates I wonder what would they call a man who orders his army to shoot down striking farmers? Kronstadt. 

Walmart and Reliance food are corporates to be opposed. Would we rather have the Soviet model of different grocery stores for the privileged party apparatchiks and the plebian? Some form of 'dictatorship by the proletariat' that is. Or do we want this, look at the women they are certainly not middle class even and they are shopping in a department store (Picture from Outlook http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?269763 Article by Sunil Khilnani) Walmart saves US consumers much more than the entire cost of the US government food stamp program.


Lets turn to Indian style socialism. Everything that is good about India today is in the private sector or thanks to private sector. If a package is to be couriered who would you prefer? The Indian Postal Service or a private courier? Bank's were nationalized to make it 'for the poor man'. Have we ever seen a poor man treated decently in any nationalized bank? Do we want BSNL/MTNL monopoly again to hold the Indian consumer to ransom? Tata's airline was nationalized to create Air-India and we all have experienced their wonderful service !!! Is there any SINGLE government run entity that we could feel happy about? Can anyone ever transact anything in a government office and come without paying bribe and most importantly come with our sense of self respect intact? Not even India's own ministers get treated in government hospitals. Inefficiency, corruption, unmatched arrogance these are the hall marks of anything that the government got into. YET its economic reforms that needs a human face.

Arun Shourie, ex-disinvestment minister in NDA period lamented that if India scrapped all anti-poverty programs and just sent a check to each poor person they would get Rs 5000 per annum but today they get pennies. 

Today Indian graduates, not just professional degree holders, are brimming with confidence, their opportunities are muti-fold increased, not many even know about government "employment exchanges" and even if they did they shun it. For close to 50 years India experimented with an economic philosophy that was plainly a failure. In the last 10 years the country has progressed in quantum leaps and is this what that needs a human face? If this is not human face by itself what else is? 

The day Indira Gandhi was assassinated her own citizens did not know the fate of their PM until 6 PM while a genocide against Sikhs was unleashed. Thanks to DoorDarshan's monopoly. Karunanidhi once broke a TV as protest against Hindi creeping into our living rooms through DD controlled TV. Today DD is virtually non-existent in TN thanks to freeing up of government monopoly. Privatization achieved what Karunanidhi could possibly never have achieved. 

This conundrum is not only in India. Even in the US a corporate CEO who generates jobs and profits is not respected on par with a blatherer like Al Gore. Its easier for Al Gore to be respected than for Lloyd Blankfein the CEO of Goldman Sachs. Gore was born with a silver spoon, miserly when it came to charity but is adored by the tree-hugging limousine-liberal. Blankfein brought up in Housing projects is reviled, his bonuses are ridiculed and he can never win a Nobel peace prize.

On Dec 26th 2010 the North East, particularly New York City, was pummeled by a blizzard that dumped more than a feet of snow. When NYC streets were not cleaned promptly New Yorkers heaped anger on the mayor. Only later investigations showed that it was the unionized workforce that was the culprit. The union supervisors wanted to send a message to the mayor for the layoffs he had done, they asked the workers to go slow on cleanup.

Couple of years back NY metro-transit workers, most are very generously compensated, struck work just on the eve of X-mas sending retail shoppers (and retail income) to a tizzy. The strike was actually illegal and caused great misery to millions.

The teacher's union is the white collar version of the corruption ridden Teamsters union. If a school had to layoff teachers due to budget they follow a "last in first out" principle. It does not matter than there might be a senior teacher who is incompetent, the junior may very well be the brightest. Does not matter.

I've rambled across the plains just to give a flavor of the inherent unfairness of asking capitalism, time and again, to wear a human face. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

Spectrum Scam: Unfair blaming of Privatisation.

Whether its a vernacular communist blogger or a journalist at brazenly left wing "Frontline" the smug attitude of blaming "capitalism", "privatisation", "neo-liberal economic policies" is in vogue. Lets forget for a moment quibbling over the scale of corruption or that even corruption took place.

Just today Tom De Lay the former majority leader of US House of representatives was sentenced to 3 years on charges on money laundering. Recently the very powerful congressman Charlie Rangel was censured on the floor of house for not "reporting" some income (it was considered shameful and Rangel hung his head). Paula Jones, a literal nobody, filed a lawsuit alleging misconduct by the President of US (Bill Clinton). Clinton sought exemption from court appearance saying he was busy functioning as President. The court would have none of it. Clinton was asked to appear before a grand jury. His testimony, completely unedited, was released to the public. Businessmen and lobbyists have gone to jail serving punitive sentences for illegal activities. Rigas, Enron CEO's, Jack Abramoff. Governors, Congressmen, Senators have all felt the sting of law in US.

Contrast the above with India. Laloo Prasad made a mockery of CBI cases. Mayawati holds darbars. Mulayam Singh Yadav is in a class of his own. Jayalalitha, Karunanidhi, Yeddyurappa all have made the courts and corruption cases look like badges of honor. The Ex-Chief Justice of India did his best to keep his own office outside the purview of RTI act in the name of preserving respect for judiciary.

Where politics and money meets corruption is almost inevitable. However what differentiates a mature capitalism like US with the crony capitalism of India is the overall system. Indian constitution framers in their infinite stupidity made it impossible to prosecute a sitting legislative member. This was amply demonstrated in the attempts by Swamy to seek permission from then TN governor Channa Reddy to prosecute Jayalalitha. Reddy's party was in alliance with Jaya. To prosecute a PM you need the president's approval. Good luck with that. When Jaya was acquitted in the TANSI case it shocked the country. Try to criticize that judgment without inviting the draconian pressure of "contempt of court".

The parliament has history sheeters, rapists, thugs, murderers, MP's get elected sitting inside Tihar jail. MLA slaps a vice chancellor. Judge issues warrants for payments. Then there is the beaurocracy. Just today Dinamalar published a news item showing how a disabled couple wailed at a government office to get ration cards. RTO offices, Government secratariat, Hospitals, PWD, Universities, NOTHING absolutely nothing in India is beyond the pale of brazen corruption.

In a country like this its a shame to even talk about "spirit of law". Manmohan Singh defeated in LS polls then gets duly elected to RS from Assam, a state which he probably never visited until then. The cabinet, according to the constitution, is to be formed on the advise of the PM. In reality the PM is given no choice thanks to allies who want "plum" portfolios. In a country where there is no rule of law its idiocy to think about the spirit of law.

Would any Indian want to go back to the days of MTNL holding monopoly over telecom? When questioned in the parliament about how dismal phone service is the cabinet minister C.M.Stephen retorted "telephone is a luxury not a necessity" (India:From Midnight to Millennium by Shashi Tharoor pg 167-8). Cell phones have revolutionized how farmers, rikshaw-wallahs, auto-drivers, millions of poor people earn. The ministry of agriculture is now telecasting an ad touting "Call centers for farmers", the farmer is depicted with a cell phone. This could not have happened with MTNL. I still remember the telecom strikes that would cripple the country causing loss of thousands of crores. Is that what we want to go back to?

A government that has enshrined legally doling out favors engenders a culture of bribery and corruption. The housing scandal that is rocking the TN government is purely a government sanctioned corruption. A system where MP's can allot gas stations, housing flats, school admissions (yes that too), licenses for industries etc etc has completely corrupted every soul of India. Voters are bribed legally (color TV's) and illegally (cash for votes).

Banks were nationalized to provide easy access to capital for the poor citizen. What was reality? Banks are used like cash cows to bribe the voter with promises of loan write offs. From the days of Janardhan Poojary's loan mela's to Karunanidhi's waiver of Rs 5000 crores nationalized banks were milked under the aegis of political patronage. What is worse this culture has encouraged citizens to take loans and wait for reckless politicians to waive it during elections. A culture of irresponsibility. The Indian Bank scam highlighted how politicians, legally sanctioned, used their privilege of providing loans to ruin a storied bank.

Lack of transparency at all levels in government, an over burdened outmoded legal system, corruption eating into every organ of the society like cancer are all far more responsible for this and more scams to come than capitalism or privatization.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Should NRI's have voting rights?

I read there are moves afoot to secure voting rights/methods for NRI's to participate in Indian elections. On the face of it its a very laudable initiative. Every citizen has a sacred right to vote that is inviolable. America affords its citizenry that right. However an Indian expatriate is mostly unlike an American expatriate.

Most westerners, especially Americans, do not leave their country in search of greener pastures. Most Indians who are expatriates leave India in search of better opportunities, especially economic opportunities. Amongst Indian NRI's the one's who emigrate to Western countries, especially US and UK are different from those who emigrate to Gulf. Those who emigrate to Gulf do so ONLY for economic progress and thanks to the immigrant unfriendly policies of those countries most NRI's eventually return once they meet certain financial security. Also the educational background of NRI emigrating to west and Gulf differs broadly. NRI's emigrating to US and UK also have career prospects in mind. Most NRI's in US and UK "CHOOSE" to settle down. That we seek permanent residency and citizenship in these alien lands in testimony to hose lands being good to us NRI's and most importantly we believe that our children can flourish here better than the land we left. Before nit pickers point out that some in US and UK do return back these days, I'd respectfully say, "yes but they are still a meager number, for every one who returns there are several in the queue wanting to come in".

I draw the distinction between NRI's for an important reason. Hereafter I shall mostly restrict my references to NRI's in US. If NRI's in US vote in Indian elections looking for parties or candidates who can change India or usher in policies that would help the Indian citizen in India enjoy at least a fraction of the privileges that we enjoy I'd be the first in line to support this. But what do I see amongst Indian NRI's here when it comes to discussing politics back home?

Most Tamil NRI's are DMK leaning (to DMK worshippers). I might be wrong but irrespective the point I am about to make cuts across party loyalties and across origins. How many many times have I heard "do not compare India and US, that is India, they have to do certain things to win there". The "certain things" can range from voter bribery to mindless freebies. I've heard these arguments from people who have emigrated to US long time ago and would never accept from a US congressman even a fraction of what they expect the Indian citizen to put up with from his/her MLA. If I were to point out how Mu.Ka's free electricity scheme for farmers is a total sham landing the state in a power crisis with lots of hardship for the poor the answers I get would range from "that's India" to "we don't care we want DMK to win in the next election". I've seen Gujarati's rooting for Modi. They would be apoplectic if a US governor sat back and watched a race riot. I am sick to my stomach when people rationalize Modi on the basis of administrative efficiency (what efficiency?). Nixon ended Vietnam War, went to China, declared War on Cancer yet all he is remembered for is Watergate. What is Watergate at the end of the day just some loose cannon aides trying to wire tap their democratic opponent. Wire tapping the opposition party is routine in India. Yet Nixon is not forgiven by Americans.

Lets take a larger philosophical outlook at why a citizen votes. We vote in order to have a government that we think we will usher in some changes that we would like to see. When such a government is voted as voter we ought to be there to experience what we voted into power. I could very well come to Tamil Nadu and vote in the coming elections, then I board a flight back to Newark condemning poor Tamilians to bear the consequence of my voting I'd be a "humbug". I am in a country where I expect my congressman and Senator to work well into Christmas eve. I am in a country where my expectations of my privileges, not even as a citizen but just as a resident of the country, is at a level way above what an Indian citizen can expect.

Mu.Ka as CM had the audacity to say "what is the use of studying". If a US Governor had said that he can kiss his re-election chances good bye. If we start discussing Jaya or Mayawati that would be reaching to unfathomable depths.

Does it matter if Tamil Nadu does not have good electricity supply? Yes, if you are poor it matters most. Imagine a poor pregnant woman delivering a child in a Government hospital that will not have a/c wards or generator supply. God help the mother and child. I heard from a pediatrician how she had to race to save a child, in her private clinic with generator, that was on incubator and needed an hour's extra supply of electricity. Just yesterday the government has announced that food inflation is at 14%. 14%. If that happened in US the Congress will be in turmoil editorials will skin alive our policy makers. At that level of inflation the impoverished millions cannot afford nutritious food and malnourishment rages in the slums.

Make no mistake that what I've said applies to Chinese as well. I've heard Chinese emigrants justify Chinese policies enjoying the fruits of America's freedoms. What is it with emigrants that they think their own erstwhile fellow countrymen deserve less that what they enjoy today?

Having left India by choice I've no right to tell the Indian what sort of government he should have especially if I were to say "you don't deserve better, this is what befits you". In fact NRI's voting in Indian elections is the greatest back stabbing that can be done to Indians especially when most NRI's do not desire anything better for the poor Indian except entrenchment of their own shop worn pet ideologies.