Thursday, February 5, 2009

Games Indians Play

I recently finished reading this amazing book 'Games Indians Play - Why we are the way we are' by V. Raghunathan. As you have read from my last posts, it has made an attempt at understanding us Indian. No, the purpose is not India bashing, but to show us where we are going wrong. And he has used the tools of Game theory to provide an explanation.

Privately Smart and Publicly Dumb
Has anyone observed this inherent tendency of many of us to keep our rooms sparkling clean but we throw that same dirt outside. We try to maximize our utility (saving time) by not going all the way to the Dustbin, hence we can be termed as logical and rational beings or privately smart. But that does no good for the country, thus publicly dumb.

And the above mentioned behaviour is a type of prisoner's dilemma where we seek the optimum return, no matter if that means defecting, or stepping on the shoulders of the ones around us. In that respect, we can view the competition here analogous to crabs in a bucket, pulling eachother down the hole. And that is one of the reasons why the government cannot let the autonomous institutions (read IITs and IIMs) flourish beyond a certain point. Thus, comes into picture the iterative prisoner's dilemma. Through this has come the evolution of cooperation. The idea is not to defect first, and if met with a defection, reply it in same terms only in the next round. This is the gentleman's strategy and here, both parties retain optimum profit at the end of rounds.

Biggest free riders
In India, due to the population, people tend to be free riders. And this is visible in the incompetencies of the public sector enterprises which has given rise to babudom and hence corruption, giving rise to Systematic Chaos. According to J. K. Galbraith,
India is a functioning Anarchy.
Game Theory and the Bhagavad Gita

yoga-sthaḥ kuru karmāṇi
sańgaḿ tyaktvā dhanañjaya
siddhy-asiddhyoḥ samo bhūtvā
samatvaḿ yoga ucyate
Bhagavad Gita 2.48
Perform your duty equipoised, O Arjuna, abandoning all attachment to success or failure. Such equanimity is called yoga.

This is one of the examples which states that even the Gita says that one should always cooperate and not think of the result while performing the work. It is sad that the nation which gave the world the Bhagavad Gita has to be in such a state. Am quoting a poem from the book which has been very thoughtfully composed:

62 Summers after Independence

If we can launch rockets but get nowhere,
Fire missiles, but not our passions to excel,
Build aircraft but cannot fly our dreams;

If we can build oil rigs, cyclotrons and atomic plants,
but not our character,
Make heavy machinery and earth-moving equipment,
Yet not move heaven and earth to improve our fate;

If we can grow enough grain, but not care enough
to store them,
Allow half our population to go hungry, with
malnutrition and ill-health still our national visage;

If our population is well over a billion, and
Still doubling every thirty-five years, what we
innocently call our leadership
Turns family planning into a bad phase;

If 400 million and more are still strangers to basic
essentials in life
An equal number effectively illiterate, and
A girl child still an object of rejection;

If our water table is beginning to get lower than oil,
Our rivulets and canals desiccated,
Our seas, rivers and brooks saturated with refuse and effluents;

If open sewage in our midst froths pink, blue and green,
With such blatant chemical pollution a rule rather than exception, and
our reaction to these sights at best phlegmatic;

If half our country still performs its morning ablutions
under the open skies, and
We are blissful being the world's largest open-air lavatory,
with basic hygene and human dignity nobody's concern;

If elephants and rhinos, leopards and tigers are fast disappearing,
Our mountains turning naked and barren with denudation,
Forests disappearing rapidly under the onslaught of deforestation;

If cows, dogs, donkeys, horses, even camels can roam the busiest of streets,
With us incapable of arriving at a collective solution to the problem, and
In the name of compassion, subject the poor animals to worst indignities;

If our national monuments are in a state of abject neglect,
Even a Taj Mahal stands upon a pile of a town's refuse and indeference,
With tourism a mere caricature of its potential;

If our public transport is perennially choking,
Our hospital lobbies resemble railway platforms, and
Our cities, towns, and villages a vast compost heap;

If our railway stations and drainage pipes are dwellings to zillions,
Sidewalks, if there, unavailable to pedestrians, and
Our traffic signals obeyed more in infraction than compliance;

If our children are interviewed and wait listed for nursery admission,
A Class XII child with ninety percent does not make it to the nearest college, and
IITs, et al. brimming with 2,00,000 applications and more for a handful of seats;

If we have to bribe a babu to pay our land taxes, and
We can get a 'RTO licence to Kill' without a driving test, with
Corruption in a government department a rule, no exception;

If our bureaucracy is not a service but power centre,
and the system so corrupt that 85 percent leakage
in intended fundings nationally acceptable, with
Local administration in cities, towns and villages but a mere parody;

If a weak rupee is our best ticket to exports,
Quality, scale and punctuality at best secondary concerns, and
Basic R&D still beyond the horizon;

If it takes three to mow a lawn, and we still
Erect bulidings loading bricks on the heads of our women, with
Our pace of change and productivity among the
slowest and lowest in the world;

If petitions and piled sky-high in every court of the land, with
Justice nearly impossible to find in one's lifetime (if then), and
Our dehumanized jails overflowing even as crime rates continue to soar;

If Shanghai alone surpasses India's total exports three times over, and
India's total port capacity by about the same margin, and
India's total foreign direct investment over ten times;

If, as a people, we have lost ouyr sensitivity to the
misery and mediocrity around us, and
The only value system we can pass on to the next
generation is that of
Cynicism, opportunism, and corruption;

If our standards of satisfaction and excellence lie lower
than the soles of our feet, and
We are not filled with a sense of shame
At the gap between our rightful place in the world and the present one;

Surely it's time to introspect collectively?

And what a way he has abopted to end the book, but by (with an apology to Rabindranath Tagore) rewriting His most inspiring poem, 'Where the mind is withour fear', as 'Where the Neighbour is without filth':

Where the neighbourhood is without filth and the queues short and smooth;
Where civil service is corruption-free;
Where the towns have not broken up into fragments by narrow potholed streets;
Where justice is given out quickly from the profundity of the courts;
where the tireless work force stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream from the mountains has not
lost its way into contaminated rivers of dead waters;
Where the economy is led forward by thee into a rate
of growth higher than six percent (real)-
Into that heaven of liberalization, my Father, let my country awake.
I request everyone to read this very insightful book atleast once.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

We are like this only...WHY????

First of all, let me give out a few facts: 26% of Indians are below the poverty line. 39% are illiterate (and that excludes functional illiteracy). 30% of the population are unconnected to the roads. The public infrastructure is Non-existent.
A lot of these numbers can be attributed to Apathy, or, lack of public conscience.

Now the question is, Why is it so? why are we apathetic to most of the happenings around us. A possible explanation has been attempted by John von Neumann, Oskar Morgenstern, John Nash and other stalwarts through Game Theory. This theory has given us numerous solutions to the byzantine problems posed by the human behaviour or Behavioral Economics.

According to behavioral economics, humans are supposed to be rational in decision making with regard to their economic decisions. It assumes that the risk levels remaining the same, people expect higher returns. And returns remaining same, they expect lesser risk. This is called 'rationality' or 'utility maximization'.
For example, suppose a building needs to get funds to maintain its garden and the elevators in top condition so that its real estate value remains high. For that, the inhabitants of the building have to contribute. Now as people are utility maximizers, they will seek to save as much money as possible. Thus, the people on the higher floors will tend not to contribute as they feel that beautifying the garden won't be beneficial for them, as they seldom get to enjoy the garden. Similarly, the people on the ground floors will not contribute towards the elevators as they are not using them. Thus the elevators and the garden remain in poor condition and the estate value of the building deteriorates.

This is the Prisoner's Dilemma (problem in Game theory). This can be used to understand Human rationality, irrationality, egotism, selfishness, antagonism, competition, collaboration, cooperation etc. Quoting the classic example from the Wikipedia to explain this:

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?
More explanation can be found here. According to this, people are Supremely Selfish and Coldly Rational. From the above example, we can infer that cooperation will be the best strategy that would yield the best yet safe results, yet people will tend to defect in order to maximize the profit. Citing an example: India exports Red Chilli Powder to UK, and gets paid in return. To continue making modest profits out of the deal, one can send chilli powder as expected. But if one tries to squeeze more out of the deal, one would mix Red Brick Dust to the powder and make higher profits. This is the case of the defection. But this would result in the termination of the deal, thus ending any scope of continuous payment. Thus, being myopic, people will tend to defect. Thus, we would keep our home clean, but throw that dirt on the streets, polluting the country. Thinking that what difference can I alone make. Saying that if all are doing it, how me not doing it make the difference?

Thus we can be termed Privately Smart and Publicly Dumb!

And thus when we see something going wrong around us, we usually keep mum thinking that someone else would do it, how would me making a hue and cry bring about any change?
And when certain Mr. X starts up a fight for people travelling without tickets, we tend to ignore it and carry on with our lives as if it never happened.

We are like this only!
The question is, for how long?