14 November 2015

Understanding Tipu Sultan, or trying to

Most successful plays derive their success by inducing a willing suspension of disbelief in their audience. Bertolt Brecht's historical plays tried to do exactly the opposite. In the course of these plays members of the cast would hold up placards and engage in other disruptive acts intended to disabuse the audience of the idea that they could identify with the action occurring on stage.

Brecht was a Marxist. And his technique was based on the Marxist premise that man's consciousness is a product of the modes and relations of production of the period in which he lives. Therefore, it is impossible for us, who live in an era of advanced capitalism, to identify with people whose ideas and actions were shaped under different modes and relations of production. Although I am no longer a Marxist, I think that there is substantial truth in the idea, at least in the weaker notion that we cannot view the past through the lens of the present.

If A destroys a Hindu monastery we would think it safe to label A as anti-Hindu. And if B provides resources to rebuild the monastery we would similarly think it right to label B as pro-Hindu. But when the monastery in question is Sringeri, one of the four mutts set up by Adi Sankaracharya, we run into problems. The monastery was plundered by the Marathas and help in rebuilding it was provided by Tipu Sultan. That would make him pro-Hindu.

But historical records show that Tipu destroyed many temples (reports of the number run from tens to thousands), especially in Kerala. That would make him a rank communalist by our standards. On the other hand his prime minister and commander in chief, among many senior officers, were Hindus. Tipu is also said to have provided annual grants to 156 temples. The Sringeri mutt, mentioned earlier, was plundered by the Marathas in the course of the third Mysore war, which was fought by Tipu on one side and the East India Company on the other allied with the Marathas and the Nizam. The web site of the Sringeri Mutt says: "On several occasions Tipu sought the blessings of the Acharya. He once wrote that he depended upon three sources of the [sic] strength — God's grace, the Jagadguru's blessings and the strength of his arms. He requested the Acharya to perform Satachandi and Sahasrachandi japa and homa. In the subsequent letter the Sultan acknowledged the miraculous effects of the Yaga that led to success in his enterprise and how rains poured and the land flourished." That would make him distinctly unIslamic.

All in all, when we look at Tipu with 21st-century eyes it is difficult to make any sense of him.

But perhaps he was not so unusual by the standards of his own time. Economic productivity was very low, so it was at least as profitable to seize wealth produced by others as it was to produce wealth yourself. Hence the frequent wars of the era. For all kings, it also would have made economic sense to ensure peace and social harmony within their own realms. So Tipu, in keeping the temples of his own kingdom in good humour while destroying those outside, was not being very different from the Marathas, stories of whose depredations outside their own territory are legion.

How economics changes the nature of wars can be seen in the course of the past hundred years. World War I was fought over the question of colonies. Even in World War II lebensraum was an important motivation. Since then, however, most wars have not been fought with the intention of acquiring territory and permanently holding on to it. Two factors have come into play. First, wars now are expensive to fight and very destructive. Second, economic productivity is so high that it is cheaper to produce wealth yourself rather than try to forcibly acquire it from others. If wars are far less frequent now than in centuries gone by it is not because man's ethics have soared high, but because of economics.

In trying to understand Tipu, it is good to keep that in mind.

Category: Economics

15 October 2015

A brief history of the Shiv Sena's cowardice

When Samuel Johnson observed that "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" he must have had someone like the Shiv Sena's Sanjay Raut in mind. After Shiv Sainiks smeared ink or paint on Sudheendra Kulkarni's face a few days ago Raut said: "Smearing ink is a very mild form of democratic protest. They are so upset over ink. Imagine when our soldiers are killed and their blood is spilled. It is not ink, it is the blood of our soldiers." (timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Kasuri-book-launch-We-will-continue-our-protest-Shiv-Sena-says/articleshow/49323040.cms)

I cannot think of a better way to malign our brave jawans. The jawans fight armed men and are often killed. The Shiv Sena through its long history has only targeted people who cannot hit back. When it is criticised by the media it attacks newspaper vendors, burns newspaper vans but is never around to face the consequences. Shiv Sainiks always attack in packs so that they cannot be identified. On the rare occasion that they are arrested they usually deny participating in the attacks. The jawan displays courage at every instant. The Shiv Sainik is cowardice personified.

Talking of jawans reminds me also of the Lata Mangeshkar song which brought tears to Nehru's eyes. Some of its most moving lines are these:

Koi Sikh, koi Jat Maratha,
Koi Gurkha, koi Madrasi,
Sarhad par marne waala har veer tha Bharatvaasi,
Jo Khoon giraa parvat par woh khoon tha Hindustaani

During its brief history, the Shiv Sena has targeted Gujaratis, south Indians, Muslims, north Indians and, most recently, Jains. If ever a party deserves to be called anti-nationalist it is this party which has arrogated to itself the right to issue labels of nationalism.

How cowardly can this party get? I quote from a 1999 article in a newspaper I used to publish: "One day .. [this was in 1986 or 1987] the Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray summoned some Sikh notables to a press conference. He said that he would not tolerate any more killings of Hindus in Punjab and told the Sikh leaders that they would have to go to the Golden Temple to convey Thackeray's message to the terrorists there. The Sikhs were of course worried. Given Thackeray's history he might order his Shiv Sainiks to ransack their homes. But the next week they turned the tables on him. Yes, they said, they would travel to the Golden Temple, but Thackeray would have to accompany them. That was of course the last that anyone heard from Thackeray on the Punjab problem. He is of course very happy to order his Sainiks to go on the rampage but when asked to demonstrate personal courage he simply placed his tail between his legs and ran for cover. When you stand up to bullies they back down." Cocooned within layers of state-provided security even an arthritic mouse can put up a good imitation of a tiger's roar.

As an aside, not long before Bal Thackeray decided that Punjab terrorism was best fought from within the safe confines of Matoshri, Sudheendra Kulkarni travelled in Punjab reporting on the anti-terrorist movement there, and running a real risk of being killed. If I recall rightly, he wrote mainly about the fight put up by the Communist Party of India; those were his leftist days. Wikipedia tells me that 200 members of the party were killed by terrorists. How many Sainiks have ever been killed fighting against people who could hit back?

It does not take much courage to wave a slaughtered chicken in front of a Jain temple in Mumbai. If Sanjay Raut really wants to offend people who will fight back, he should try carrying a pig's head to throw in front of the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar. He might want to persuade the little Thackeray to come along. Even if he refuses, it might get him thinking about the nature of courage, which would be a huge advance, considering that his grandfather did not, and his father does not, possess an atom of it.

P.S. Correction: Thackeray's press conference was in March 1988.

Category: Miscellaneous

04 October 2015

US recessions and recoveries over 55 years

The following graph shows year on year changes of real Personal Consumption Expenditure from January 1960 to August 2015.

Among other things it is an indicator of the severity of the eight recessions flagged as such by the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). The recession from March 2001 to November 2001 was scarcely a recession. In trying to recover from it, the Fed first created assets bubbles in the housing and equity markets and then blew them up. The recession from December 1969 to November 1970 too scarcely qualifies as a recession.

The current recovery is the slowest and least energetic on record.

Category: Economics

06 September 2015

A Fed rate hike won't have adverse results, for now

On September 16-17 the Federal Reserve Board's FOMC will meet to decide on an increase in the Fed Funds rate. It won't be an easy decision to make. Stock markets around the world are in turmoil. Commodity markets have fallen very low. And data on the jobs front are ambiguous. The temptation will be to push a rate hike further down the road or increase it from 0.13% at present to just 0.25%. But my guess is that a rate hike at this point will have little impact.

According to Wikipedia, the Federal funds rate is the interest rate at which depository institutions actively trade balances held at the Federal Reserve, called federal funds, with each other, usually overnight, on an uncollateralized basis. And since inter-bank loans are at a level last seen in 1979, it is unlikely that an increase in the fed funds rate will have much impact. Markets may throw a tantrum but they will probably settle down after a while. A small fed rate hike may even help to slowly deflate the asset bubble that the various bouts of QE helped to inflate.

Even more important, the YoY growth rate of Corrected Money Supply has nearly flattened out in the three months to July 2015, when it was 5.6%. A study of the graph since 1961 shows that at this level no catastrophe has ever occurred.

The trouble is that when the Fed sees a rate hike has little adverse impact it will be emboldened to repeat the process several times. And when that happens calamity usually strikes. The last three recessions have been directly engineered by the Fed. As in previous cycles, the Fed seems unaware that it is raising rates midway through a contraction.

Category: Economics

02 September 2015

India's exports and imports as a percentage of GDP 1960 to 2014

The graph below is self-explanatory. The data are from the World Bank web site.

Category: Economics

Philip George
Debunker of Keynesian, monetarist and Austrian economics

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