Friday, October 18, 2013

We're All Fair And Balanced In Our Own Eyes

Non-Republicans laugh at the Fox News Channel's describing itself as "Fair & Balanced" and this slogan is the butt of endless Jon Stewart digs on The Daily Show.  But its hardcore audience laps up  the Fox News fare as gospel truth (an appropriately applicable term for this viewer demographic) and sees no irony.

Most of the world including many Muslims regard the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban as destructive and fanatical operatives that are a blight to civilized society.  Yet these militants think of themselves as soldier-saints of Allah setting out to right society. 

Israeli rightwing nationalists feel it's entirely justified and reasonable for them to expand Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory.  And Iranian hardliners feel the same way about denying Israel's right to exist.

We all tend to see our own viewpoint as being right and those deviating from it - even if it's an overwhelming majority - as being wrong.  In her 2008 "Buried Prejudice: the Bigot in Your Brain" in Scientific American, Siri Carpenter describes how reported facts are filtered by our biases that are often shored up by self-interest.  "We are pre-disposed to ascribe superior characteristics to the groups to which we belong, and to exaggerate differences between our own groups and outsiders."  She goes on to quote studies showing that "many of our implicit associations about social groups form before we are old enough to consider them rationally... full fledged implicit racial bias emerges by age six - and never retreats."  This may also apply to religious bias.

This brings me again to my ongoing discussions about Muslims, with relatives and friends in India who are highly intelligent, fair minded and decent, even if we've different perspectives.  Some exchanges have been triggered by blog posts and popular forwarded emails I get from them.  They talk about secular politicians pandering to Indian Muslims, the destructive role of Islam and its meager contributions to humanity (measured by Nobel Prizes awarded to Muslims), etc.  Some others in my circle have been privately reacting to my June 27 post "Treating Our Indian Muslims Right".  Three examples below illustrate my disagreements with them:

a) An email doing the rounds glorifies Nathuram Godse, the Hindu assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, reproducing his supposed speech at his trial where he talks of Gandhi working against Hindus and favoring Muslims.  Those who forward it generally preface it with a disclaimer like "I don't agree with what Godse did or all he says, but he does have a point."  I personally am repelled at the killer of Gandhi, a disgrace to their Hindu community, sought to be partially rehabilitated through half rationalizations in this manner.  You'll find this Godse speech and reenactments all over on Google and on YouTube.  In viewer comments, Hindu zealots hailing Godse's murder of Gandhi outnumber those who deplore this by ten to one or worse.  At least this shows that bigotry abounds in all religions, and "pacifist" and "all-embracing" Hinduism isn't different in this aspect.

b) Some of my friends and relatives proclaim that "secular" in India means being "pro-Muslim" and reverse discriminating against Hindus in order to garner Muslim votes en bloc. A friend in his blog uses the phrase "secular fundamentalists" to describe secular politicians. He says that "secular" in their dictionary means being contemptuous of their own (Hindu) religion and being obsessed with that of another minority, the Muslims.  I pointed out that the Muslim vote bank (14.5% of the population) is much smaller than the Hindu vote bank (80% of population) that would be put off by such a bias.  The friend countered that Hindus are too fragmented and turn out in smaller percentages, so wooing Muslims this way still makes sense to these politicians. 

Well, UP is India's most populous state where the Muzaffarnagar Hindu-Muslim riots recently occurred. I see from UP 2012 election results that the winning Samajwadi Party got 34% of the votes, and secular BSP and Congress got 24% and 12% respectively.  In other words the secular parties combined had about 70% of the vote, and given that Muslims comprise 18% of UP's population, the other 52% of their supporters have to be primarily Hindus. You'd hardly expect such support from Hindus for a party that discriminated against them. In any case it's much easier to cast lots with a dominant majority and stronger side.  While corruption, inefficiency and infighting may justifiably sink them, we should at least credit secular parties with  fair-mindedness and courage for trying to level the field for minorities.

c) An otherwise saintly elder relative in India echoed a sentiment in our circle when he said, "If you see Muslims on TV they are so aggressive (while seeking rights and denouncing oppression).  Can Hindus raise their voice in Pakistan and other Muslim countries?"  I on the contrary expect Muslims to freely express their justified indignation at being targeted in riots on account of their religion.  Moreover, I'd hate to see Muslims in India treated the way less tolerant countries treat their minorities, including Hindus.  That's what makes India's secularism and inclusiveness so much better than the ethos in those other countries.

Of course, being "truly" fair and balanced should be just one of the major factors for voters everywhere, including Indians.  Given the widespread corruption, stifling bureaucracy and ineptness that permeates the present Congress government in India, I'd agree with its detractors that it should be replaced.  The clear frontrunner to lead a new Indian government is Narendra Modi of the BJP, the Hindu-centric opposition party.  Modi has developed a solid record and reputation as an able and incorruptible administrator as Chief Minister of Gujarat State which has made remarkable progress in his 12 year tenure. Widespread accusations of his involvement in the deadly 2002 anti-Muslim riots have never been proved and he has protested his innocence and made numerous overtures and reassurances to Muslims recently.  So I'd give him the benefit of the doubt and cautiously favor his election, especially if other alternatives like the well regarded Nitish Kumar of Bihar are not nationally viable. But unlike Modi's BJP supporters, my choice would be based purely on economic and administrative grounds, and in spite of, not because of his RSS / Hindutva roots.








 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Affirmative Action In Miss America Contest

I have mixed reactions to Nina Davuluri becoming Miss America on Sep. 15.  While someone of Indian origin has won, my first thought on seeing the news footage was "Really? Is this the best that USA (or the Indian community for that matter) can offer?"  I wonder what proportion of Americans and Indians feel this way.  A poll on this would be interesting. In each of the Indian marriages I've recently attended in India and the US there were some female guests I'd regard as having a better presence than Nina.

It looks like the contest has evolved away from what I expect.  Given that it's highly visual, I thought having stunning looks that would turn heads should be table stakes for all contestants.  That means scoring close to a 10 when men rate them in appearance on a 1 to 10 scale for, say, whom they'd like stranded with them on an island.  Sure, the winner should have a lot more - charm, poise, intelligence, talent, etc. But these attributes should complement, not substitute for physical oomph.   I'd score Nina as a 7, may be even an 8, but that still falls short.  We're talking of Miss Totally Outstanding here, not Miss Quite Above Average. 

Beauty of course lies in the eye of the beholder.  You'd then want judges whose choices reflect mass appeal but that isn't happening here.  It may be overly politically correct judges who want to signal some social message with their decision.  That's unfortunate and the reason I have long stopped watching these pageants, national or international.  Fair judging should pick winners regardless of their ethnicity, color or creed, not because of it in a misplaced push to deliberately inject diversity.  By all means choose a Chinese American as Miss America in the next year or two, but only if judges truly assess her to be the best, and not driven by any inclination to represent this group.  And do give those poor statuesque, blond and blue eyed girls a chance even if they don't have any serious disability.

This system can be corrected to reflect mainstream sentiment by replacing the celebrity judges with a large representative group of men who vote by secret ballot. And for the Q&A please, no questions on charged political and socially divisive issues like an attack on Syria or gay marriage where the listeners' prejudices can color how they evaluate answers.  Well, they regrettably did have these types of questions in Miss America for the top five finalists and four of them got through with (about equally) good answers.

What about other parts of the contest?  Nina's Bollywood fusion dance item in the talent show was impressive but I didn't find it exceptional.  I've seen similar standards of performance by non-professionals and semi-professionals at larger Indian festivals.  The ballet number by Miss California and River Dance by "our" Miss Connecticut look at least as good to me.  And Miss Kansas who got the most online votes and wasn't allowed under the rules to display her marksmanship and archery prowess did a good job in her second choice of singing.

Other than reactions in the media, Twitter or blogosphere are there ways to assess if pageant winners are well chosen?  I can think of a hypothetical measure as well as a one based on subsequent history as under:

  • The contest winner should pass a "stand out" test.  That is, if you placed her among a fairly large group of randomly chosen American girls of similar age, onlookers who are told Miss America is among them should be easily able to pick her out.  Most shouldn't be going "Where? Where?" or guess it's someone else as I think would happen with Nina.  Though to be fair to her many of her fellow contestants could also have been lost in a crowd.  This can be due to the criteria of evaluation being skewed so much away from looks at all levels of competition - local, state, national and even international.  That's why there can be similar surprises and unexpected outcomes even in the Miss Universe and Miss World contests.

  • The test of history - what these winners achieve down the line.  By this measure the likes of Vanessa Williams (first African American crowned Miss America 1984), Gretchen Carlson (Miss America 1989), Aishwarya Rai (Miss World 1994), Sushmita Sen (Miss Universe 1994), Priyanka Chopra (Miss World 2000), Lara Dutta (Miss Universe 2002) were great choices. So were also-rans Diane Sawyer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sharon Stone, Halle Berry and yes, Oprah Winfrey. 
So on the positive side if Nina has notable achievements hereafter, even if it takes decades, I'll eat my words and apologize for any mean things I've said.  And regardless of anything else I'm happy for her and congratulate her - she parlayed all she had to win beyond most Americans' (and my) expectations. 

And while I carp about this de facto affirmative action permeating various aspects of our life it at least speaks to the amazing open mindedness of Americans.  I've been struck by the wide acceptance and appreciation of other cultures by most of them, and the Miss America 2014 results reflect this.



 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Treating Our Indian Muslims Right

I've received an email from a friend implying India should emulate Japan when it comes to keeping Islam in check and the Muslims at a distance.  The email includes a lot of the claims about Japan and the Muslims mentioned in this supposedly Muslim hating website "BNI" that instead refutes them. 

I'd instead like to see our Hindu majority to go out of its way to reassure Indian Muslims that they are a welcome and valuable part of the fabric of our society. This will strengthen our secular values and further distance our Muslim community from extremist elements.  I admired and appreciated Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's sponsoring in 2002 of prominent scientist Dr. Abdul Kalam (a Muslim) to be President of India.  This significantly reshaped my perceptions about Mr. Vajpayee's BJP party which has Hindu-centric origins and affiliations. 

Our Muslim community braces for silent suspicion and hostility towards them whenever there's a terrorist act in India by Muslim extremists.  This is in spite of most Muslims having no links or sympathies with such radicals.  Ideally, after any such incident our Hindu leaders and community figures should rush to declare that we know our Muslim community condemns these acts as much as anyone else.  And our leaders should follow through by exhorting their followers to make Muslims living among them feel as safe as possible.  Thomas Friedman in his Times columns speaks glowingly of Indian tolerance and minorities largely thriving and safe in our society, and we should remain committed to this ideal.

Then there are my personal experiences.  When I visit Mumbai in India I often happen to use cabs driven by Muslim drivers.  Mumbai residents are often compared to New Yorkers in their disinterested demeanor as both belong to large bustling cities and tend to mind their own business.  I'm sometimes surprised at how these supposedly impersonal Mumbai drivers warm up and become almost sentimental if I (who they think is Hindu) talk to them amiably and respectfully after knowing that they're Muslim. 

In Pune in 2008 we hired attendants for my in-laws (Daddy and Mummy) who were both hospitalized.  It didn't even register with me that one of them named Shabana was a Muslim until another of them referred to her as "woh Musulman" ("that Muslim" in slightly derogatory terms.)  When Daddy and Mummy left the hospital, on advice from our family and friends we asked if they were comfortable having a Muslim like Shabana working for them at home (along with three others who were Hindu).  They said yes.  Shabana turned out to be the most caring and kindest to Mummy, who passed away in Dec. 2010.  After we had to terminate her service Shabana came to visit Daddy three times in the next two years just out of fondness and concern. 

Daddy's favorite doctor in his neighborhood was the reputed Dr. Inamdar, a deeply religious Muslim, who has a very busy practice and sees over a hundred patients a day. He had no time for house calls but made an exception when I appealed to his sentiments and informed that Daddy and Mummy were in no condition to leave home.  From 2008 till they both passed away (Daddy in May 2013) Dr. Inamdar regularly and devotedly attended to them at home.  He would tell me how he was impelled in part by the respect and affection that Daddy and the rest of us accorded to him.

From time to time I get forwarded emails from friends and family in India faulting some political parties for pampering and pandering to Muslims.  Other emails are more vehement about Muslim teachings and customs that make this populace as a whole untrustworthy or prone to militancy. I'd urge more understanding, and regard a more relevant distinction to be between the zealots and bigots who make trouble, and the moderates in any religion.  Hindus comprise over 80% of India's population with Muslims at about 13.5%.  A little magnanimity on the part of our Hindu majority will counter some inevitable feelings of insecurity among our Muslim community and considerably help in their regarding themselves as Indians first.
 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Sensible Security Vs. Paranoid Privacy

I've viewed the ACLU as a mixed blessing at best, as some of their laudable defense of civil liberties and social equality has been offset by needlessly obstructive litigation.  In the second category I'd include their lawsuit against the government's "phone spying program" that aims to prevent or detect terrorism.

The US National Security Agency (NSA) collects meta data (place and time of calls, and to whom) and likely records a lot of calls made overseas as well.  It is not clear from news reports if their analysts can mine that data and access recorded conversations without a court order.  Even if they can, I'm fine with it so long as there are stringent penalties for misuse or unauthorized disclosure of such information, e.g., to expose extra-marital affairs or other embarrassing but non-criminal acts.

In a dangerous and uncertain time when there are inevitably those living within the US who'd like to do us harm I'd much rather choose security over some loss of privacy.  That includes measures like widespread video surveillance in public places, a national ID card, a national gun registry, some degree of profiling as I wrote in August 2009, and yes, electronic eavesdropping.  Tom Friedman in his June 11 Times column voices a lot of my thoughts except that I'd not so "reluctantly, very reluctantly, trade off the government using data mining" but strongly endorse it.  In the same spirit I consider Bradley Manning who sent a trove of secret State cables to Wikileaks and NSA leaker Edward Snowden (if the US ever gets him) to be deserving of stiff jail terms. 

Many Americans agree with me, though poll results over the past couple of weeks vary depending on whom you ask and how you frame the questions.  According to USA Today on June 18, most Americans support prosecuting Snowden who is sought by the US and is for now in Russia.  There's an age divide, with the younger generation much more supportive of Snowden's leaks, which I attribute to their naivete.  After all, this is the demographic that helped Obama top a more capable and qualified Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic Primary. (Sorry, past and present Obama fans, I couldn't resist this dig.)

Curiously, I see some mainstream media reports referring to Snowden and even Manning as "whistle blowers" which is a term for exposing illegality or wrongdoing.  That is not the case here, as they've instead leaked secret but legal acts or communications, so the the term "whistle blower" shouldn't be debased by applying it to them.

About the other security measures I reeled off above, to my mind privacy for privacy's sake is overrated, especially when it tips the scales heavily in favor of criminals.  Why not introduce a national ID?  Accompanied by biometric markers it would be much harder to fake and could significantly impede identity theft.  It could also make life for the truly innocent and harmless more convenient, as in airport security screening.

Why not have everyone's DNA and fingerprints in a national registry along with criminal information, so long as access to it is graduated and available to the authority only to the extent justified?  For example, police officers making a traffic stop could access if there are any outstanding arrest warrants for anyone they pull over, but not prior convictions that could prejudice them.  This type of comprehensive registry would enormously expedite and ensure detection and apprehending of the guilty if their DNA or fingerprints are found at the crime scene.  For the same reason we should indeed have not just a national gun registry but also to the extent feasible the ballistic records of every weapon to make criminal forensics more effective.

Privacy is another term for concealment, and I can see why we'd want things like our bedroom behavior, non-criminal fetishes or even some misdemeanor offenses to be inaccessible to the public at large.  But that's very different from information we're talking about here, which can seriously impede crime, terrorism and other really bad stuff.  Modern technology makes it possible for us to not just store vast amounts of useful information about people but also to selectively restrict access to it.

Of course, data hacking and cyber security failures can expose secret information but that happens anyway in other settings like email and other records, and lapses can be mitigated with extra care.  After all, our banks, the Pentagon and the CIA do not avoid collecting and storing confidential information in electronic format just 'cause this can possibly be hacked. The same logic should apply to keeping relevant and useful information about all Americans in a common, well secured database.

So while the ACLU and libertarians keep crusading against NSA "excesses" like warehousing electronic communications and centralized databases  I view most of these as sensible measures to make us safer.



Friday, May 31, 2013

Playing Rajat Gupta

 I've followed developments and written earlier about Rajat Gupta in March 2011in May 2012, and in July 2012.  The essence of my views has been:
a) Rajat's alleged insider tip-offs are out of character with the person I had come to know.
b) His heavy contributions to society and humanity far outweigh his alleged transgressions.
c) His insider leaks if true also pale in comparison to the misdeeds of typical hedge fund managers and other Wall Street players who are never caught or whose dishonest acts aren't technically crimes.
d) Even if he revealed secrets they could have been pried or deduced through wily questions by Rajaratnam.  Our Indian culture and ethos can make it seem impolite and difficult to completely clam up when a friend asks a direct question about a confidential matter.

 More light has been shed on the last point in a May 17 article in the New York Times that has pieced together the story of how he was manipulated by hedge fund titan (and crook) Rajaratnam.  This piece is well researched and dispassionate, providing insights into how Rajat could have landed in the mess that he's in.
Even the trial Judge Rakoff at the time of sentencing acknowledged that Rajat is "undoubtedly a good man".  In an interview (Fortune, Jan 24, '13) he stated without going into the specifics that he takes a defendants good deeds into account in his judgements.

[An aside: Though I think highly of judge Rakoff a point where I'd take issue with him as a financial purist is in his characterizing Rajat's tip-offs as “the functional equivalent of stabbing Goldman in the back.”  Actually, insider "buy" trades do not damage the firm whose shares are traded.  They instead discriminate against outside prospective buyers who are preceded by the inside trader and lose some of the fair chance to be "lucky" before share prices rise.  Of course that still makes insider trading wrong and it is rightly outlawed as it affects the integrity of the markets.]

Rajat continues to maintain he's not guilty as he appeals his conviction and sentencing, and  I continue to root for him.  Back to the Times article it speculates that an unfortunate Rajat was played by a "boorish" Rajaratnam and it reads somewhat like a Shakespearean tragedy.  As the future unfolds I'd like Rajat to have a happier ending.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Execution Vs Policy

In his second term President Obama's Administration should do a better job of day to day administration in which some of his departments fell short.  But first some background.

When Snowstorm Nemo dumped two feet of snow in our town of Danbury CT on Feb. 9 we had a couple of pleasant surprises.  First, our local roads were quickly and efficiently cleared thanks to Mayor Mark Boughton's workforce and similarly our highways by state crews under Gov. Dannel Malloy.  Second, unlike in past storms we didn't suffer major and widespread power outages. This may be partly due to better preventive operations like cutting trees threatening overhead power lines.  Gov. Malloy replaced the power company's management in Oct. 2011 when 70% of the state's homes lost power for several days, and he pushed for better preparedness against future storms.

 The point is, both Republican Mayor Boughton and Democrat Gov. Malloy enjoy high approval ratings and support from the same set of voters among us.  It's not so much because of their policies as for their efficient execution and running a responsive day to day administration.  In a Democratic leaning Danbury I've seen Mayor Boughton win with two thirds of the vote over his Democratic opponent in the past three elections, and deservedly so. 

At a national level good execution was a big reason for President Clinton's success and popularity.  For example his administration transformed veterans hospitals (VHA) from "dangerous, dirty, scandal-ridden" institutions to ones delivering "the highest quality care in the country."  In general I just remember feeling that the branches of federal government though imperfect ran more smoothly and efficiently during his tenure.

President George W. Bush on the other hand (in Paul Krugman's words) had a reverse Midas touch - everything he touched turned into crud.  It wasn't just his wrong decision to invade Iraq, but the faulty planning and execution of the war and its aftermath that turned it into a costly debacle.  Who can forget the "Heck of a job, Brownie" handling of Hurricane Katrina?  Unlike Clinton, GWB tended to appoint cronies based on personal relationships and ideology rather than on ability, which compounded his lack of natural ability to govern effectively.  The financial crisis of 2008 had complex roots including policy failures by the Fed's Alan Greenspan and Clinton's Secretary of Treasury Robert Rubin's earlier deregulation leading to risky bank behavior.  But there was an execution aspect as well, like allowing Lehman Brothers to collapse like it did leading to a domino effect.  To be fair though, GWB made some amends by appointing William Gates as Secretary of Defense, and Ben Bernanke as Fed Chairman.

In India one of the most admired (and controversial) leaders is Narendra Modi, the long serving Chief Minister (equivalent to Governor in the US) of Gujarat state.  He is widely regarded as a Hindu zealot suspected of encouraging the 2002 anti-Muslim riots that killed 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus.  Yet it's his efficient and clean administration with a progressive outlook that has raised Gujarat's fortunes and made even secular minded voters look upon him favorably as a possible future Prime Minister of India.  In contrast, I agree with much of the philosophy and ideals of Congress Party's Sonia Gandhi with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But the ineptitude and corruption pervading their administration has alienated even staunch supporters of their Party.  

People standing for elections and the voters deciding amongst them tend to set more store on policy declarations and the likeability factor ("whom would you more like to have a drink with").  Their ability to execute takes a back seat or at least isn't evaluated in depth.  That's fine for legislative roles since Senators and Congressmen are charged with setting policy and laying down laws, but not so much for Presidential and governor races.  After all, for elections to the "Executive" branch of government, shouldn't the ability to "execute" well be a crucial criteria? 

This brings me back to the Obama Administration whose score card in implementing laws and execution has been mixed.  President Obama seems more into speeches and broad ideas, without Bill Clinton's knack of keeping tabs on implementing laws, administrative efficiency and effectiveness.  (Obama fans may dispute this by pointing to his personal involvement in those drone kill lists, but I distinguish that one bit of micromanaging from general emphasis on administrative effectiveness.)  Obama's remoteness means that the performance of his departments depended on who he chose to head them. 

One reason I rooted for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries was her better grasp of the issues (which also helps in administering well) and her being the other half of the Clinton team of 1992 - 2000.  Obama made her Secretary of State where the attack on an unprotected US mission in Benghazi is an exception to her overall sterling performance.  Obama also got Bin Laden of course, and did solidly in continuing the appointments of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. His other good choices in his first term were Leon Panetta for CIA and later Defense, and Arne Duncan for Education.  He did well in areas under national spotlight like restoring the effectiveness of FEMA and responding to Hurricane Sandy on the eve of his re-election.

In other departments his choices left something to be desired, and Obama so far hasn't matched Clinton's ability to spot and tighten under-performers whose actions are less in the  news.  While minor in themselves these add up to how his administration impacts the everyday lives of ordinary Americans.  Here are some examples including what I've seen and experienced at first hand:
  • FCC and the do-nothing Do Not Call registry.  George W. Bush did something right when in 2003 his administration started the Do Not Call registry to save us from those nuisance marketing calls. Getting on that list is easy and over three fourths of Americans have registered for it. The penalties of up to $11,000 and $16,000 per violation should be enough to deter offending marketers.  The problem is that the FTC and the FCC who are supposed to act on complaints of violations do so little about it.  Consumer complaints have poured in with 212,000 in April 2012 alone, but the enforcement penalties have been a measly $5.6 million to date in the most prominent of violations. I've personally filed scores of complaints after digging out the identities and contact information of the callers (no easy task as they know they're violating the DNC) and heard nothing back.  What's the use of having laws if the FTC as well as the FCC does so little to enforce them?  I see robo-callers and marketers increasingly emboldened and flouting the law, and get half a dozen of these calls on many days.  I'm glad FCC Chairman Jules Genachowski is leaving.  Now if only Obama can get his successor to better mind day to day enforcement in parallel with those "bigger" anti-trust and policy issues.
  • Homeland security and airport entry.  I marvel at the speed at which the hordes of incoming international passengers are processed at Mumbai and Delhi airports in "third world" India.  They have about 40 immigration counters open, and even with several planeloads arriving simultaneously the longest I've had to wait in the last half a dozen visits has been 40 minutes.  In Europe and the Middle East it's been much faster - never longer than 10 minutes.  In contrast, the last four times I've entered the US at JFK or Newark airports the wait has been at least an hour, even though the number of incoming passengers is a fraction of those in India.  The reason?  They seem to consistently have too few agents at the counters, with most of these closed. I've felt particularly bad for women with babies and young children who had to struggle through this as there is no separate quicker processing for them.  Surely the Homeland functionary sitting in Washington DC who oversees airport entry could have video feeds from the processing halls of all major airports to see these long lines.  It speaks poorly of Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano and her deputies who directly supervise this.  My complaints and suggestions in this regard have been met with stock responses from underlings of the very official at these airports who is responsible for such laxity.  
  • US Postal Services (USPS).  We have excellent mail carriers for our home, as is the staff at our local post office.  But here are some experiences pointing to management miscues.
    •  Our local post office no longer displays prices of standard products like first class mail, priority mail, express mail, international mail or passport processing.  True, you can find them at the automated kiosk or once you talk to a postal clerk but there's often a line for both of these.  So it wastes time when you cannot think and plan in advance while waiting in the line and slows customer processing from the post office's viewpoint.  The only rates I see are of overpriced stationery products like envelopes and boxes that you can buy for a third of the price at Staples or Office Depot.
    • Three years ago I went to our area's 24/7 automatic postal station after regular manned working hours to buy stamps for mailing some letters to India.  But the menu of choices on the kiosk screen did not include mailing to foreign destinations, nor dispense stamps for an amount I wanted to specify.  So I had to go back home, look up the rate information on the internet and use stamps at home before dropping off the letters.  The problem? A glitch in their software upgrade that may well have affected automated stations in many parts of the country.  This problem persisted for several weeks, if not months.
    • To lower costs a lot of USPS mail boxes have been removed all over the US in the past years, so they're typically a couple of miles apart in our Danbury area.  That's fine.  The one closest to our home by the roadside is a drive-up with a protruding slot in which we can drop off letters without needing to get out of the car.  It was damaged 4 years back and replaced with one without the protruding lip (that costs may be $50 extra) so that everyone using it had to park and get out of the car to use it.  It took them two years to affix that lip and I'm thinking of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of times users had to be inconvenienced in this time. 
    • When our daughter Rubina was getting married I went to a privately run authorized post office which was open later than our main office in Danbury. I showed the agent our wedding invitation cards being mailed within and outside the US.  He determined the postage due, sold the stamps, helped affix these and accepted the cards for delivery.  Ten days later some of these came back to our address (apparently from some sorting facility) for insufficient postage.  Because they were square in shape, not rectangular, they asked for 17 cents extra.  So the mail sorters acted at odds with the counter sales person working for the same organization, wasting our time and effort in the process. 

There's hope.  When Obama first entered the White House he didn't have any executive experience unlike Clinton who had been governor of Arkansas.  Now with four plus years under his belt Obama can do better in performing the "ordinary" but important role of government.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Voter, Blame (Or Pat) Thyself

Cynicism pays.  Mitt Romney doesn't seem to be hurting from switching positions in the blink of an eye to whatever his audience of the moment wants to hear.  All his "then and now" video excerpts  played by Jon Stewart in the Daily Show and by other media haven't stopped his upward momentum in popularity.  With two weeks to go before elections he's pulled even with (or even slightly surpassed) Obama in national polls.  Pundits on average have Romney's chances of winning the election improving from less than one in four a month ago to almost even now (though NerdWallet still has him only at 29% today.)

And then we have India where corruption, the role of money in politics, inefficiency and populism has severely affected economic growth. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with a clean image is called an underachiever by Time in its July 16 issue for failing to check corruption around him, and to stick his neck out for reforms.  With a few notable exceptions it looks like elected leaders of whatever party or political platform are on the take.

Looking at India and the US as examples, are the virtues of democracy as great as they're cracked up to be?

"Even the worst democracy is better than the best of dictatorship." Thus said then Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani of Pakistan in Feb. 2010 and I've heard this sagely intoned in our polite circles in India for decades. 

Really? Will average Chinese citizens trade places with their Indian counterparts, including the growth rates over the past quarter century that have made the Chinese thrice as rich?  A June 21, 2011 article in Business Insider lists the most economically successful dictators of the past century, and generally left their people a lot better off than before.  England's golden age was in the 16th century when Queen Elizabeth I reigned (1558-1603) wielding absolute power, seeding the idea of benevolent despotism

Still, the odds favor democracies.

Corruption and misuse of power can flourish in any political system, but democratic checks and balances like a free press and independent judiciary can better restrict the most egregious behavior.  An Oct. 26, 2012, NY Times story describes $2.7 billion of wealth amassed by the once humble family of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.  Compare this to Robert Vadra, Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law and Priyanka's husband whose wealth grew in 3 years from $100,000 to "just" $60 million.  And consider that Robert Vadra's alleged misdeeds are being widely reported and criticized by Indian media, while a tight lid is kept in China on any adverse news about its leaders.

Democracy has another thing going for it - people choose their leaders and hence are responsible for their own plight.  Chance still plays a role, of course.  Two prime ministers, Narasimha Rao who started economic reforms and his successor from the opposing party A.B. Vajpayee, were better than expected, and India thrived.  Mr. Manmohan Singh isn't terrible but he fell short of his high promise.  In US recent history Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush probably represent the opposite ends of the performance spectrum.  

Still, in past presidencies and the coming general elections of Nov. 6, US citizens decide on their leaders, for better or for worse.  There's no one else to blame or congratulate for that choice, whether it's made with eyes wide open, or out of ignorance.  Does there have to be a lot of the latter for the Republicans to win?  After all Republican stances on important issues like taxes, health care coverage and the social safety net are less favorable to the middle class (and the poor of course) than Democratic ones.  In the NY Times on Oct. 24 Nicholas Kristof describes how Obama's economic policies trump Romney's.  Instead of USA's steady if modest recovery under Obama, Europe style austerity measures favored by Romney and Republicans would have led to Europe style economic crisis.  Yet Republicans can only clinch elections with substantial middle class backing.

Election propaganda and voter ignorance of course play a role, but more complex factors may matter more.  Man does not live on bread alone, and factors beyond material and physical benefits may turn the scales to explain why many in the middle class identify with Republicans. 

Are Romney supporters oblivious of his duplicity, especially the 95% who lose out in Republican intent to "broaden the tax base" while lowering taxes for the richest? Some are, though many more may simply overlook it because his party's platform is closer to their disposition on social values, religious zeal, immigration and racial issues, etc. 

In a few days we'll know who and what wins out.  And with the US being a great democracy our voters will get to live with their choices.