Thursday, September 10, 2015

India Visa Misery

According to World Bank India gets 7 million visitors a year, which is shameful for a country of this size, economic importance and cultural heritage. This compares with Vietnam's 8 million, Malaysia's 26 million, Thailand's 27 million, Russia's 31 million, China's 56 million, U.S.A.'s 70 million and France's 85 million. Moreover, as anyone looking around at fellow passengers on flights to India will attest, most of the visitors to India are people of Indian origin visiting their (erstwhile) homeland.

A big reason for this disparity is the torturous process required to secure an Indian visa. This was brought home to me last week when "J", the mother of an Indian friend sought my help to apply for her Indian visa after she was naturalized as a U.S. citizen. Even with liberal use of Google and my familiarity with Indian bureaucracy I found the process to be very time consuming and confusing. It would be much worse for my U.S. friends contemplating vacation alternatives. And they have a wide choice of destinations so why would they not simply go elsewhere?

Back to "J", I found she had to both renounce her Indian citizenship and apply online for a visa application in addition to submitting paper forms. The renunciation process starting with an online link and a separate one for visa application seem simple in theory but are frustrating when you actually go through them. Problems include:

  • No integration between the two processes (e.g., common checklist of documents needed) or clarity as to whether you can mail all papers together, combine payments into one sum, etc.
  • Unclear about kind of visa needed (e.g., under visa categories, should former Indian citizens wanting to visit apply for tourist visa or entry visa? What is the difference in functionality and fees?) 
  • Outdated and contradictory information about visas (e.g., under Visa Provision tab they show a tourist visa is for only 180 days. They have changed the "entry visa" type to "Foreigners of Indian Origin" and say validity is 5 years. Actually both tourist and entry visas can be valid for 10 years.)
  • Long and tedious visa application form with too many questions, including your parents' dates and cities of birth, countries you've visited in the past, references in USA and India, etc. Can't they see how much easier and shorter is it with most other countries?
  • No up front look possible at the blank application form - you have to fill initial information before being able to move to the next section. (Perhaps preventing a look in advance is to avoid scaring away applicants.)
  • No fee information or comparison table up front. For instance, you can't know till you fill both forms that the 10 year multiple entry "tourist visa" costs only $100 versus $240 for the equivalent "entry visa". Or how the entry visa is better (answer: you can stay beyond 180 days per visit.) How much for a business visa? Sorry, you have to fill a fresh form to find out. Also, because they haven't updated the website, they show the maximum period of validity of an entry visa to be 5 years instead of the (correct) 10 years. 
  • No proper online "check out" calculator showing total dues including processing and mailing fees for the selected option. So you're not sure if you have correctly added up the application fee, the mailing fee, etc. when you're sending in all the papers. As an added annoyance they don't accept personal checks (the U.S. simply waits for them to clear) and make you go to the bank to get a money order or cashier check. True, they accept credit cards (with an extra 3% convenience fee) but this option doesn't work when you need to renounce Indian citizenship AND get a visa. Reason: a glitch in their system blocks you from making payment online for the second application (e.g., visa) after you've made it for the first (e.g., renunciation.) 
Even a bright high school student with coding skills could make this whole online process easier and glitch free. The problems are probably due to sheer incompetence, though you cannot rule out their partly resulting from cynicism of higher foreign service personnel. A foreign service equivalent of India's "Inspector Raj." You see, the importance of local consular staff and their bosses is inflated and they can oblige more people by helping them overcome hurdles that come up when you apply through regular channels. 

A silver lining is that the private agency that now accepts applications in U.S.A on behalf of the Indian consulate - CKGS -  has good people and strives to be helpful. After we discovered mistakes in her mailed application and submitted documents, I advised "J" to visit the CKGS office in New York. They quickly retrieved her mailed papers, took the revised application form and additional documents required, and she was done in 10 minutes. In three days she got her completed papers mailed back to her. So my advice to anyone living close to CKGS centers is to walk in (preferably after making an online appointment) instead of applying by mail.

With Narendra Modi with his vaunted reputation for efficiency becoming prime minister last year can we hope for fixes to the system? I've already seen some evidence of this. For example, since January 2015 the so called OCIs (Overseas Citizens of India) who hold lifelong visas for India now just need to carry their OCI card to enter India. They no longer need to go through the ordeal of getting a "U visa" sticker affixed to their passport every time they get a new one, or carry their old passport with the sticker with them. (Even in this there are residual inefficiencies in online instructions. The new instructions are mentioned in red in the relevant website, but in the ensuing 9 months the older rules on this haven't been updated in other parts of this and other official websites.) 

Visa difficulties not only severely inconvenience those needing to visit India but also deprive India of a much larger influx of (presently turned off) tourists that can enormously benefit its economy. As with the OCI sticker issue, the top political leadership should pressure the bureaucrats to improve their act in other consular functions as well.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Good Times After High Crimes

The two murderous lifers who escaped from a maximum security upstate New York prison have expended massive resources towards their recapture. But even if this hadn't happened taxpayers spend up to $60,000 per high risk prisoner per year. Our sense of justice not to speak of our physical and economic well being would have been better served if these two had been executed for their crimes long ago. And since their guilt was never in doubt there was no chance of imposing the ultimate penalty on an innocent.

As of now 19 states have no capital punishment and it is very sparingly used in the rest. We are very easy on our most violent criminals in other ways as well. The worst offenders can lead pretty nice lives, have regular sex (one even impregnated four guards) and get good healthcare. I wrote about "Crime and (Low) Punishment" back in May 2007 and "Arming and Coddling Our Criminals" in July 2012.

According to Gallup Americans favor the death penalty 63% to 33% and yet more and more states are abolishing it. The reason elected political leaders are collectively going against popular will has something to do with the packaged set of political choices that voters face. I like the Democratic platform favoring choice on abortions, universal healthcare, legalizing marijuana, easing up on victim-less crimes like drug use and prostitution, environmental conservation, gay rights, gun control and more public spending on infrastructure and R&D. Yet the Democratic package comes with things a majority including me don't like: favoring strong unions that extract wages and benefits far above free market levels; ethnic quotas over meritocracy in the name of diversity and affirmative action; litigious malpractice and tort system; and yes, coddling vicious and violent criminals.

The same can be said on the flip side for Republicans. The primaries process makes it worse, since the more extreme elements have a bigger role in choosing and influencing candidates in each party than in the general election. Look what happened to the moderate Mitt Romney in 2012 - his forced rightward shift in the primaries made him unwinnable in the general election. To his credit Obama in the 2008 primaries came across as more liberal than he actually turned out to be, helping him topple Hillary. This time the centrist candidates like Hillary and Jeb Bush have a much better shot at winning their primaries, especially if partisan voters place more emphasis on who is winnable in the  general election.

But I digress. Is there a way to have popular preferences better reflected in laws and their implementation on the ground? I'd like more issues like capital punishment, gun control, legalizing marijuana and assisted suicide decided at the state level through referendums. This way voter intent is less likely to be hijacked by minority views bundled into each party's platform.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Pay More And Get (Much) More

The latest Congressional lawmakers caught in ethical and financial wrongdoing are Democratic Senator Bob Menendez and Republican (now ex) Rep. Aaron Schock. And sure, I feel anger and disgust. Only most of it is directed at the simpleminded public and an imbecilic media influencing it to keep our elected leaders ill paid and vulnerable to petty temptations.

Americans by and large accept our capitalist system where CEOs and other top officers of large companies are paid millions or tens of millions of dollars in salary. In the same way our annual federal budget of over $3.5 trillion is collectively controlled by a 100 Senators and 435 Representatives, or over $6 billion apiece. That's above the revenue threshold of $5 billion for a Fortune 500 company. Yet they're paid only $174,000 each with no raises since 2009.

This does not even count the millions of dollars they have to raise to fight elections - every 2 years for Representatives and 6 years for Senators. Unless they are very wealthy and prepared to use their own money they have to fund their campaigns by turning to deep pocketed donors who rarely give anything for free. And once lawmakers of modest means are taking help in cash or kind for their campaigns it's a small extra step accepting this for personal gain or pleasure.

Sen. Menendez' lengthy list of alleged transgressions sound relatively minor to me. He has a rich ophthalmologist friend of 20 years named Dr. Salomon Melgen who contributed over the years a total of $750,000 to various campaign funds helping Mr. Menendez. The Senator also used perks like private jet travel, hotel and villa stays paid for by Dr. Melgen. Mr. Menendez for his part pushed for favorable treatment of Dr. Melgen's cases involving billing disputes with CMS (Medicare), grant of visas to foreign girlfriends of Dr. Melgen on three occasions, and trying to further Dr. Melgen's financial interests by dissuading donations of monitoring equipment to ports by the Customs and Border Patrol.

Political leaders and officials frequently try to help or further the interests of their constituents, friends and relatives. My colleagues and I regularly fielded such calls when I was in the Indian government. Some matters were purely discretionary, i.e., the decision could have gone either way on merits. It is for the concerned agencies to decide whether to accommodate such requests or refuse because they clearly violate some rules or principles. Grant of a U.S. visa for example (as I know from the experiences of hundreds of Indians) often hinges on the whims of the consular officer who happens to be interviewing the applicant. So a Senator weighing in on behalf of a close friend's girlfriend(s) isn't a big deal.

Rep. Schock's excesses are more trivial still, though his donors claim they were swindled by his "campaign full of corruption and lies about his integrity." He splurged taxpayer or campaign funds on doing up his office like in Downton Abbey, some duty free shopping, a couple of non-official trips by private jet, and taking his staff / interns for a New York trip and a Katy Perry concert. The cumulative excess tab was well under $200,000, and there was no "bribe multiplier." By that I mean that taxpayer or donor loss is no higher than Mr. Schock's benefit, unlike in bribes where the loss to government (or briber's gain) is far higher than the payoff to the public official. (That's the whole point of paying a bribe - getting back much more than your "investment.")

These lapses by the two lawmakers are microscopic as compared to failure of all in Congress on the truly big issues. Take healthcare expenses, which nationally run to $3 trillion annually with almost half in public funds. This is about $9,000 per capita, over twice as much as in peer developed countries, and yet Americans on average get less care and suffer worse outcomes.  We can bring down our prices to West Europe levels without compromising quality through straightforward steps I outlined back in March 2011. We don't because lawmakers instead heed and protect the health insurer, provider and affiliated lobbies. This costs us $1.5 trillion extra, or a sellout of nearly $3 billion annually per Congress member. Another example: low tax rates for hedge fund managers (who overall don't produce anything useful, and typically through their seldom detected shenanigans like insider trading, hurt ordinary investors.)

I see three takeaways. First, let us mainly judge our lawmakers and leaders on how they promote and protect our national interests on which we spend billions and trillions of dollars, and cut them some slack on travel and office expenses. Second, let us be enlightened enough to pay them salaries and allowances commensurate with their responsibilities that have at least partial parity with those in the private sector. This will make them less vulnerable to petty corruption and not so easily bought out for small favors. (That's why you rarely see CEOs of S&P 500 companies engage in petty corruption, not because of their superior morality.) And third, let us have true campaign finance reform and publicly funded elections so that our lawmakers need to depend less on special interests.

About the last it is heartening that Hillary Clinton after announcing her 2016 Presidential bid spelled out campaign finance reform as one of the four main tenets of her campaign. It will be great if President Obama (who as outgoing President will be seen as having no axe to grind) strongly pitches for much higher salaries for Congress members, federal and state heads, as they're all underpaid. Even Republican lawmakers and Governors who oppose Mr. Obama will appreciate this as their espousing this themselves is seen and derided in the shallow media as being self-serving. And I'd certainly like to see the new President champion this, perhaps as an adjunct to campaign finance reform.

So how much is a fair salary? I'd point to "clean" Singapore's example where top officials and administrators are paid in the seven figures, and their prime minister is the highest paid worldwide. Illustratively, a large and rich country like U.S.A. can pay its President $5 million annually, Congress members $2 million, about the same for state governors, adjusted for state size, and significant raises for most states' legislators. They should also be paid very decent pensions, while being barred from holding future "influence" jobs such as of lobbyists where they interact with former colleagues and staffers. All this may cost an extra $4 billion or so annually but think of how it will improve the stewardship of our $4 trillion federal budget, and similarly of state funds.

Myopic thinking fanned by an asinine media that is behind the poor pay of our public leaders is not just a problem in U.S.A.  Back in an Aug. 2007 post I had reacted to chain emails sent by otherwise educated and intelligent friends about how overpaid Indian Members of Parliament are swallowing up our national resources. Then in May 2009 I wrote on the misplaced outrage at some pathetically small expenses by British Members of Parliament.

So no, we're not alone in our thinking. But I just hope Americans can like Singapore be more progressive and enlightened in paying our public representatives better, and reaping the rewards in the form of much better and cleaner governance.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Obama's Words (Still) Speak Louder Than Actions

"In the military, as in any organization, giving the order might be the easiest part. Execution is the real game." - Russel Honore.
President Obama's soaring speeches essentially got him into the White House. His DNC 2004 keynote speech first won him national attention.  Then a couple of "Hope and Change" oratories with mix and match phrases were key to his 2008 primary and general election victories. He also has a great sense of humor, which makes his White House Correspondents Dinner addresses and appearances on Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert shows like on Dec. 9, '14 worth watching. His policies haven't appeased most Republicans but they're quite centrist and track majority opinion fairly well. So what's his biggest problem?

His weakness per my March 2013 post is in poor implementation, neglecting routine administration, and not anticipating and addressing problems before they become critical.  When faced squarely with a crisis or challenge Obama marshals his faculties and resources to rise to the occasion. That's how he outplayed Hillary Clinton in 2008, dealt with Hurricane Sandy effectively in 2012 just before his re-election, recovered from the awful start of the website, and so on. But the Executive-in-Chief should execute well in general, not just in firefighting mode.

The President cannot do everything, so he needs to pick the right people to work under him, track their performance, press them to improve where needed, and replace them quickly if they don't. Obama here is no worse - and probably better - than "heckuva job, Brownie" G.W. Bush.

But he falls well short of Bill Clinton whose operational excellence was a largely unsung and under appreciated aspect of his presidency. Not only did the cogs of the day to day government machinery run smoothly then, but major programs took off without hiccups. Examples in health care are the Clinton launch of children's health insurance program and the overhaul and immense improvement of the Veteran's Health Administration (VA).

And how is Obama doing now, as compared to his earlier years? Significantly better in some aspects. Examples:
  • In health care he finally dispensed with Kathleen Sebelius and appointed the far more competent Sylvia Burwell as health secretary. The lackluster CMS chief Marilyn Tavenner is also gone. A post 2013 team along with Accenture now running has immensely improved operations including enrollments under ACA (Obamacare). 
  • Janet Napolitano is gone as Secretary of Homeland Security, replaced by a much better Jeh Johnson since December 2013. One change I personally noticed is the much quicker processing of international flight passengers at our JFK and Newark airports. The hour plus long lines have now decreased to a wait of 20 minutes or less.
  • U.S. postal services have improved some services, e.g., with insurance and tracking already included in Priority Mail packages.  More outlets like Staples now sell products and accept postal packages. 
There are still visible shortcomings, ranging from the trivial and irritating ones I see in my daily domestic life to those of national importance. Examples:
  • The streams of unwelcome phone calls from marketers, including robo-calls on Do-Not-Call registered land line and mobile phones has become even worse. The FTC seems totally unresponsive to complaints, and this has made marketers more brazen in flouting this one very welcome law passed in the G.W. Bush presidency. Even authentic information about U.S. based scammers and violators contained in complaints seems to disappear into a black hole. Although the FTC is an independent agency, its Bureau of Consumer Protection works closely with the Department of Justice. So the Obama Administration through Eric Holder's Department of Justice can and should get them to go after violators much more vigorously. Let's see if Holder's chosen successor (currently nominee Loretta Lynch awaiting Senate approval) turns out to be better in this regard.
  • U.S. post offices still don't display prices for common services like rates for domestic and international mail and packages. You can ascertain these piecemeal at automated stations, but these should be displayed for quick information and comparison. Why isn't this done on now so inexpensive electronic displays that can be readily updated when rates change? Plus the USPS is still losing money. A competent administrator should be improving efficiency and reversing past giveaways in pensions and benefits instead of trying to curtail services, like Saturday mail delivery.
  • Highly paid West Coast dock workers in a labor dispute are crippling the supply chains for many American businesses and hurting our economy. Yet Obama's administration is dragging its feet on ordering an end to this work stoppage. In contrast, the Canadian government moved to end a rail strike there, prompting the management and the union to quickly resume operations and agree to arbitration. 
In foreign relations there are lapses in policy as well as execution pertaining to the Middle East and Ukraine:
  • An Oct. 9,'14 Reuters report describes Obama's rejection of proposals of his senior advisers to intervene in Syria and Iraq that allowed ISIS to expand. Though liberals may defend his initial restraint, there's little excuse for the poor execution of his subsequent decision to intervene militarily, support forces against ISIS, etc. 
  • Obama's hesitance to help Ukraine militarily in countering Russian backed separatists has contributed to Ukraine's rout and loss of strategic towns in recent battles. He argued against supplying lethal weapons on the grounds that this will further antagonize Russia and kill off peace talks.  I'd have expected an effective administration to at least be feverishly positioning such arms for rapid transfer and deployment if peace fails, and to be covertly training Ukrainians in their use. After all, Russia and the separatists have repeatedly violated prior agreements. Instead, the Middle East problems of US military help coming too little, too late seems to apply to Ukraine as well. 
Some of these outcomes could have been different under a better Secretary of Defense. Obama has at least appointed the well regarded Ashton Carter as the new Secretary who emphasized competence and effectiveness after being sworn in.

In sum, the Obama Administration functions better now than till 2013, though there is still ample room for improvement in his remaining second term.  I also hope that his successor after 2016 is more into good governance from the start.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Independence Day - Just How Much To Celebrate?

It's July 4th today, the biggest day of celebration for Americans. What I personally value most about it is the fireworks display and the opportunity to go on a mini-vacation for the long weekend.  Right now Anita and I are enjoying our road trip to Toronto, meeting up with friends and family after stopping to admire Niagara Falls for the nth time.

For U.S. patriots it's unquestionable that the U.S. winning its war of independence was the best thing that could ever have happened, and was the basis for U.S.A. becoming a superpower. We're certainly in a very happy place, and Americans have a lot to be very proud of. 

But what if the war of independence had never been fought, or our founding fathers had lost it and the British continued to rule as a colonial power? It's similar to what happened when the Rebellions of 1837 were successfully put down in Canada. Would Americans today really have been worse off?

An answer may lie in looking at how other colonies set up populated largely by British and other European settlers have evolved to this day.  These are Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  The GDP per capita comparison shows Australia's is higher than U.S.A.'s ($67K Vs. $53K), Canada's is almost the same ($52K) and New Zealand's lags slightly at $41K. All of them have robust democracies and good quality of life for their residents that some may argue is better (because of universal healthcare, lower crime, lower unemployment, etc.) than for the average American.

The British were hardly monsters who mercilessly exploited these colonies made up of their own emigrants.  Over time they loosened their grip so that self-rule evolved anyway.  It is entirely possible that the American States with their larger population, more favorable geography and climate would have done even better.

More importantly, Canada and U.S.A. could have been one country if we had evolved instead of breaking away from British rule. That would mean twice the land mass, all the oil and gas (including shale oil), minerals and other natural resources of Canada added to our own.  More liberal Canadian thinking may have tempered our (new) Tea Party activism and influence.  Heck, Britain also abolished slavery in 1833, so we may never have come to events leading up to the civil war.

It's a good question as to what Canadians would have gained from being part of the U.S.  Should our successful war of independence and 4th of July be celebrated equally by Canadians because it gave them a whole country (with much higher natural resources per inhabitant) to themselves?

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.