Wednesday, December 14, 2011

India's Anti-Terrorism Medicine Is Worse Than The Disease

It looks like terrorists merely have to start disrupting life for Indians and the authorities will finish the job for them. The damage done by them is too often magnified by the official response. I see more of this in my present visit to India and have been greeted with these instances since arriving here a few days back:
  • My Indian prepaid cell phone didn't work. My service had been blocked because my carrier is required to re-verify and obtain documentation of proof of address and identity plus a new picture of the owner after a while (6 months? A year? Two years? The frequency isn't clear.)  
  • Visitors from abroad simply cannot get cell phones in their name even if they have valid documents and proof of identity.  All carriers "officially" advised me to get it in the name of a local resident (I chose an uncle). The alternative is to pay international roaming fees that cost 50 to 100 times as much as an India based phone.  As if paying an extra few hundred dollars will deter actual terrorists.  The Nov. 26, 2008 Mumbai attackers used satellite phones anyway, and none of the steps taken prevents this.
  • I went to draw some rupees from my bank account with paltry balances only to find my bank account was on hold pending submission of documents. The bank folks explained this was required under a new KYC (Know Your Customer) policy thrust upon them by the Reserve Bank of India.  And never mind I'd gone through this routine 11 months back with two branches - some fresh guidelines required me to produce copies of papers submitted two decades ago at the time of opening of the account. Plus, this process of "re-verification" is to be repeated every two years.
  • This "KYC" ordeal is for all bank account holders, not just foreigners.  My 92 year old father-in-law in Pune suffered a protracted back and forth, having to produce fresh documents for his bank accounts that were opened and in regular use for over 30 years.  And Anita's 83 year old uncle is being pressed for "official" documentary evidence to prove his marriage to his wife of 50+ years to avoid a freeze of his decades old and continuously used joint account with her.  Most Indians don't obtain marriage licenses, at least didn't in the past. 
  • A close friend in IBM (of Indian origin, now a US citizen) traveled to India on work, then left to attend a meeting in Malaysia.  He then had problems re-entering India because of the new policy barring re-entry of Indian visa holders within 60 days of leaving the country. The then Indian Foreign Minister of State Shashi Tharoor had rightly derided this policy by his own ministry through his much publicized tweet "26/11 killers had no visas."
Such new restrictions are ostensibly to curb and prevent terrorists from funding their activities and carrying out attacks on Indian soil.  But as Tharoor pointed out (much to the annoyance of his seniors, the Foreign and the Home Ministers) they'd hardly deter actual extremists while adding to the bureaucratic hell faced by ordinary Indians and foreign visitors.

Why does this happen?  Having been in the Indian government for over a decade I know how this can be as much a result of ulterior power grabbing as of bone-headed decision making.  In a milieu of widespread restrictions officials can relish their discretion to interpret, enforce or to relax burdensome rules. They can use their power to help those around them in exchange for gratitude or gratification, and become more relevant than in a freer, more smoothly functioning environment. Of course the problem can also be created or compounded by a bumbling administration that's under pressure to show that "strong" steps are being taken in response to militant attacks.

The trauma of the terrorist attacks probably prompted the leadership to seek the advice of its security apparatus for preventive measures.  The latter apparently didn't let this crisis go to waste, using it as an excuse to reintroduce "inspector raj" type controls that had been drastically loosened during Indian economic and administrative reforms of the 1990s.

I hope that smarter and more enlightened people at the top are aware of this dynamic and reverse such trends.  A tragic loss of a few hundred innocents at the hands of fanatics shouldn't bring on these strangely drastic yet ineffective measures that gum up the lives of a billion.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

On Anna, Manmohan and Sonia

I rarely talk about Indian politics because (a) I'm not close enough to them, and (b) with their complexity it can become a never-ending discussion (even more so than in the US.)  But I was drawn into some exchanges recently.

It started out simply enough with college pal "OK" posting a simple query on my Facebook wall about Sonia Gandhi coming to the US for medical treatment.  Why not get treated in India, "OK" asked, if the hospitals there are so good as to attract Western medical travellers?

My response to him was picked up on by some other of my high school and college friends and devolved into a semi-serious back and forth of riffs and political jabs.  Most comments were not too sympathetic to Sonia and her circle, and seem interesting enough to share below:

The Hindu : News / National : Sonia undergoes successful surgery
Congress president Sonia Gandhi was on Friday recovering in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of a US hospital where she underwent successful surgery for an undisclosed ailment.
Me: I'd guess on two good reasons (for coming to the US), (a) for cancer or non-standard treatment where the top US institutions like Sloan Kettering are the best, and/or (b) to maintain privacy/secrecy. 
OK: I suppose (b) is impossible in India!

IB: So she has cancer?

PD: How can she have cancer when she is the cancer?
SS:  From attending functions in Bangladesh to sudden serious ailment to US to surgery to recovery.... rubbish, say many. It was a sudden dash to the US to salvage .... before Jan Lokpal became a reality. If anyone is really so ill as to have to dash off to a foreign country for emergency operation, the only son and the only daughter will not be smiling half way thru India, attending public / political functions, rallies etc.., In Any normal family, the kids will definitely like to be by the mother's side, not on the other side of the globe. POINT TO PONDER...
Me: You guys are so rough on this fine lady... :-)
PD: The fine lady is so rough on us. 
IB: Sandip define "fine"? it has many meanings.
OK: Yes. Did Sandip mean meter-maid? 
Me:  Good jabs there. My poor Sonia. Quoting Shakespeare, "You blocks, you stones, you cruel men of Rome" - I mean India. :-)
SS: Not on "SCHINDLER'S LIST", but on "SWINDLERS LIST".... how can you sympathize with such types, Sandip? Besides, anyone "fine" would be a total misfit for politics. The person has to be all and anything but "fine". If you mean a "fine scourge and all and everything unprintable", for most politicians, that would be more apt. Agree or disagree? 
Me:  Disagree. :-) I haven't seen evidence of her own personal dishonesty. Indians have been voting for splinter groups and regional parties so Manmohan and Sonia types are perhaps forced to form questionable alliances and are too weak to control corruption. In this milieu I doubt their opponents are, or can do better. That said, I'm admittedly quite removed from Indian politics. :-) 
IB: Sandip, you quoted: "You blocks, you stones, you cruel men of Rome" -- but from what I remember it went like: "You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things"---
OK:  IB, I noticed that too but I let it pass as Sandip speaks from the heart not from memory! :) Or perhaps he did not want to call us "worse than senseless things", being our kind friend? It's not that we love Sonia less...
And so it went, showing I've erudite friends and most aren't fans of the Gandhi dynasty or current leadership under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.  

I also get many emails forwarded by friends in rapturous praise of Anna Hazare, the 74 year old social-political activist that his admirers liken to Mahatma Gandhi.  Anna has gone on fasts unto death to demand that a super authority (Lokpal) be set up in India that can investigate for corruption and remove anyone in public office that it finds guilty including the Prime Minister and judges of the Indian Supreme Court.  

When I call my father-in-law in Pune he marvels at Anna's immense popularity and asks what I think of him and how the Indian government should respond. I half jokingly suggest that the government should let him starve himself to death so they can move on to more substantive issues.  

To my mind rampant corruption in India is not for want of more legal institutions or of more checks and balances.  We may already have too many that gum up the process of decision making.  The problem is that all of these may be corrupt and require pay-offs.  So having one more like a Lokpal with oversight of India's highest elected offices and consequent ability to blackmail such leadership may add to India's problems instead of solving them. 
Bose, one of my gym buddies who recently returned from a trip to India talked of the vast "new money", the related corruption in politics as well as the huge Anna Hazare following he witnessed at first hand.  On his perceptions about Anna's core supporters he drily remarked that they're probably seeking power to get their turn at the money till.
As I said in my Facebook exchange, India's problems appear to be compounded by its narrowly focused and ill informed voters failing to elect and give strong majorities to good leaders of national stature.  Such voters are swayed more by parochial and caste considerations that lead to fragmented parties and shaky alliances with elected representatives looking for quick payoffs in exchange for their support.  
The solution may lie in an electorate exercising better judgement and a resurgence of nationalistic parties.  Or India may be better suited to a different democratic system like a directly elected US style President (only stronger, though chances of this happening are almost nil and we're seeing its downsides in the US gridlock, too.)  But an appointed Lokpal who can remove the elected Prime Minister and judges of India's top court as the Hazare folks demand hardly seems to be the answer.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Obama: Centrist or Weakling?

President Obama made most of the concessions to Republicans and Tea Party hardliners that have led to the debt ceiling deal that averted a US default. He gave way to most demands of the Tea Party faction of the Republicans - deep spending cuts and no revenue increases by raising taxes or closing tax loopholes for the rich. The Democrats had little choice but to go along or else crash the US economy.

But they are not happy.  In his Aug. 1 NYTimes column "The President Surrenders" Paul Krugman scathingly explains why Obama's capitulation is a catastrophe in both economic and political terms.  Joe Nocera in his companion "The Tea Party's War on America" talks of this group and the Republicans taking the country hostage and being rewarded with near-complete capitulation by Obama.  Even William McGurn in the right wing WSJ today calls the accord a "conservative victory" and a "striking achievement." 

There is a difference between a Bill Clinton type centrist who compromises and someone who is reluctant to take a stand, and when forced to do so repeatedly backs away to become the appeaser in chief. Emboldened by their successful brinksmanship Republicans are likely to take Obama's (abject) pliability for granted in future negotiations on key issues.  That said, I've a couple of additional observations:
  •  The US government may not be "of the people" or "for the people" in the sense that the Administration and Congress are adequately acting in the interests of the populace, rather than key special interests. That's why approval rates for Obama are at 45% and of Congress at an all time low of 14% according to the latest CNN/ORC poll. But the US government is still "by the people."  Voters put Obama in office in 2008 (particularly those supporting him against Hillary in the primary) and elected many Tea Partiers in 2010.  So at least Americans are fully responsible for the state of their national economy and polity, unlike people living in countries with repressive regimes.
  • As a corollary to the above the US won't get political accountability if the voters remain befuddled about who's responsible for their plight.  Despite the Tea Party and Republicans plunging the nation into a contrived debt crisis an ABC poll today shows Americans lashing out at both parties.  68% and 67% of them disapprove of Republicans and Democrats respectively.  Paul Krugman partly ascribes this to the media, deriding its false sense of balance in his July 28 NYTimes column for tending to blame both sides equally no matter who's actually at fault.  Still, there's enough information out there for Americans to judge their leaders and vote in their own best interest, but many don't. Take the Tea Party that vehemently opposes tax increases even for households making over $250,000 a year.  It should logically attract only the 2% of Americans who are above this threshold, yet over 20% belong to this group.
  • Obama's actions may have weakened Democrats and given away too much of the store for average Americans, but they haven't affected his own re-election chances.  To Democrats and a majority of independents he'll likely be the lesser of two evils when faced with a Republican nominee elected by an increasingly radicalized GOP.  There's also no viable Democratic primary challenger or a third candidate (like NY mayor Michael Bloomberg) on the horizon yet.  So to the GOP rhetoric about making Obama a one term President and the above ABC poll showing him at par nationally and behind Mitt Romney in the key state of Pennsylvania, time will tell. But I'd place my odds on seeing him in office, with or without a spine, till 2016.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Right Wing Judges Have Their Uses

I've generally taken a dim view of the conservative majority of the US Supreme Court, especially since their partisan 2000 ruling against Al Gore that stopped the Florida vote recount and made GWB President.  There's been the (so far unrealized) fear that they'd overturn Roe v. Wade to give abortion foes an upper hand. In January 2010 they aided special interests and electoral corruption by removing restrictions on corporations from spending freely on supporting or opposing candidates.  Going forward when it ultimately comes to them they may undo the 2010 health care reforms by (among other things) striking down the vital mandate for everyone to get insurance coverage.

But this same conservative wing also plays a key role in curbing class action lawsuits, expanding interpretation of anti-discrimination laws, and left wing activism that unfairly burdens our businesses and the economy.

On June 20 the Supreme Court threw out the largest class action sex discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart with the conservative wing also making it difficult to file such class actions in the future.  This is welcome as such cases are generally a boon for trial lawyers while imposing huge costs on businesses that are hard put to defend against a wide variety of claims, many of them frivolous.  Businesses pass on such costs to Americans in the form of higher prices, and this also makes the US a less desirable place to hire workers or operate in.  So in this way the conservative judges have helped not just businesses but also the economy and American consumers by reducing unnecessary litigation. 

In this same case the conservative majority did businesses another favor by indirectly rejecting "proof by quota" as I call it.  This is an argument by trial lawyers and bodies like the EEOC that the simple fact of lower average pay or under-representation of ethnic groups or gender is proof of discrimination.  For example, if women in Wal-Mart on average earn less than men, or their proportion in management positions is much below 50% then this alone proves Wal-Mart's discriminatory conduct.  It ignores (or shifts the burden to defendants to prove) other possible reasons like women working less hard or for fewer hours due to their family commitments, or interrupting careers to raise children.  Or having fewer applicants with the required skills or willingness to work long, non-standard hours.  The conservative judges required proof of some employer conduct or instructions that's common to all discrimination claims to allow them to be clubbed and litigated.

The Supreme Court can restrict "proof by quota" even more explicitly, particularly by public agencies like the EEOC whose actions can hobble businesses even if their orders are eventually overturned on appeal.  I like the role of our right leaning judges in at least three other areas:
  • Curbing pro-union partisanship and bias.  On April 22 I've talked of excesses by unions and the undesirable NLRB steps to try forcing Boeing to shift its 787 plane assembly from South Carolina to expensive, heavily unionized Washington.  Employers should be free to factor in labor relations and costs as well as labor disruptions to assess profits and viability, without the NLRB calling their resultant plant location an anti-union retaliation.  Even if it ultimately loses in a conservative Supreme Court (assuming the case goes that far) the NLRB's litigation is creating enough headaches for Boeing in the intervening period.  It would be a lot worse if a liberal Supreme Court actually sided with the NLRB.
  • Countering the excesses of anti-discrimination laws.  As mentioned above, affirmative action can easily slip into quota based appointments and promotions that undermine a meritocracy and cause reverse discrimination.  Back on April 8, 2009 I mentioned the offshoot of anti-age discrimination leading to barring employers (with a few exceptions) from having a mandatory retirement age, no matter how high.  I've already talked about why I consider these developments unfortunate from an economic and jobs viewpoint, and would like to see conservative judges bring the balance back even if our politicians won't.  Liberal judges through their judicial activism on the other hand may perpetuate or even extend such misplaced anti-discrimination measures. 
  • Being tough on crime.  Crime shouldn't pay, and "justice" should imply proportional consequences for major offenders.  On Sep. 3, 2009 I had espoused justice for violent and serious criminals to be weighted more towards deterrence, restitution and even retribution, instead of rehabilitation and reform.  When public resources are severely strained we see some courts forcing authorities to ease overcrowding, provide proper health care, spend more on inmates, or else to release them.  Conditions within prisons seem to be better than those for many outside of it.  Conservative judges are more in tune with the majority of Americans who prefer "true" justice to a coddling of criminals.
So there's at least a silver lining to these "right-minded" gentlemen of the court.

    Wednesday, May 25, 2011

    Justice Or Lynching Of DSK?

    Anita's frail and gentle 80 year old uncle living by himself in Pune (India) is deathly afraid of changing his maid who has been giving him grief.  He cites many accounts of maids falsely alleging sexual assault by (even elderly) male employers when there were disputes or in revenge for perceived grievances.  He also quoted news of a rising trend of women in ones and twos hitching rides with unsuspecting male motorists and then demanding cash and valuables failing which they'd raise an alarm about attempted molestation.

    Many years ago during my own IAS training, Mr. M.K. Kaw, one of our illustrious senior officials cautioned: "If you have a woman in your office make sure there's a third person around."  I took that advice to heart and repeated it to others, including a mid level forest official many years later when I was inquiring into a sexual harassment complaint against him by one of his female employees.  He was lucky to be cleared because of inconsistencies in her statements and evidence of her involvement with his enemies in influential circles.

    It's the same in the US.  For example rape accusations were made up and vigorously pursued against three Duke lacrosse players in 2006.  And some may recall the media circus around the 1991 rape trial and acquittal of JFK's nephew, William Kennedy Smith.

    We hear much about how difficult it can be for a rape victim to press charges, and how the proceedings questioning her and going into her own background can hurt her twice.  That needs to be balanced with the way improper handling can severely and irreversibly damage the falsely accused even if he is eventually cleared.

    I have long had issues with the US justice system per my Sept. 3, '09 post, which coddles convicted criminals while paying lip service to presumption of innocence and needlessly humiliating the accused.  This brings me to the sexual assault charges against IMF (ex-)chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) who's hardly a sympathetic figure. He's widely known to be a womanizer and philanderer, though he may be in an open marriage - his wife has gone to great lengths to bail him out and to support him.  More disturbing is his supposedly consensual affair three years ago with a subordinate and former IMF economist that could involve sexual harassment. While DSK got off then with a reprimand I agree with the view that this made him unsuitable to head the IMF.

    But considering just the current allegations there's little doubt that the accusing hotel maid performed a sex act on him - the DNA evidence confirms this and the defense has not denied it.  The key question is whether he forced himself on her or was the act consensual. Polls show a little over half the Americans believe the former while a majority of the French believe the latter (and that DSK was set up by his opponents as he was likely to become the next French President.)

    I am with the French and skeptical of the sexual assault allegations.  Here's why:
    •  DSK is a 5'7" flabby, pasty 62 year old who looks like he'd be bested by a younger woman in a physical struggle, leave alone being able to corner, subdue and force himself upon her.  And remain aroused through all this. 
    • Young women have teeth. DSK had no weapons to cow the maid into complying with oral sex.  She could have interrupted proceedings while inflicting serious damage by biting down hard.  Wouldn't DSK be aware of this risk and be deterred by it?
    • DSK has a reputation for seduction, but this is very different from a rapist physically forcing himself on a woman. DSK is rich enough to pay for sex which is what I suspect was the deal that day (or so he thought.)  If so, he still has a problem telling the truth and facing criminal consequences of abetting prostitution.  I favor decriminalizing the world's oldest profession as long as it does not involve minors, coercion or trafficking, but that's not how the law stands in New York.
    • The police cite DSK's previous conduct including hitting on other staff and inviting two receptionists to his room the previous evening for a drink as supporting "proof" of his criminal state of mind.  But the implications can be just the opposite.  If the staff shared their experience with others, it would be widely known that he was seeking out women, and give his enemies a good way to set him up.
    • The maid should not have had this room on her cleaning list because  DSK was supposed to check out that day.  Hotels have routine systems in place that flag rooms for cleaning only after the guest has left.  So did the hotel make a mistake, or was she not supposed to enter in the first place?  Another curious coincidence is that she was not supposed to be working on that floor, but volunteered to do so in place of an absent colleague.
    • The maid further seems to have ignored protocol by not knocking loudly and repeatedly before entering the suite.  By her account she then went deep enough into the suite before noticing it was occupied as to be prevented from leaving when DSK emerged naked from the bathroom.  
    The police and prosecutors aware of all this should have been cautious in their approach.  I'd imagine they at least had the maid take a polygraph (lie detector) test to satisfy themselves even though it's inadmissible in court.

    We saw the police parading DSK in handcuffs in media glare in a humiliating "perp walk" that is banned in Europe and even by a Supreme Court order in a developing country like India.  Worse, the initial judge Melissa Jackson abused her discretion in denying DSK bail because he is a flight risk.  Is her action stemming from sheer stupidity or pomposity combined with an ego kick at bringing down an international leader and reveling in media attention?

    What age are she and the police living in?  With DSK wearing an electronic ankle monitor, under police guard and surveillance, and his passport seized, how did they find the prospect of DSK pulling a Houdini and escaping realistic?  I think this judge is a disgrace and unfit to hold office.  A superior court eventually granted DSK bail with home confinement but I wish there was a system in place for immediate appeal or review of the first judge's decision so DSK wasn't sent to Riker's Island jail in the first place.

    Even if DSK is acquitted of sexual assault (and I'd lay the odds on that despite a lot of noise to the contrary) the damage is already done.  He's already had to resign from the IMF and a future presidential bid looks dead.

    The solace we can take is that in his case two wrongs may have made a right.  His romp with his subordinate in the IMF in 2008 should have cost him his IMF job, but didn't, and the latest allegations should not have severely damaged him until they were proved, but did.

    Friday, April 22, 2011

    Union Bashing - Good Or Bad?

    How do I perceive unions, particularly public employee unions?

    My childhood memories are of the already slow and congested life in Calcutta (now Kolkata) coming to a halt during general strikes called "bandhs" that occurred all too often.  On the good days workers would take time off after their lunch break to stage demonstrations in support of "worker rights" that meant more pay, less work, and more additions to already bloated payrolls.

    We then moved to the scenic hill station of Darjeeling (of tea fame) with little union activity where I spent my middle and high school years.  But union activity and strikes were much in fashion when I entered college at the University of Delhi.  Most colleges in our 110,000 strong University used to be closed for a couple of weeks a year due to strikes by students and non-teaching staff (called "karamcharies".)

    The University karamcharies earned about 50% more than their counterparts in the private sector.  Our college education was publicly funded and nearly free and few of us were aware of what exactly were the demands of the striking students.  To most it seemed a way to avoid classes and inject a little excitement by clashing with authorities.  Our own St. Stephen's College with 1000+ students was one of the very few (of the nearly 100 colleges and departments comprising the University) that refused to take part in any strikes.  So police would be posted outside our gates to guard against trouble by outside strikers who resented our non-involvement.

    Years later after joining the IAS I was on the other side, with my fair share of handling public union negotiations, agitations and strikes.  One of my later stints was as Municipal Commissioner (city manager) of Shimla city that had one of the most militant public unions.  They would strike or disrupt services about twice a year in spite of the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) that made these jail-able offenses.  That's because ESMA was never invoked, or action under it was rapidly withdrawn as a precondition for any settlement.  Of our 1100 employees, we had over 600 sanitation workers as part of previous concessions to the union though we needed no more than 400.  Their pay and benefits were double of those in the private sector.

    Early in my Shimla MC tenure the union went on strike and their staff threw buckets of human feces in my office in appreciation of my engaging temporary replacements to keep the city going.  It took me and my team almost a year to draw up contingency plans and train home guards to distribute water and run other facilities in case of future stoppages.  In a subsequent strike, I used these preparations to maintain services, deployed armed police to guard our strategic installations against sabotage and invoked ESMA to penalize strikers and restore normalcy. It was the first time this had happened in the (then) 120 year history of Shimla, and put a stop to labor troubles for the next three years.

     By then I had come to the "capitalist" US and expected things to be very different here, but there are commonalities.  Political leaders here also tend to make deals with public unions to smooth their own tenure even while giving away long term benefits that devastate budgets down the road.  Then there are the illegal strikes disrupting essential services that are barred by US laws (also all too often failed to be invoked by the authorities).  For example the New York transit strike of 2005 disrupted life for millions and violated the Taylor Law (similar to ESMA) but the violators received a mere slap on the wrist.  Then there are the airline pilots unions who get around strike bans by staging mass sick-outs.  Employees avoiding duty by falsely claiming to be sick can be fired, and the management can easily require medical testing by an independent board in such circumstances, yet this abuse is taken in stride.

    Even in the broader philosophical context one can question the value and social contributions of unions.  Collective bargaining had a big and useful role to play in the old days when a few large and powerful employers could collude to keep wages and benefits artificially low.  Or when a race to the bottom (in costs) could cause unsafe conditions or extreme hardship in the absence of public safety laws.

    But most or all of this is now inapplicable since mechanisms are in place for protecting workers through anti-trust laws, OSHA, the Minimum Wage Act and the like.  It is these laws that ensured a five day work week, stopped child labor and promoted worker safety much more than the unions, contrary to claims by film maker Michael Moore on Stephen Colbert on his March 29 show, or by union leader Richard Trumka in a WSJ Op-Ed on March 4.

    Almost by definition so long as there is no employer collusion or monopoly, union activity is an attempt to secure wages and benefits over and above the free market level.  In the latter the workers are free to go (or be wooed away) to where they get the best compensation for their services, according to their perceived worth.  Instead, collective bargaining can look a lot like collective blackmail, as when workers at the GM plant making engine transmissions threaten or go on strike bringing most production to a halt.  No wonder US manufacturers want to diversify production globally to make them less vulnerable, and it's not just to go to where labor costs are lowest. 

    So yes, I'm not a fan of unions nor view them as net contributors to public welfare, as their raising of US labor costs has contributed at least partially to the current level of unemployment.  There are some pro-union laws and practices that beg for change.  For example, see how the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is trying to force Boeing to locate its Dreamliner assembly plant in heavily unionized Washington State, instead of in South Carolina.  In 2008 Boeing workers in Washington went on a 58 day strike that cost Boeing $1.8 billion.  So Boeing management understandably wanted to instal new plants in less unionized and more business friendly locations.  The NLRB interpreted this as illegal retaliation against union activity.  The WSJ in its April 21 Opinion pages rightly deplores NLRB's sandbagging of Boeing and calls for a change in such a system.

    And what of Republican efforts to restrict bargaining by public unions on matters other than their salaries, or do away with compulsory contributions by workers to their union funds?  In principle I find little wrong with that.  We already know that politicians are not mindful of future liabilities that their concessions to unions can impose on future administrations.  That's a big reason why our states and local governments are in budgetary crises.  As far as union contributions go, why should workers be forced to contribute if they don't want to?  That's the situation in the "right to work" states in the South that employers find more attractive, and such forced contributions did not commonly exist even in more socialist countries like India.

    On the other hand I'm perfectly fine with the unions launching concerted drives to mobilize public opinion against Republican union busters, and trying to recall elected representatives as they are doing in Wisconsin.  Besides, Governor Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans in Wisconsin have been quite weaselly in their actions.  For instance, they have specifically exempted police and firefighter unions from the new restrictions, apparently because these union members traditionally lean Republican.  These uniformed personnel that are vital to maintaining security and safety should be specifically barred from union activity, as they are, even in India, let alone favored with special exemptions.

    Indiana and Ohio states under Republican leadership have also moved to curb the scope of collective bargaining by public employees.  But they have sought a more uniform implementation without picking any favorites, so their actions are fairer and a better blueprint for change than those of Walker & Co. in Wisconsin.

    Thursday, April 7, 2011

    Aftermath Of Friend's Murder

    Last week I received a call from someone who requested anonymity, and I'll call him Charlie.  He had seen my post of April 18, 2008 about the murder of my childhood friend Aasha Chhabra and her husband Brij in Troy, Michigan.  He wanted to update me with news about their killers so as to afford closure to the family.  (We haven't got in touch with the Thadani's young daughter, their only child, though.)

    The murders had been arranged by Narayan Thadani who had betrayed Aasha's complete trust in him by selling her landed property in India and stealing the proceeds of over $2 million.  He was about to lose it all in a court case and hired two men from El Salvadore for the killings.  Narayan pleaded guilty and he as well as the two hit men all received life terms in prison in October 2010 while another accomplice got 30 years after turning state's evidence.

    Charlie himself is an ex-convict who met Narayan in the Houston prison where he is now serving his sentence.  Charlie called Narayan an evil and scary person who while awaiting trial almost nonchalantly sought help from fellow inmates to hire a hit man to kill the FBI agent who was investigating his case.  Narayan apparently bore that agent a grudge and also thought the killing would remove a vital prosecution witness and help his court defense.  His fellow prisoners instead tipped off the authorities.  He was put in touch with an undercover FBI agent posing as a contract killer, and caught.

    Charlie sent me the docket containing the charges for the murders of the Chhabras for which Narayan pleaded guilty, as well as for attempted murder of the FBI agent, which didn't really carry any additional downside as Narayan will spend the rest of his life behind bars anyway.

    While it's good that Narayan and the three others got caught and punished, I'm still bothered by our justice system coddling perpetrators of such terrible crimes, as I opined in my September 3, 2009 post.  There is not even any lingering doubt about the guilt of all these men yet they don't get to pay the ultimate price.  The gentle and thoroughly decent Chhabras have been murdered, and their ruthless killers spend their lives in prison conditions that are better than that of much of humanity on the outside. 

    Rehabilitation should of course play a role depending on the circumstances.  Charlie's own crimes were a lot less serious (why they mix prisoners whose degrees of offenses are so disparate is beyond me.)  He came across as a well spoken person who had turned his life around, and I wish him well.

    Tuesday, March 29, 2011

    The Rajat I Know

    A rather sanctimonious mass email I've received is prompting this post.  Rajat Gupta, former head of McKinsey has been widely praised and admired though he is now in the news for passing material non-public information to Raj Rajaratnam (RR) of the Galleon hedge funds.

    The email titled "How Much is Enough?" echoed some other chatter about how the wealthy and highly respected Rajat let greed get the better of him and ruin his reputation by abetting insider trading.

    I feel compelled to balance the picture about Rajat whom we know personally since 1991 when I had just come to the US for PhD studies at the University of Chicago.  I knew nothing of McKinsey or what he did at that time, and we drove to his house simply to deliver a gift from India sent through us by one of my favorite ex-bosses in the IAS.  That was Mr. P.K. Mattoo, Chief Secretary of HP state till 1987,  and uncle of Anita Mattoo Gupta, Rajat's wife and a warm, wonderful person whom he met as a fellow student at IIT Delhi. 

    I've rarely seen anyone more gracious, modest and personable than Rajat, in spite of his brilliance and success at McKinsey.  He was that way in all the subsequent times we met him, and Mr. Mattoo told me how Rajat was ever ready to sleep on the floor when he and family would visit and stay with them in India. In 1994 after Rajat became head of McKinsey, my friend Harsh from the University of Chicago who joined McKinsey told me about how he and other fresh recruits met Rajat at a welcoming party for them.  He said the recruits were blown away when Rajat came up to them individually, put out his hand and diffidently said, "Hi, I'm Rajat Gupta," before chatting with them.  "As if anyone in the gathering didn't know who he was," Harsh marveled, "And he was on the cover of many major magazines."

    We saw Rajat and family after a gap of of over 10 years in June 2009 at a high school graduation party for the daughter of Sunil, Mr. P.K. Mattoo's son.  Rajat was as unassuming and cordial as ever, and introduced us to his daughter and her African American husband who had been warmly welcomed into the family.  We also learned about Rajat's hectic schedule, working for free with non-profits, including with the Gates Foundation (that he's now stepped down from) to help eradicate malaria.

    While he certainly violated confidentiality as a Goldman Sachs director in his conversations with Raj Rajaratnam, he seems to have done it out of a misplaced sense of friendship, without profit to himself.  I saw SEC's most damning evidence against him, this 18 minute transcript of his call with RR.  The disclosure seems incidental to the main conversation, and as a result of RR pumping him for information.

    The other striking incident cited is Rajat calling RR seconds after a Goldman board meeting where Warren Buffet's $5B investment was disclosed.  Minutes later RR placed bets on Goldman shares that netted Galleon $900,000.  To me, it's very out of character for Rajat to call someone just after receiving confidential information to tip them off for illicit gain.  Even a March 7 Times article referred to some curious aspects of the SEC's case against Rajat.

    The kind of scenario I'd envision is that RR tracked scheduled board meetings and timed messages requesting a call back to Rajat accordingly.  After meetings are over the attendees typically get to their other activities, including returning calls, as Rajat did with RR.  Then in the course of other conversation that was ostensibly the purpose of RR's contact, he casually asked Rajat some leading questions about Goldman, and pounced on any resultant cues.  RR is obviously sharp as a whip, but his laid back style and humor interspersed with personal chats could disarm a friend into revealing more than he should.  Rajat's amiable and forthcoming nature could make him hesitate to clam up and pointblank refuse to answer RR's "incidental" questions.

    In sum Rajat's approachability and helpfulness has apparently proved to be his undoing.  His lack of motive or ill intent seems to be why he hasn't been criminally prosecuted, though he's had to resign all his board positions and suffer ignominy. 

    Sometimes bad judgment or carelessness can land very good people in trouble.  I'm sorry to see Rajat in this plight and hope he gets out of this okay.

    Thursday, February 10, 2011

    Much Ado About My Junk

    The "Don't Touch My Junk" guy became a kind of folk hero last November, something like an unstable and rude flight attendant at Jet Blue did a few months earlier.

    We've people objecting to new airport search procedures and pat downs, even as the TSA is scrambling for innovations to safeguard privacy.  I had talked about over-sensitivity to profiling in my August 10, 2009 post as well.  Two weeks ago Jesse Ventura sued the TSA over his pat-downs.  The comments below that report overwhelming support Ventura and cheer him on.  While two-thirds of Americans support full body scans it is still disturbing that a third don't, and that half object to enhanced pat downs.

    Terrorism and crime are serious threats, and Americans should decide if they want to focus on safety or be distracted by trivia.  What about concerns about invasion of privacy?  To me none of these measures are particularly intrusive, especially if the operations are performed by someone of the same gender.  We have our sports and gym locker rooms where we walk around naked in full view of others, that's a lot more "revealing" than these airport searches.

    Perhaps it's cultural, but I never even gave a second thought to these pat downs that have occurred for a long time in India at airports and now at the Delhi Metro stations, and even some malls and hotels.  In fact I'm thankful that they do this quickly and keep us safe.

    It took me a lot longer to get used to the aforesaid locker rooms when I first came to the US.  As well as the "open" stalls in public restrooms where the WCs are enclosed only with half panels so you can see a lot of the lower extremities of the users and fully hear them.  That's not the case in public toilets I've seen in Asia or even in Europe.

    So I suppose perceptions vary and things are relative.  I imagine myself regarding  Americans objecting to such "unreasonable" searches almost the way these people would think of Middle Eastern women being made to dress in head to toe burqas.