Aware of neither custom nor practice, he walked into the packed hall;

His crumpled suit made heads nod in unified derision

When the pompous moderator took to the microphone and raised his call

The wealthy and wise wondered whether he had even anything to say, in pompous unison

“Ladies and gentlemen and stakeholders of our future generations” rang out a voice loud and clear

“Mother Earth knows neither rewards nor punishments, but only consequences”

Enraptured they sat as he completely enveloped them with scenarios of both hope and fear

Draconian was he merely in looks, but a sophisticated Mark Anthony in his utterances.

(Word Count: 103)

Courtesy of Sammi Cox Weekend Writing Prompt#132

The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society – Binyamin Appelbaum

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Milton Friedman once observed, ““I think the government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem and very often makes the problem worse.” Frenzied advocates of the free market breed pounced on this pronouncement in the same vein a believer entrenches within himself what he perceives to be a gospel. As regulations were systematically relegated to the apex of irrelevancies and the economy, ‘unshackled’, the dark side of capitalism took over the stage and in a macabre dance, decimated in a systematic manner the orderly workings of global markets, gifting to the world the second greatest recession post the Great Depression of 1929. By the time the dust had settled on the endemic practices, real gross domestic product (GDP as adjusted for inflation or deflation, in the United States—declined by 4.3 percent, and unemployment increased from 5 percent to 9.5 percent, peaking at 10 percent in October 2009. Spain, Greece, Ireland, Italy, and Portugal suffered sovereign debt crises that required intervention by the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and resulted in the imposition of painful austerity measures. The entire financial system of tiny Iceland was almost wiped out and the three largest banks of the country had to be nationalized.

In his brilliant book, “The Economist’s Hour: How The False Prophets of Free Markets Fractured Our Society”, Binyamin Appelbaum dissects in a surgical fashion the events leading to the proliferation of free market tenets and their unintended consequences. The hotbed of the transition from regulated markets to free markets was the Chicago Business School. Luminaries such as Friedman, George Stigler, a friend of Friedman who exclaimed that “competition is a tough weed, not a delicate flower”, and Friedman’s brother-in-law, Aaron Director, took to the pulpit at the University arguing that the only Mantra worth its incantation was economic efficiency. Working overtime, they more than just succeeded in turning legislations such as antitrust mere relics, thereby embellishing corporate concentration and market power. Further, boosting their enthusiasm was works such as ‘The Road to Serfdom’ by Friedrich Hayek, an economist nursing a preternatural revulsion towards any role played by the Government in an economy.

These were the renowned usual suspects. As Mr. Appelbaum illustrates in an adroit manner, there were other brilliant ‘converts’ to the Friedman cause, who did their best to espouse the glories of the invisible hand. For example, Walter Oi a mercurial economist who also was suffering from a serious visual impairment, calculated the economic cost to the nation of removing the labor of would-be workers from national output during their terms of service. Then there was Richard Posner. A scholar and federal jurist Posner postulated in 2001, that, other than the economic approach, there was no longer any other perspective—political or legal—taken seriously in antitrust policy. Mr. Appelbaum citing Posner: “antitrust is dead, isn’t it?”

Mr. Appelbaum also describes in startling detail the brazen conflict of interest in the form of a ‘Revolving Door’ scenario where some economists seem to be pursuing personal causes rather than enhancing the prospects of society. Stellar protagonists such as Alan Greenspan and Lawrence Summers enjoying implicit and back door financial support and hefty consultancies from parties peddling their own interest assisted in no small deal in pushing, or rather bulldozing through, policies characterized by more than just a taint of self-preservation.

As Mr. Appelbaum details in a tragi-comic fashion, the demolition wreaked by the free market mavens was not restricted to the United States alone. A band of economists, popularly termed the “Chicago Boys” (by virtue of their academic affiliation), extrapolated them polices and passion overseas with an overzealous attitude. Chile, Paraguay, Iceland and Taiwan were all experimental terrains where these much vaunted economists could ride rough shod.

As Mr. Appelbaum clinically illustrates, this egregious market mind-set has not only gone awry, but led to situations that are absolutely unenviable. Inequality has exponentially increased in the developed world and millions of jobs lost under an austerity squeeze as countries struggle to maintain a balanced budget. From 1980 to 2010, life expectancy for poor Americans perilously declined, even as the rich lived longer. Meanwhile, the primacy of economics has not generated faster economic growth. From 1990 until the eve of the financial crisis, U.S. real GDP per person grew by a little under 2 percent a year, less than the 2.5 percent a year in the oil-shocked 1970s.

Mr. Appelbaum’ s book is also made memorable, courtesy some extraordinary anecdotes and the description of some lively and singularly peculiar characters. For example, in describing Phil Gramm, a Professor of Economics at the Texas A&M University, and also a Republican Senator, Mark McKinnon remarked, “he looks like a turtle and he sounds like a rooster.” But, “he has an uncanny ability to sense the public mood before anyone else does.” Also a quote by Paul Samuelson on Milton Friedman, “To keep the fish that they carried on long journeys lively and fresh, sea captains used to introduce an eel into the barrel. In the economics profession, Milton Friedman is that eel.” But the last word on anecdotes, sans any semblance of doubt has been accorded by Mr. Appelbaum to the acerbic and irascible George Stigler. “When a reporter observed to Stigler that he had written one hundred papers while another economist, Harry Johnson, had written some five hundred, Stigler replied, ‘mine are all different.’ Stigler, who was tall, observed of the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, also tall, and of Friedman, who was not, ‘all great economists are tall. There are two exceptions: John Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman.’”

As Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz once remarked to Foreign Policy: “Obviously, the costs [of globalization] would be borne by particular communities, particular places—and manufacturing had located [to] places where wages were low, suggesting that these were places where adjustment costs were likely large.” In his work, Mr. Appelbaum brings to bear those very same adjustments which while bestowing untold wealth upon a small concentration of people, has brought wanton grief to a majority of the world population, who are at the time of this writing suffering the impact of a medley of causes with which they had nothing to associate themselves with.

Nodding Heads

(Image Credit: Crispina Kemp)

“It was not for no reason that the throng called it ‘Whispering Willows’.  The voice had an intonation that was seductive and a delivery that was purposeful. “The wind that was an ever constant feature used to make a whistling sound and was responsible for forming small whirlpools and eddies of leaves on the forest floor.”

There were audible gasps followed by murmurs from the audience as the monitor shifted to a video, showing in slow motion, the clockwise spiral created by the wind. Leaves which were serenely static suddenly took a life of their own and, engaged in a dance of upward movement.

“This was one of the recreations indulged in by our dense ancestors in the 21st Century.” the voice concluded with a dangerous finality as the lights came back on and the heads connected to each of their personal machines, nodded in utter disbelief.

(Word Count: 147)

Written as part of the Crimson’s Creative Challenge #52 More details regarding this challenge may be found HERE.


70 Policies That Shaped India – Gautam Chikermane


India is a land renowned not just for its myriad and spell binding diversity, but also for its mind numbing economic policies and extraordinarily convoluted statues. Mystical at best, and macabre at worst, India’s socio economic policies post-Independence have evoked reverence and revulsion in equal measure. Populist, Pedantic, Pithy and Pragmatic, India’s trajectory towards becoming the second fasted economy in the world, – suffering an existential Balance Of Payments (BOP) crisis along the way – makes for some riveting analysis. While all the tomes in the world would not do justice to such an endeavor, it is essential that every Indian connected in some way or the other with policy making or pursuing her profession in the field of Economics, or even nursing a curiosity to understand the progress of her nation, acquire a fundamental grasp of the nation’s progressive journey thus far.

Gautam Chikermane, Vice President at Observer Research Foundation and a renowned author, in his book, “70 7POLICIES THAT SHAPED INDIA -1947 to 2017, Independence to $2.5 Trillion” provides an exhilarating and whirlwind tour of the genesis, impact and ramifications of the barrage of policies instituted by the Indian Government since Independence. Using a marvelously ‘condensed’ approach – a self-limiting 350 words per policy – Mr. Chikermane breezes through 70 path breaking policies that both made and almost marred India. However, supplementing this precise narration is a plethora of endnotes that allow the reader to traipse and trawl through the intricacies and nuances embedded in each such policy. Commencing with the archaic Controller of Capital Issues Act and concluding with the most talked about Goods and Service Tax Act, 2017, Mr. Chikermane takes us along a path, both draconian and delectable.

Mr. Chikermane illustrates in startling detail, the futility of instituting a slew of bureaucratic committees when the actual crying need of the hour was a firm push to initiate structural reforms that would address systemic issues. For example, to unearth the ails plaguing Asia’s first Free Trade Zone, the Kandla Free Trade Zone in just six years, between 1978 and 1984, there were seven attempts to fix the problem: a committee to look into the problem hindering the growth of KAFTZ (1978); Alexander Committee on Import & Export Policies (1978); Review Committee on Electronics (1979); Dagli Committee on Controls and Subsidies (1979); Tondon Committee on Export Strategy (1980); Committee on FTZs and 100 percent EOUs (1982); and Abid Hussain Committee on Trade policy (1984).

In a frenzied bout of nationalization, a primary natural resource such as coal was targeted and the government nationalised 937 mines: 226 coking coal mines and 711 non-coking coal mines. As Mr. Chikermane states, “Because nationalisation was done in a piecemeal manner, by the time it reached non-coking coal mines, many mines were reported to have been stripped of their plant and equipment. In terms of outcomes, the first decade of coal nationalisation saw “political patronage of mafia activities” and bureaucratic corruption.”

The quirky implementation and execution of some laws, as Mr. Chikermane exposes, test the very ingenuity of foolhardy imagination. For example, in exercise of the powers bestowed upon an ‘inspector’ under the Standards of Weights and Measures Act, 1976, entrepreneurs were criminally charged and sentenced to be imprisoned for two years for using “M.R.P.” instead of “Maximum Retail Price”. This absurdity, was in the general interests of both business and commonsense set aside, courtesy a 29 July 1997 order of the Andhra High Court in the Lucas Indian Service Ltd and Others vs. the State of Andhra Pradesh.

Mr. Chikermane also informs his reader about the internecine squabble between the executive, judiciary and the legislature that acts as a spanner in the works even when an avowed objective is a furtherance of egalitarian measures. With a view to abolishing the insidious ‘Zamindari’ system it was proposed to reduce the right of property from a fundamental right to a legal one. Thus was enacted the Abolishment of the Right to Property Act, 1978. However, between 1951 through 1976, seven amendments—1st (1951), 4th (1955), 17th (1964), 25th 273 274 275 (1971), 39th (1975), 40th (1976), and 42nd (1976)—were brought in, all of which were struck down by the Supreme Court.

While of these policies have been epochal in nature, few others can best be described as ill conceived. The Statement on Industrial Policy, 1991 is undoubtedly a torch bearer for the former category. Pioneered by the late Prime Minister P.V.Narasimha Rao and executed by the Prime Minister in waiting, Dr. Manmohan Singh, the policy ushered in an era of industrialization and set India on a path leading to territories unchartered and opportunities unexplored. As Mr. Chikermane asserts, “in the economic history of India, 24 July 1991 will be remembered as the date when five major initiatives were unleashed.” These initiatives included:

  • Abolishing 329 industrial licenses in addition to automatic clearances for projects;
  • Flexibility in FDI approvals, and the formation of a Special Empowered Board;
  • Foreign technology agreements, under which automatic permissions would be given in “high-priority” industries;
  • A review of the public sector portfolio through a de-reservation and, referring sick public sector enterprises to the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction;
  • An amendment of the MRTPC Act to remove threshold limits of assets, with emphasis on controlling and regulating monopolistic, restrictive and unfair trade practices

The book is structured into 8 chapters with each Chapter denoting a decade. Key policies ushered in each decade under consideration is elucidated in a manner that is simple, easily understandable and thought provoking. However, the greatest attribute of this work is its altruistic motive. The book is absolutely free and can be downloaded from the Observer Research Foundation website. The link for the download is:

From first-hand experience, I would urge everyone having a penchant towards economic reforms and policy making to download their copy. Rest assured they would come out curious, if not wiser.

United We Grieve

Losing to Palace and coming up cropper against a determined Hammers

Failing to score against Newcastle, and against Astana just about saving the Bloopers;

Now trailing Bournemouth with 45 minutes left to play

Ineffable is the grief caused by Man U to us supporters as they totter and sway

If this calamity continues I will be rendered a nervous wreck;

Unlike the courageous boy who stood atop the burning deck

(Word Count: 70)

Courtesy of Sammi Cox Weekend Writing Prompt#130

Artificial Intelligence: A Guide For Thinking Humans – Melanie Mitchell

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René Descartes, a French philosopher, mathematician and scientist in elucidating his famous theory of dualism, expounded that there exist two kinds of foundation: mental and physical. While the mental can exist outside of the body, and the body cannot think. Popularly known as mind-body dualism or Cartesian Duality (after the theory’s proponent), the central tenet of this philosophy is that the immaterial mind and the material body, while being ontologically distinct substances, causally interact. British philosopher Gilbert Ryle‘s in describing René Descartes’ mind-body dualism, introduced the now immortal phrase, “ghost in the machine” to highlight the view of Descartes and others that mental and physical activity occur simultaneously but separately.

Ray Kurzweil, the high priest of futurism and Director of Engineering at Google, takes Cartesian Duality to a higher plane with his public advocacy of concepts such as Technological Singularity and radical life extension. Kurzweil argues that with giant leaps in the domain of Artificial Intelligence, mankind will experience a radical life extension by 2045. Skeptics on the other hand bristle at this very notion, claiming such “Kurzweilian” aspirations to be mere fantasies putting to shame even the most ludicrous of pipe dreams.

The advances in the field of AI have spawned a seminal debate that has a vertical cleave. On one side of the chasm are the undying optimists such as Ray Kurzweil predicting a new epoch in the history of mankind, while on the other side of the divide are placed pessimists and naysayers such as Nick Bostrom, James Barrat and even the likes of Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking who advocate extreme caution and warn about existential risks. So what is the actual fact? Melanie Mitchell, a computer science professor at Portland State University takes this conundrum head on in her eminently readable book, ““Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans.” A measured book, that abhors mind numbing technicalities and arcane elaborations, Ms. Mitchell’s work embodies a matter-of-fact narrative that seeks to demystify the future of both AI and its users.

The book begins with a meeting organized by Blaise Agüera y Arcas, a computer scientist leading Google’s foray into machine intelligence. In the meeting, the genius AI pioneer and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid” (or just “gee-ee-bee’), Douglas Hofstadter expresses downright alarm at the principle of Singularity being touted by Kurzweil. “If this actually happens, “we will be superseded. We will be relics. We will be left in the dust.” A former research assistant of Hofstadter, Ms. Mitchell is surprised to hear such an exclamation from her mentor. This spurs her on to assess the impact of AI, in an unbiased vein.

Tracing the modest trajectory of the beginning of AI, Ms. Mitchell informs her reader about a small workshop in Dartmouth in 1956 where the seeds of AI were first sown. John McCarthy, universally acknowledged as the father of AI and the inventor of the term itself, persuaded Marvin Minsky, a fellow student at Princeton, Claude Shannon, the inventor of information theory and Nathaniel Rochester, a pioneering electrical engineer, to help him organize “a 2 month, 10-man study of artificial intelligence to be carried out during the summer of 1956.” What began as a muted endeavor has now morphed into a creature that is both revered and reviled, in equal measure. Ms. Mitchell lends a technical element to the book by dwelling on concepts such as symbolic and sub-symbolic AI. Ms. Mitchell, however lends a fascinating insight into the myriad ways in which various intrepid pioneers and computer experts attempted to distill the element of “learning” into a computer thereby bestowing it with immense scalability and computational skills.

For example, using a technique termed, back-propagation, errors are taken away at the output units and to “propagate” the blame for that error backward so as to assign proper blame to each of the weights in the network. This allows back-propagation to determine how much to change each weight in order to reduce the error. The beauty of Ms. Mitchell’s explanations lies in its simplicity. She breaks down seemingly esoteric concepts into small chunks of ‘learnable’ elements.

It is these kind of techniques that have enabled IBM’s Watson to defeat World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov, and trump over Jeopardy! Champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. So with such stupendous advances, is the time where Artificial Intelligence surpasses human intelligence already upon us? Ms. Mitchell does not think so. Taking recourse to the views of Alan Turing’s “argument from consciousness,” Ms. Mitchell brings to our attention, Turing’s summary of the neurologist Geoffrey Jefferson’s quote:

“Not until a machine can write a sonnet or compose a concerto because of thoughts and emotions felt, and not by the chance fall of symbols, could we agree that machine equals brain—that is, not only write it but know that it had written it. No mechanism could feel (and not merely artificially signal, an easy contrivance) pleasure at its successes, grief when its valves fuse, be warmed by flattery, be made miserable by its mistakes, be charmed by sex, be angry or depressed when it cannot get what it wants.”

Ms. Mitchell also highlights – in a somewhat metaphysical manner – the inherent limitations of a computer to gainfully engage in the attributes of abstraction and analogy. In the words of her own mentor Hofstadter and his coauthor, the psychologist Emmanuel Sander, “Without concepts there can be no thought, and without analogies there can be no concepts.” If computers are bereft of common sense, it is not for the want of their users trying to ‘embed’ some into them. A famous case in point being Douglas Lenat’s Cyc project which ultimately turned out to be a bold, albeit futile exercise.

A computer’s inherent limitation in thinking like a human being was also demonstrated by The Winograd schemas. These were schemas designed precisely to be easy for humans but tricky for computers. Hector Levesque, Ernest Davis, and Leora Morgenstern three AI researchers, “proposed using a large set of Winograd schemas as an alternative to the Turing test. The authors argued that, unlike the Turing test, a test that consists of Winograd schemas forestalls the possibility of a machine giving the correct answer without actually understanding anything about the sentence. The three researchers hypothesized (in notably cautious language) that “with a very high probability, anything that answers correctly is engaging in behaviour that we would say shows thinking in people.”

Finally, Ms. Mitchell concludes by declaring that machines are as yet incapable of generalizing, understanding cause and effect, or transferring knowledge from situation to situation – skills human beings begin to develop in infancy. Thus while computers won’t dethrone man anytime soon, goading them on to bring such an endeavor to fruition might not be a wise idea, after all.