The Importance Of Coherence In Citizen Reportage

A few days ago, I came across an Instagram post that narrated the personal account of a woman whose livelihood had been devastated by current economic conditions. The post alleged that a rise in Goods and Services Tax had resulted in the lady’s foreign clients ceasing their relationship with her small enterprise.

Pic 11

Prima facie, this post made little sense, as the export of goods and services is Zero rated, and would not impact pricing offered to overseas clients. Even if suppliers of her raw materials charged GST, this would be recoverable as an input tax credit, and would have a net-zero impact on the financials of the small business. I brought this to the notice of the person who posted it – let’s call her SCL.

Pic 2

To SCL’s credit, she didn’t block me, but launched into an explanation of how the subject of this post is not an exporter but is a contract manufacturer of products that are eventually exported. This is a direct contradiction of the post that suggests that this lady does direct business with foreign “suppliers”. SCL further explained that an increase in living costs necessitated an increase in wages, reducing this producer’s competitiveness, thus impacting their business.

Pic 3Pic 4Pic 5Pic 6

From SCL’s explanation, it’s clear that the subject’s woes are the result of multiple intersecting causes such as: a predatory market for handmade goods that exploits craftspeople – whether carpetmakers in Kashmir, silk weavers in Kancheepuram, or diamond polishers in Surat; a vulnerable supply chain that results in widely fluctuating input costs – especially those with an agricultural element such as wool, silk, timber, or coir; poor financial inclusion that drives artisans and small business to predatory money lenders in the informal credit sector; and a rapidly rising cost of living in urban centres driven by income inequality and gentrification.

Thus, while SCL’s post highlights a genuine tale of misfortune, it’s factually incorrect in attributing it to the Goods and Services Tax.

Now this post was not a stand-alone observation a-la “Humans of New York”. It was positioned in the light of a highly publicized political protest against an immigration law passed by the Government of India. With the Indian political sphere rapidly flooding with exaggerations and falsehoods, factfulness and coherence are critical to citizen reportage. In a time of increased vitriol, across the globe, the fences are heavy with sitters, and reasoned, factual accounts are critical to attracting thoughtful, high-commitment allies.

In her last message, SCL claims that her intention in making this post is to encourage “people to come to these protests and see what demands are being made, instead of relying [on the] mainstream media that paints a wrong picture”. While I do agree that evening Scream TV and unethical spin – particularly by the vernacular papers – are serious issues, SCL’s own post that centres on a factual inaccuracy is as damaging. As an empath and an artist, she’s certainly putting her heart and skills to support her cause, but the remedy of a murky media environment is NOT to muddy it further with factual inaccuracies.

Citizen reporters like SCL do indeed perform a powerful public service when the thoughtful are tuning out from the mainstream media. However they do need to ensure that facts, coherence, and context – the holy trinity of reporting – shine bright in their posts.

Original images excerpted from under “fair use” principles.


Book Review: Leila By Prayaag Akbar

[no spoliers]

This is a review of the Book by Prayaag Akbar, and NOT the Netflix series.

Leila is set in the not too distant future, when the social fracturing and economic inequality in Indian society leads to a nation divided into cloisters based on linguistic and caste identity. A grassroots leader who claims to be representing the interests of the socially disadvantaged vaults into power at the head of a sweeping political movement. A brutish army of “repeaters” – a epithet earned by their tendency to chant slogans and parade – enforces the movement’s moral and social standards. The nation is in decline, clean air, potable water, and security are at a premium. Climate change and crumbling urban infrastructure make life a challenge for all but the most privileged.

Shalini, the protagonist, grows up in a prosperous household that sees its fortunes decline as the traditional structures of privilege are eroded by rising economic inequality, social fracturing, and climate change. She marries her high school sweetheart – a Muslim – and together, they move to a neighbourhood where cosmopolitan intercultural couples like them lead a life that seems insulated from the turmoil outside.

On the evening of a party hosted by them, a group of repeaters attack their home, kill her husband, and send Shalini to a re-education camp. Their daughter goes missing. The novel, set sixteen years from the party, follows Shalini’s efforts to locate her child with the back-story revealed in non-linear flashbacks.

As the father of an intercultural child and someone who is concerned about inequality and climate change, this novel fuelled my private anxieties about India’s future. Akbar has concocted a compelling tale that could be considered the average-case outcome of current-day events. This novel is a thought-provoking read for anyone who is unsure about the long-term outcome of our direction as a nation.

As a novel though, Leila is a bit rough at the edges. It feels as if Akbar wrote this book in the last three weeks of a twelve-month deadline and sent his second draft to press. Given the complexity of the themes in this book, Akbar had a choice to make this book about a quest, a tale of personal misfortune, or a social commentary. He tries to do all three, and ends up with a hodgepodge that is part Die Hard, part Animal Farm, and part Nineteen Eighty Four. Two thirds into the book, a weak plot twist breaks the suspense and the ending is totally predictable.

Regardless of its technical deficiencies, Leila remains a compelling read and an important commentary on inequality, class, and climate change in the Indian context.

Oh Shut Up, Katie Porter

A video of US Representative Katherine “Katie” Porter questioning JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon has gone viral on Facebook. In this video, Porter speaks of a hypothetical JP Morgan employee (whom we’ll call Plausible Patricia) working an entry level position at an Irvine, California branch, who ends up with a monthly deficit of USD 567 because she’s apparently not paid enough to meet her expenses. Porter spins the teary yarn of a single mother of a six year old who still co-sleeps in a one-bedroom apartment and drives a 11-year old minivan.

Attempting a defence, Dimon indicates that the job in question is an entry-level position that requires merely a high school diploma to qualify. The point is lost on Porter, who furthers her rhetorical attack on Dimon, who by now has decided to mutter stock responses while the Representative lets off some steam. Hopefully, the committee eventually resumed its business – which is discussing high-level policy issues related to the banking and financial services sector.

While the Social Democratic novitiates on Facebook are cheering Porter’s assault as a brave confrontation of an economic villain, those inclined to take a more reasoned view of this absurd spectacle would rapidly realise that this is merely a stunt to impress dim-witted idealists.

The wage that Porter mentioned was USD 16.50 an hour. For starters, this 37 per cent higher than the USD 12 minimum wage for California that came into effect on 1 January 2019. Furthermore, this tirade suggests that JP Morgan is responsible for Plausible Patricia’s personal outcomes rather than her self and her community.

How can JP Morgan be to blame? It is a for-profit corporation that operates in a free market, and is subject to competition from other players. As a former JP Morgan employee myself, I know for a fact that the bank pays fair wages that are consistent with market standards, and also has a substantial performance-linked component which Porter may have omitted from her wage calculation. Dimon is right that Plausible Patricia may someday have his job. Former colleagues who joined JP Morgan at entry level roles about a decade ago have risen to Vice Presidents and above, and have even moved countries as they advanced in their careers.

Alright, let’s assume that JP Morgan paid all entry level roles a minimum of USD 50,000 a year. Concurrent adjustments in salaries across the hierarchy will result in billions of dollars in additional wage expenses. Where do you think this money will come from? Interest rates and bank fees will have to rise, lowering access to credit, and making homes, cars, and flat-screen TVs dearer for all US residents.

Another common criticism that I’m seeing in these comments is the wage difference between Dimon and Plausible Patricia. Critics are sorely mistaken on two points here:

First the fact that Jamie Dimon received USD 31 million in salary doesn’t mean that he had it made. His earnings for 2018 comprised a base component of USD 1.5 million, which is quite reasonable for a person in his position, and USD 29.5 million in performance pay – a sum derived from a complex formula that takes into account JP Morgan’s financial performance, share price, capital ratios, and industry standing. Furthermore, this pay is liable to “clawback” if the bank misses long-term performance goals, fails an audit, or loses a pretty packet due to something like l’affaire London Whale. Second – comparing pay for an entry level position to that of a CEO responsible for 250,000 employees and the interests of thousands of shareholders is asinine.

Porter conveniently ignores the fact that the wider issues related to living costs – housing, food, and transportation expenses for instance – are usually a product of government policy. She should actually be asking her colleagues in the California delegation why housing is so expensive and why public transportation is deficient. Also, during the course of her apparently well-researched example, why did Porter not deduct taxes due? This would have pushed Plausible Patricia over $650 in the red each month. Patricia’s home state of California has the highest State Income Taxes in the USA.

Ultimately, Plausible Patricia needs to take personal responsibility for her life. Yes, the odds are often stacked against people based on gender, race, disability, etc, but intent and tenacity are the greatest factors in life outcomes. If Plausible Patricia is indeed a real person, she needs to take a long hard look at her life and decide how she must bring more value to the table to deserve a higher wage.