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.

India’s Safety Crisis is Just Beginning

guiltyprints

Alternative title – why moving to Switzerland makes financial sense for wealthy Indians.

In his novel “The Time Machine”, HG Wells tells of how an English inventor builds a Time Machine and travels to the year AD 802,701. By this time, the English countryside is inhabited by a tribe of naive vegan beings called the Eloi. Spending some time with them, he begins to believe that mankind has evolved into a homogenous and peaceful society. However, he can’t help but notice that on moonless nights some Eloi disappear – never to be seen again. He soon discovers that the earth beneath them hides a subterranean city inhabited by the Morlocks – a brutish and violent species that operates machinery that ostensibly keeps the world of the Eloi running. Though he initially speculates that the Eloi are a superior race – evolved from the upper classes of Victorian society, he soon discovers that on moonless nights, Morlocks steal to the surface and abduct Eloi – whom they devour. His view shifts and he decides that the Eloi are actually akin to cattle – raised and slaughtered by the Morlocks for food.

Though the beginning of liberalization ushered India into a new age of prosperity and consumption, people’s fortunes have differed. A small portion of the population that had access to an English Language education found it easy to rise in the IT industry and elevate their fortunes significantly. A larger portion of lesser qualified people, stuck in industrial jobs with negative wage growth (accounting for inflation) and shrinking opportunity – due to automation – have seen their standard of living and quality of life plunge. Even in the IT sector, which was the driver of middle-income bliss in this country; things have taken a turn for the worse as entry level salaries have failed to keep pace with inflation. Millions of India’s youth, clutching their worthless degrees, seethe in rage at the lack of opportunity and the social and economic inequity that they see. It is no surprise then that this anger frequently erupts in violence.

Whether the vicious sexual assaults by car-borne rape gangs reported in major Indian cities; the random lynching of cattle transporters; or the violent mobs that politicians seem to be able to summon at will, there seems to be clear divergence in our social evolution. Drawing a parallel to the Eloi and the Morlocks of The Time Machine may seem to be a crude and obscene oversimplification, but it seems clear that Indians inhabit two different worlds, and these worlds are becoming increasingly distinct.

There is the world of the gated colony and the high-rise condominium, and there is the netherworld of the shanty-town. Such polarity extends from the city to the countryside, where access to economic opportunity, education, and healthcare, is subject to the privileges of wealth and caste. Furthermore, people from these two worlds reckon life differently. Urban low-income Indians live in a tit-for-tat world, and often exhibit little more than contempt for law of the land and the social order of the urban privileged. The latter’s social customs – social drinking by women, and hugs as a greeting for instance – are considered to be a shameful adoption of western ways. The urban affluent on the other hand, thrive in a world of good intentions and gestures. Brutal rape of an infant? Oh – candle-light vigil. Someone got lynched for eating something that someone thought was beef? Aha! Silent protest. Someone got shot for standing up to a bully? An articulate Facebook post powered by a Gin & Tonic will do. The urban affluent live in a fragile illusion – in granite islands of comfort with fancy names that evoke images of Californian creeks, regal English country estates, or idyllic European towns. The minions that clean their homes, water their lawns and tend their offspring live in wretched shanties, where potable water and electricity are a luxury.

Crucially, the low-income groups are a larger vote bank than other income groups, and the political establishment understands this. No wonder then that political leaders across the country have the courage to stand before crowds and utter xenophobic, misogynistic, and communally inflammatory statements. Every time this happens, it offends the urban affluent – who take to Facebook and type their fingers raw; the masses however, rejoice that someone in power shares their views, and go out and vote for them. This is going to get worse, as recent moves in the telecom industry will take social media and curated content to over one billion citizens via inexpensive data services. With Social Media behemoths like Facebook creating ideological echo chambers, mind control of the masses will become a real thing.

Automation is already killing manufacturing jobs, and this is rapidly spreading to technology and services too. A fresh engineering graduate would be better off driving an Uber than seeking a job at an IT company. It is entirely likely that within a decade, the global workforce will comprise largely of angry gig-economy hustlers who will barely get by. Things will be worse in India, where the poor educational system will preclude all but the brightest from getting by in the new Economic order. Indian cities are already known for their lawlessness – this will get worse. Climate change is already wreaking havoc in agriculture – the largest provider of employment in the country. The imminent real estate bust will devastate opportunity in the construction sector, throwing millions of desperate, starving people out on the streets. This will be a windfall for leaders, as years of political outcomes have proven beyond doubt that impoverished Indians can live on illusions of nationalistic grandeur and delusions of piety.

As has been the case numerous times in history, people who have nothing to look forward to materially are easily motivated by bad ideas. This is the principle that drives religious fanaticism, violent nationalism, and other herd behaviour that takes the hard work of critical thinking and decision making out of human existence. If you look closely, these are the forces that drive the political agenda in India today. Are we evolving into a society of Eloi and Morlocks?

Yes.

With violence increasingly becoming a standard part of political discourse in the country, and the convergence of political, economic, and ecological factors, India is on the brink of a security catastrophe. Though complex technological systems – engineered social media – would drive political and behavioural compliance, there will be physical risks, for which the Eloi will pay dearly. There will be times when the security of their urban sanctuaries will be breached, and Eloi will be taken, like they are even today, but these will be accepted stoically and forgotten the way today’s hideous crimes are.

As a resident or security professional, understand that the already high costs of security are going to rise substantially in India. If you live in Gurgaon for instance, renting a home with secure access to water and energy (read an RWA that keeps the water tanks filled and diesel generators for when government supply fails) costs a minimum of INR 45,000 a month in base expenses. Bills for these services will add a further INR 15,000 to your outflow each month. Foreign workers from prosperous nations often spend upwards of INR 500,000 per month on just rent and utilities to maintain a standard of living close to what they would have in their home countries. In comparison, an indulgent three bedroom apartment off Route de Pregny in Geneva rents for about CHF 3,500 – about INR 240,000 a month. So for those living in three million dollar Delhi homes – it’s cheaper to live in Switzerland – up the road from UN Headquarters. Compared to Delhi, the clean air and fabulous dining should make that a non-decision.

The fresh air that you have for free in Geneva (AQI 28 as on 17 May 2018) can be had in your Delhi home with a positive pressure air purifier, which will set you back about INR 2,000,000 in equipment and engineering costs for a three bedroom home. Energy costs for running this system will be about INR 10,000 a month. Do you want drinking water on tap? A whole-home reverse osmosis system will be about INR 1,000,000, with monthly energy costs of another INR 5,000 and yearly maintenance bills of INR 200,000. Of course you’re back in the haze the moment you step out of the door and you’ll get sick if you happen to swallow in a hotel shower. We haven’t even factored in women being free to walk around in shorts without being whistled at, groped, or raped because they were asking for it by dressing that way. Consider also the privilege of being able to totter out of Le Roi Ubu at 1 AM without the fear of being mugged or worse.

Is India getting better, the way so many people claim?

No.

Will it get worse?

Given the socioeconomic trends so far, Yes.

The ‘Single Cause’ Trap

There has been yet another school shooting in the USA, and the usual rhetoric has kicked up again. The pro-gun and no-gun lobbies are amping up the noise on their agenda; the religious conservatives are bemoaning the loss of family values and ‘Christian’ morals in American youth; the techno-luddites have trained their guns on social media and the narcissism they believe it breeds; the Red Pill crowd talks about how spree violence is a consequence of the pressures of “being a man” in today’s world; there are also those who say something about “toxic masculinity”.

Taken in isolation, each and every one of these causes falls apart. Wealthy Switzerland, Middle-Income Philippines, and low-income Yemen are awash with guns, but nobody there is shooting up schools every three days. Much of Scandinavia, where gun ownership is high, has strayed from its Lutheran roots. You don’t hear of weekly shooting sprees in these countries. Oh, there was that one Nutty Norwegian, whose rampage skewed national averages, but taken objectively, it was just one incident. The current criticism of social media is nothing new. It’s the same chant that rang out against videogames, television, rock and roll, and even cinema. And as for those who blame the pressures of being a man or toxic masculinity – they would be foolish to not realise that gender and sexuality are now accepted to be spectra rather than absolutes, and social acceptance is widening beyond the classic stereotypes – there’s a space for everyone.

As an investigator and risk consultant, I see that clients often latch on to single factor in the mistaken belief that a unidimensional approach to an incident will help mitigate risk and that ultimately, finding a single point to focus all blame makes all the bad go away.

There NEVER is a single cause.

Whether a security, integrity, market, or societal calamity, there are contributing factors, accelerating factors, and a trigger. Looking at each event as a campfire – a contributing factor would be the stack of wood and the kindling, the accelerant would be the camp fuel, and the trigger would be the Zippo that sets the whole heap aflame. It’s easy to blame the Zippo as the cause of a fire, but the wood, the kindling, and the fuel played a significant if not essential role.

As an investigator, one of my favourite tools is the Ishikawa – or Fishbone Diagram. I’m going to attempt a crude Fishbone for this particular event. (NOTE – this is not a professional opinion or analysis of this incident, but just an example to illustrate the use of this tool)

parkland fishbone

Managing risks requires the intellectual horsepower to separate events into causal buckets like this and tackle them individually. This of course, is the approach for someone who is sincere about tackling a problem. An analysis of these causal buckets will lead to an accurate analysis of where the blame lies. More importantly, this analysis will yield crucial feedback on what can be done to reduce the probability of a repeat occurrence.

Of course, such an analysis must be founded on a genuine desire to see that such tragedies do not reoccur. The current discourse is far from that. Each tragedy is being leveraged in a political blame game or to promote vested interests.

So when you’re a spectator to a media circus around a calamity – do not feel pressured to take sides with the blinkered mobs that think there is a one-step solution – they may each be partially right, but are usually completely wrong.